Distractions in Dystopia:
10 Things I Hate About Collabs
An appreciation and excoriation of brand collaborations, packaged as a listicle but replete with wonderful ‘90s references.
By Greg Bruce
Illustration by Wynn Salman
Who isn’t trying to forget 2020? Who isn’t wishing for one of the most washed years to wash away and return anew? Maybe it will be a post-coronavirus, post-racist, post-fascist, post-billionaires-in-charge, post-climate-change-disbelief, post-election-results-deniers, post-burnt-and-melted-world. Maybe it will be a better-than-we-found-it Earth. Before all those things are better, we have to trudge through all the bad. Equal parts cynicism and wishful thinking, the tandem themes of year.
So, until the new world’s fully realized, we’ll continue to do what we’ve always done: Escape the Realities™️(!).
Because if there’s anything that’s as hardwired in living The American Way, it’s the belief that we can overcome anything as a nation through all forms of escapism (avoidance, isolation, distraction, entertainment—you name it!). And we’ll do this under the guise of the American Dream, of course. *Cue the Kid Rock and hot dogs.*
Despite all the different ways we’ve used to distract ourselves, like mules dangling our own carrots in front of us, we’re still managing to escape through collaborations. Naysayers to the back, please. Still, we continue to, literally, “buy into” collaborations. By that, I mean we’re entranced by capsule items, merchandise, cars, even physical spaces, or any miscellaneous object compounding logos like the heads of the hydra. Broadly considered, it’s something, on a long list of things, we should urge ourselves to skip out on. It’s also very low on that list, because: Who really cares?
Despite my best intentions, collaborations are inescapable. I’m only one man up against an entrenched Machine. They’re the new pop-up ads with cooler packaging, interrupting us while we doom scroll. Borrowing from Santa Claus, collabs are also there while we’re streaming and while we’re on the streets, too. Sure, they could rename Fairfax Collab Ave., but also on the streets of highways, suburbs, and any area plastered with a mammoth, glowing and glowering “M.” You know, the entirety of the American expanse.
The synthetic, saturated golden arches of McDonald’s became a beacon for their Travis Scott collaboration in late September. This is when fans of both quarterpounders and Astroworld could link and go… McSicko Mode? Confusing to anyone not familiar with the La Flame dialect. Maybe what’s more mystifying is that McDonald's employees were excited to wear the new collaborative merch as their uniforms.
The absurdity is only supersized because we’re still in a pandemic. But remember when McDonald’s acknowledged the pandemic in a marketing effort some 7 months ago when they wholesomely separated their logo’s arches? It doesn’t matter if we can’t recall. We’ve been distracted for good reason: Everything sucks.
“But remember when McDonald’s acknowledged the pandemic in a marketing effort some 7 months ago when they wholesomely separated their logo’s arches? It doesn’t matter if we can’t recall. We’ve been distracted for good reason: Everything sucks. ”
Or, to paraphrase Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You, “We’re distracting ourselves from the pathetic emptiness of our meaningless consumer-driven lives.” For the unfamiliar, Kat’s the intellectual, edgy heroine of a normie high school, who wishes her classmates were as concerned with reading The Bell Jar as they are with beer bonging. The kind of feminist fit for 2020’s patriarchal passing time but stuck in 1999 with Heath Ledger courting her at every given moment. And I feel obliged to quote 10 Things I Hate About You because it’s one of the many movies I used as my own escape from doomscrolling and anything Fortnite merch-related. It is truly worth the rewatch, too.
I really resonated with Kat. Her diatribe on private enterprise, said so matter-of-factly, points out something the jawnz community is well-aware of: the “piece” you acquire will not enlighten you, dig you out of problems, or fill a void. Your aunt called it retail therapy and now it’s gift-wrapped as “jawnz therapy.” There’s no true reasoning or rationale to why this circular phenomenon exists, except for shrugging your shoulders, mumbling “Capitalism, ya know?” Except, damn, doesn't that latest IG tile advertising the latest collab catch your eye for a few seconds longer now? Are the collabs releasing in full force or are we just more aware of them and everything we’re seeing because we all know what screen time is now?
Still, we can stay steadfast in our, at times winnowing, principles. But, shit, wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to see one more collaboration served to us on a platter of cheap Gildan tees?
With that said, I’ll try to channel the high-brow-for-a-high-schooler Kat Stratfordisms to break the Collaboration Spell that brainwashed the 2010s into thinking collab = cool.
So, yeah, here comes the listicle (Buzzfeed, eat your heart out). And here’s to hoping a trash collab never sees the light of day.
