Is This Athletic Brand In Crisis?

Kylie X PumaSOTD imagines what the Kylie Jenner + Puma partnership may look like. Photo: #Kylie Jenner. Collage: Just So

By Shu Xie

The question popped up as soon as I read, with—I admit—distaste, that Kylie Jenner has signed with Puma to be “featured in the brand’s Spring/Summer women’s training campaign launching in April 2016”, according to a statement issued by the athletic brand. I am sure Puma’s enthusiasm has something to do with her 52.6 million followers on Instagram (even South Korea has less inhabitants), rather than her natural talent as a model who can communicate the brand’s messages to a sea of potential customers. Or her track record as a face for sporting goods. In fact, Ms Jenner had, until her collaboration with Steve Madden last year, been associated with nail polish (OPI) and hair extension (Bellami Hair). Yes, there was the Kendall and Kylie Collection of 2013, but I am not sure it means anything to the world of sports.

The contract between the German label and the American reality star-slash-model was reported to be worth six figures. In addition, although she’s the face and body of Puma, Ms Jenner will supposedly be able to continue to wear Adidas, a necessary clause since she is likely going to carry on supporting her brother-in-law’s Yeezy line (an assurance to Kanye West’s rant that “1000% there will never be a Kylie Puma anything”?). It is puzzling that this isn’t an odd negotiation for Puma, considering that competitor Adidas is the other brand that emerged from the fallout of the two brothers who started in the shoe business together: Adolf and Rudolph Dassler (the company was originally known as Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik or the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory). Puma (Rudolph’s) is presently owned by Kering, the parent company of Gucci.

Signing Ms Jenner up appears to confirm the belief that, these days, merchandise alone—however appealing—isn’t going to ensnare the paying consumer. If a brand needs to mainly bank on celebrity to augment the desirability of its products, would that indicate that, at its core, their goods are perhaps not so appealing to start with? Puma has had cachet in the past (and, to a certain extent, still do), having collaborated with design heavyweights such as Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Yasuhiro Mihara, and Hiroaki Shitano of Whiz Limited. Then in a surprising move last year, it appointed Rihanna as creative director of Puma Women, a move that recalls Lindsay Lohan’s appointment at Ungaro in 2009. Rihanna’s output is the Fenty line, launched at New York Fashion Week early this month. It looks to me like a she-Yeezy, only with less earth-caked colours.

The increased celebrity association could mean Puma is relying less on heritage or DNA. Even its long-time association with the game of football seems deflated. Surprisingly, its own design studio has not updated and re-branded classics such as the Suede (once also known as State) and my fave, GV Special, the way Adidas has with the Stan Smith and Superstar. As with the Stan Smith, the GV Special is a sports-star endorsed product: in this case, Guillermo Vilas, the tennis ace of the ’70s, and, for the TMZ fan in you, one of the era’s most noted playboys.

Ultimately, which brand are we supposed to buy into: Puma or Jenner? What puzzles me to no end is the dire inability for so many brand owners and followers of the members of the Kardashian/Jenner clan to see what the latter truly are: crass. Increasingly, marketing heads these days care more about reach than taste, visibility than discernment, bombast than subtlety. For as long as you (and your family) are a whopping news-making machine, who cares if you look like Kylie Jenner?