Collaboration Junkie: Karl Goes East

Karl Lagerfeld has been spreading his name through the industry-wide practice of collaboration. Partnerships aside, is he the millennial Pierre Cardin?


KL4J Pic 1.jpgWindow of a Jaspal store in Bangkok

BANGKOK, Thailand — He was the earliest to meet mass-market fashion, not half-way, but down there, at reach-all-corners level. In 2004, Karl Lagerfeld paired with H&M to initiate what would become the Swedish label’s calling card for fashion cred and unheard of sell-through of 100% in less than four hours. Although he had later said that he would not work with H&M again, criticising the fast fashion brand for “snobbery created by anti-snobbery”, as reported in Stern, Mr Lagerfeld, without doubt, kick-started the compulsion among designers to let everyone have a piece of the fashion cake.

The result of the debut pairing with Mr Lagerfeld was so startlingly successful that H&M started the annual designer collaboration that would include heavyweights such as Maison Martin Margiela, inconsequentials such as Isabel Marant, and forgettables such as Anna Dello Russo. Mr Lagerfeld did it when collaborations were not yet image boosters to designer brands, nor crucial to their marketing plan and, indeed, business model and he is still doing it, contrary to the convention that retirement should really have been on the cards for octogenarians.

The Karl Lagerfeld name was recently linked to a brand in Thailand, possibly Southeast Asia’s most vibrant, fashion-centric city. Last month, Mr Lagerfeld (he turns 85 in September)—and also his faithful pet cat Choupette (aged seven)—collaborated with Bangkok-based high-street label Jaspal for a collection that appears to target the very young, which means it banks on the cute, as well as the show-off predilection of social-media types. It isn’t clear if Mr Lagerfeld has ever visited Bangkok or are acquainted with the cool cats of the city, but such proximity details are possibly inconsequential as the collaborative output has convinced Bangkok fashionistas to call the collab with gusto, “Parisian chic”. Does that include Karl Lagerfeld driving a tuk tuk, as seen in the animated video promo?

KL4J Pic 2Karl Lagerfeld for Jaspal at the Jaspal flagship store, Siam Center

The enthusiastic response is understandable. It is the flutter of pride. No brand in Asia has collaborated with Mr Lagerfeld except Japan’s Shu Uemura (and that wasn’t a dalliance with clothing). And the thrill was not restricted to Bangkok. A few days after its 4th May launch, some styles were spotted on Carousell. Jaspal, at 46, is one of Bangkok’s oldest fashion brands. Founded by a Sikh immigrant from India, Jaspal Singh, in 1947, the company was first in the textile trade (primarily home linen) before establishing Jaspal in 1972 as a fashion line sold in its own store. By the late ’80s and early ’90s, Jaspal was the go-to brand for European-style men’s and women’s wear in the aesthetic of Giorgio Armani or the like that staked their success on Italian tailoring. So convincing was Jaspal’s cut and styling that talk of the trade at that time was that the Singhs—it was by then a large family business—had bought European originals to learn from the latter. And when the learning was done, sold the samples in the stores.

Jaspal’s accomplishment, even now, is rather unusual for Bangkok. In the city of fashion labels largely conceived and run by native Thais such as the just-as-popular Greyhound, Jaspal’s Punjabi name could have disadvantaged the brand as a by-product of Phahurat Textile Market—in the west of downtown Bangkok that is known for its Indian (or kaek, as the locals perhaps somewhat derogatorily call them) fabric traders and sellers. Rather than succumb to ethnic stereotypes, the Singh family has, together with their other trend-driven, price-sharp labels, including the up-market Jaspal Home, grown a business that, to fans, could be Thailand’s very own burgeoning Inditex.

This could point to how well Jaspal has cultivated their image. They have always played up their profile even when in latter years the quality and designs of their clothes don’t break any ground, the same on which dominant imported competitors such as Topshop and H&M compete. If image is everything, Jaspal has it pat. For about ten years, they have hired some of the world’s biggest names in modelling to headline their advertising campaigns: to name a few, Claudia Schiffer, Gisele Bundchen, Jessica Stam, and, more recently, Kylie Jenner (for the sister brand CPS). These names were happily used in the copy, which impressed much of the impressionable local shoppers: Jaspal has such clout.

