Yaling Jiang
Jan 21, 2021

Why sports collaborations could be a goldmine for luxury

Chinese consumers are seeing an influx of sports collaborations from niche categories like skiing and camping, and there are good reasons behind why. Photo: Courtesy of adidas.

Why sports collaborations could be a goldmine for luxury

Dong Xun, a trend researcher and executive at the Shenzhen-based agency Wow-Trend, had her eyes on a parka from the Gucci x The North Face collection. She jumped at the chance to enter a WeChat Mini Program draw to win preferred customer status, but she was disappointed when she didn’t get it. “I want to buy Gucci because it has done a great job at communicating its brand culture,” she said.

Dong is a fan of sportswear collaborations as a consumer and a researcher. “It’s where luxury is going,” she said. “They will amp up the functionality of their products to include features such as antiviral heating/cooling effects, so consumers will find the clothing more wearable, which could be the first foray into smartwear.”

Born out of a Yohji Yamamoto x Adidas collaboration in the early 2000s, the Y-3 line was one of the first sportswear collaborations. But today, Chinese consumers are swimming in a sea of sportswear collabs, including ones that focus on niche categories like skiing, camping, and sailing.

Launched in 2003, Yohji Yamamoto’s collaboration with adidas was ahead of its time in fusing fashion and sportswear.

As such, Gucci is not alone in branching into outdoors-oriented luxury products. Although homebound consumers have had fewer opportunities to explore the outdoor world due to COVID-19, the industry has seen an influx of these alliances: Dior x Descente, AK Skis, POC’s men’s collection for skiing, the sailing-inspired Prada x Adidas’ A+P LUNA ROSSA 21, and the upcoming Jil Sander x Arc’teryx for the outdoor lifestyle.

Here, Jing Daily dissects what makes a good sportswear collaboration and why it’s a smart way to appeal to Chinese consumers.

Fashion before functionality

For fashion brands that want to try sportswear collabs, balancing fashion and functionality will be the center of discussion. The Chinese consumers who spoke to Jing Daily wanted sportswear collabs to succeed in both aspects, but they have fewer expectations about their high-tech features.

Iris Ni bought a pair of Off-White x Air Jordan 4s last year for about $1,083 (7,000 yuan), which is more than five times the retail price ($200) when they were released last July. Instead of wearing them at the gym, she’s only worn them to see exhibitions and hang out with friends. “If I were to buy the parka from Gucci x The North Face, it’d be because I like the monograms on it,” said the 27-year-old  Shenzhen-based PhD student. “I wouldn’t buy it for performance functions like waterproof or windproof.”

But, as someone who regularly exercises in Adidas by Stella McCartney trainers (a long-term collaboration first launched in 2005), Xun disagrees. “There is a growing need for fashion and functionality,” she said. “The younger generation prefers personality, but traditional sportswear tends to all look the same.”

In fact, a reluctance to buy luxury sportswear due to performance issues does exist. A regular Dior consumer and snowboarder from Jiangsu recently told Jing Daily that he wouldn’t be buying Dior’s first ski collection. “I’d probably buy it to decorate my house,” he said, “but I’d be reluctant to use a Dior snowboard on the slopes.”

Dior partnered with brands Descente, AK SKI and POC to launch its first-ever ski capsule in November 2020.

Outside of product design and production, marketing execution is also crucial for sportswear collabs. Rogier Bikker, the founder and CEO of the creative agency TOMORROW, which has recently merged with MediaMonks, said that the Gucci x The North Face collab is one of the best he’s seen. “It’s tastefully designed, and I like how they made a unified logo of the two brands combined,” he said. “The 70’s retro look gives it another layer of depth, and the Gucci Pins complete it.”

First launched through a pop-up store in Beijing on December 29 (a week before the rest of the world), the Gucci x The North Face collection has enjoyed 76 million impressions for the dedicated hashtag #TheNorthFacexGucci on Weibo, and its videos on Douyin have been played 10 million times.

The collection also successfully created a buzz around its pink packaging, a foil to the clothes’ overall earthy tones. On Chinese social media, pink packaging and giant pink shopping bags have become just as popular as the products themselves. In fact, in addition to unboxing videos and try-ons, many influencers on Little Red Book — including @SharonSharon (90 thousand followers), who filmed herself sitting inside the shopping bag — have created content about the boxes or shopping bags. Gucci clearly considered every touchpoint on the line’s customer journey.

Chinese influencer @SharonSharon praised The North Face x Gucci’s pink packaging on Little Red Book. Photo: @SharonSharon.

If done well, both brands can win at the collaboration game. “[This kind of collaboration] moves the needle for both brands,” said Cyril Drouin, chief e-commerce officer Publicis China and North Asia. “The sports brands can tap into the luxury and exclusive brand image, while luxury brands can have added lifestyle feel.”

Why are sportswear collaborations a good bet in China?

The rise of sportswear collaborations can also thank a larger national agenda in China that has made sportswear a consumer trend. After a few months of being stuck indoors due to COVID-19, China saw the return of fitness communities, which gave the sportswear market a boost of high-speed growth.

The popularization of sports in China has created a demand, as the last few years have turned fitness from a personal hobby to a national interest. In the country’s four-year National Fitness Initiative, issued by the State Council in 2016, the mission states that China hopes to ramp up public awareness of fitness and substantially increase the number of people who practice sports at least once a week to half of the population.

Near the end of 2020, sports grew in momentum in China as people returned to their active lifestyles after the lockdown period. In a recent article titled No Fitness, No Life, state media Xinhua claimed that places like Shanghai, Tianjin, and Jiangsu Province have started giving residents vouchers for working out at local stadiums and gyms.

Joan Jiang is the founder of the skiwear brand Snowline and a three-year-old Shanghai-based fitness community called Teeyuke (which translates to ‘Physical Education’), who said that she has seen more communities like hers emerge over the last two years. “I don’t remember seeing any peers in 2017 when we founded Teeyuke,” she said. “But in 2020, even local cafés and bakeries started organizing cycling events.”

Despite travel regulations abroad, Chinese urbanites are eager to explore activities within their borders. As a result, Teeyuke started seeing an increasing demand, which the group met by offering more paid events such as cycling, frisbee, snowboarding, and camping.

China’s sportswear sales more than doubled from $22.9 billion (148.3 billion yuan) in 2014 to $48.9 billion (316.6 yuan) in 2019, according to a report released by Statista last December. And it shows no signs of slowing down.

Not every sportswear collaboration can become Y-3, but the approach is “a safe experiment from a strategic perspective,” said Patrick Gottelier, a founder and professor at Shanghai DeTao Master of Apparel and Product Design.  “It would appear that the big brands, in particular, can experiment with collaborations without risking serious damage to their core customer base and gather new customers who would otherwise be unreachable,” he said. “They even stand the chance of uncovering a hidden consumer goldmine.”


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