Is the Sneaker Collaboration Hip-Hop's Newest Rite of Passage?

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images for Fenty x Puma
Rihanna walks the runway during FENTY x PUMA by Rihanna at Hotel Salomon de Rothschild on Sept. 28, 2016 in Paris, France.  

Rihanna for Puma. Pharrell for adidas. Tyler, the Creator for Converse. The list of musicians collaborating with sneaker brands has grown so long that it’s practically earned its own news vertical. What started in 1986 with Run-DMC’s special edition adidas Superstar has become a rite of passage for popular musicians, an achievement indicating a certain degree of stardom and cultural relevance.

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The past few years, though, have seen musicians’ involvement in the sneaker game shift from passive endorsements towards active collaboration. Artists are demanding greater involvement in the creative process. When Puma revealed they would be working with Rihanna in late 2014, they weren’t just teasing a one-off model but announcing that she had been named creative director of their womenswear collections.

The rise of this approach is due in part to the influence of Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, two artists who are now as or more active in the world of fashion as they are in the world of music. After rising to prominence in the early-to-mid-2000s, both Kanye and Pharrell started their own clothing lines — to varying degrees of success — for which they provided hands-on creative direction. Both now have ongoing partnerships with adidas that allow them fully flex their creative muscles. Rihanna’s work with Puma fits this model, too, as does the nascent partnership between Outkast’s Andre 3000 and Tretorn.

 

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This sort of deep, sustained engagement between artist and brand is essential to selling a collaboration — the more the artist’s personality and sensibility is visible in the product, the more legitimate it appears to fans. Properly executed, a sneaker collaboration creates a positive feedback loop between two entities with their own distinct appeal. But like any other marketing play, it is not without risk — poor product design or an unnatural fit between the artist and the label can lead to disappointing sales and damage to a brand’s perception that’s difficult to quantify.

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The key is for the collaboration to seem organic. Kanye’s collaborations with A Bathing Ape in 2007 and Louis Vuitton in 2009, for instance, made sense — Kanye had been calling himself The Louis Vuitton Don and rapping about A Bathing Ape years before working with either brand. Nelly’s largely forgotten “Derrty One” Reeboks, on the other hand? Not so much. Released years after Nelly wrote an entire smash-hit song about Nike’s Air Force Ones, it was obvious that his Reebok partnership was a purely commercial enterprise. Unsurprisingly, the shoe was a huge flop.

 

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A more contemporary example of a failed collaboration would be Tyga’s with Reebok. Reebok signed a seven-figure deal with Tyga in 2012. At the time, Tyga had had just two singles reach the Billboard Top 10, and hasn’t had another since. Though the sneakers themselves were relatively tasteful in their design, Tyga ultimately had very little selling power. Celebrity is fickle — someone who seems like a surefire star with mainstream longevity can fade quickly, and a sneaker deal cannot turn a marginal artist into a household name.

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Whether these relationships — even the ostensibly successful ones — are worth the expenditure for the brands bankrolling them remains unclear. Though certain collaborations sell out nearly instantly — like Kanye West’s Yeezy line for adidas — they tend to be manufactured in such limited quantities that they make little commercial impact when placed in the context of the brand’s overall offering. Though aligning themselves with the right influential artist no doubt has some impact on a brand’s perception, how much is very difficult to quantify.

Thanks in part to the careers of multitalented stars like Kanye and Pharrell, the 2010s are the decade of the polymath. Following their lead, successful creatives are more determined than ever not to restrict their output to a single category. Pair that with the significance of the sneaker in contemporary culture and the commercial potential of these partnerships, and it becomes difficult to imagine onslaught the deluge of musician-branded sneakers slowing down.