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A Karl Lagerfeld for Jaspal lightbox in Saladaeng BTS station, Bangkok

Most people thought Jaspal has deep pockets when it comes to advertising and branding budget. However, no one thought that that figure would be quite the largesse to tempt Karl Lagerfeld, who is known to abhor talking about money and considers the discussion of it vulgar, into collaborating with a brand that, in the wake of edgier domestic labels, is considered middle-of-the-road. What was unimaginable has become a full-window, pride-of-the-city reality. Jaspal baited the Kaiser.

Close to 85, and with a sizeable legacy that’s as grand as his book collection (not counting those he sells in his Paris bookshop 7L), Mr Lagerfeld should not have to be too concerned with getting his personal brand into public consciousness. It’s hard to imagine those who are into fashion not taking cognisance of his name. By now, Mr Lagerfeld should have already enjoyed a blockbuster retrospective in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, considering his long design career. Yves Saint Laurent, Mr Lagerfeld’s contemporary and arguably rival, and the first living designer to be honoured by the Met was only 47 when Diana Vreeland, assisted by André Leon Talley (now the subject of the documentary The Gospel according to André), staged the eponymous show in 1983. Last year, more than three decades later, the honour went to Comme des Garçon’s intensely private Rei Kawakubo. But Chanel’s designer, at the helm for 35 years and not afraid of being placed in the spotlight, is still allowing his name and silhouette icon/logo to be used as other labels’ branding playmate.

Despite the vast output, Mr Lagerfeld has yet to arouse the intellectual interest of museum curators. It isn’t because his work has not been varied enough, or noted enough, or successful enough. From his early designs for Chloe to his collaboration with H&M, from Fendi furs to Hogan shoes, from Diet Coke to Faber-Castell coloured pencils, from Orrefors glassware to Tokidoki toys, from costume design to fashion show concept, from photographs to films, from couture to pet care, Mr Lagerfeld seems to have dabbled in them all, with the only exceptions of Tesla cars and NASA spacecrafts. Prolific as he is, is it possible that too varied can sometimes be a tad too vacuous? What is Mr Lagerfeld projecting: man or machine, Jack or Watson?

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Choupette and her master Karl Lagerfeld

The unceasing collaborations may not be entirely Mr Lagerfeld’s doing. Although the man himself has said, following the announcement in 2011 that he would be creating a capsule for Macy’s (America’s own Metro Department Store?), “I love occasional co-branding”, much of the less haute pairings could be the work of an overzealous business development head. The Karl Lagerfeld brand was, in fact, sold to Tommy Hilfiger in 2005. A year later, the UK private equity investment group Apax acquired Tommy Hilfiger, and had set the path to building Karl Lagerfeld as a global brand, reportedly at the “accessible luxury” level. To better compete with Tory Burch?

Mr Lagerfeld’s ongoing reach across product categories reminds us of Pierre Cardin’s expansionist business of the ’70s and ’80s through licensing that regrettably included the stuff fashion cognoscenti turn their noses at: luggage and cookware. To make matters worse, Mr Cardin’s beloved Maxims restaurant, too, took the same beaten path. The only thing he didn’t do was involve a pet. By the time he desired to sell his company in 2004 at age 82, the “father of all modern branding and licensing” has come to a position not often seen in fashion: what marketers call the “devaluation of a name”. These days, if Pierre Cardin is cool, it’s only because it’s kitsch.

To be fair, Karl Lagerfeld has not raced to the end point where his collaborations have trumped his couture. The association with the masses and the fervent dip into the ‘pop’ obsessions of humdrum lives bear out the belief of many, such as Vogue editors, who have declared Mr Lagerfeld the “unparalleled interpreter of the mood of the moment”. But perhaps it was the man himself who said it best. In his 2005 book The Karl Lagerfeld Diet, the designer explained why he took out the ‘t’ in his original German surname Lagerfeldt: it sounded “more commercial”. Perhaps therein lies the viable ‘genius’ of King Karl.

Photos: Korn Tairoop