1. Pseudo “Connection to Culture”
Right now, there’s someone on LinkedIn penning a post about why “X” youth-culture celebrity is the gatekeeper to “culture.” I wish we could make them stop.
Commonly, “culture maker” is seen as a compliment, but the interpretation of relevance and value is skewed. It’s linked to streams, numbers, concert tickets, merch sales, etc. Things that shouldn’t automatically co-sign them as relevant. If you’re openly working with someone because of their connection to culture then you’re most likely commodifying it despite their reputation and “connection.” Sterile brands should quit looking for their “culture connector” and start finding a way to inject culture into their brand from the inside out.
Tl;dr more BIPOC hires and worry less about collaborations with the hottest cultural movers.
While pictures are worth a thousand words, collabs are merely worth a thousand teenagers refreshing their browsers.
It seems that the loudest collaborations have little to say or signify. If they’re done right, they can say something about values, interests, and things below the surface-levelness of a screenprint. Worth, however, isn’t resale value (we’ll get to this); it’s having at least an ounce of merit and meaning beyond business.
So, like all worthless things, the trashest of the collabs will lead straight to the landfill. Do you really want to buy something ugly and pointless and make Greta Thuburg cry? Don’t be a monster, go thrift something on Depop.
3. Feeding the Resell Economy
Staying Power’s got a cousin with a ponzi scheme: Meet Reselling Power.
Items that can resell for heinous amounts—“exclusive capsule items”—have equated to an “increase in demand.” Even if that’s a false demand burnished by hype, it’s just collab-culture economics, bruh. Most collaborations are resold for egregious price tags, but I personally hate how sneakers have become some kind of start-up business, even though, yes, they’re both dominated by white bros.
Maybe it’s the romantic in me but I miss when things felt actually exclusive, like when real local skate shops were the only spots with enough credentials to carry Nike SB. Or when you could only buy concert merch at the actual concert (because, you know, middle school me spent too much for a Glow In The Dark Tour shirt). Is this making you shed a tear on your mint-condition, deadstock What The Dunk Nike SBs? Good, now you can’t resell them.
4. Tasteless Trends
Let’s face it, trends usually suck because they are temporary narratives.
Trends are treated like “Chemical X” in the collaboration ingredients. People, or marketers, think it’s the magical potion added into the formula because it will ensure something is sought after. The thinking is that they’ll attach a greater PR allure, giving media outlets another viable reason to cover something because an arbitrary trend, like “plant daddy green,” was shoehorned in there.
It’s copy and paste. Wash and repeat. Add the logo and make it neon this time. The last major trend in menswear—skinny jeans (runner up: Roshes)—is one we’re still recovering from. Gives us our time to reflect and heal, please.
5. Attention Screaming
If collabs could talk, it’s likely a lot of them would be shrieking at full volume.
Brands, in almost any industry, think that collabing with “____ cool brand” will get them the kind of earned media they want. Instead, they’re just supporting the click farms. “Collab” becoming a clickbait synonym, or SEO identifier, could make sense with all of our other attention economy validators. Next time you see “collab” in the headline, proceed with caution.
Always gut-check what it’s preaching, question whether or not it actually says, provides, or does anything worthwhile. You’ll then realize it’s like an annoying acquaintance pestering you to check out their new article.
(Hey man! Hope you’re well during these times. If you have a moment, please check out all my other articles—categorized under “cynical yet joyful” in the TE Times! 🤠)
6. Trying Too Hard
“When you try hard, that’s when you die hard,” said Kanye West in 2008 on “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” before he churned out collaboration after collaboration (nothing wrong with that).
See, collabs are a lot like male toxicity—they’re not aware of themselves and they have a terrible way of contributing to upmanship. The worst stuff tries to “break the mold” by going too far or competing for the biggest splash. We don’t need any more inventors trying to disrupt the market, especially a streetwear-adjacent market. And feel free to leave your SpaceX partnership pitch at the door. The best partnerships are, as you’ve likely heard before, seamless, while the worst sandwich or conjoin two brand design systems that should’ve never set foot in a Photoshop file together.
Some collaborations that go all out can pull it off, though. Crocs collaborations, for example, made the most uncool footwear a staple. Even the KFC x Crocs joints get a pass.
7. Collaboration Dissonance
They say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But there’s nothing eloquent about someone head-to-toe in overt collabs.
A lot of collaborations are clout traps, if you haven’t noticed. The most deceptive of the lot bait-and-switch consumers into thinking familiar products have completely transformed with some kind of “new” polish. Certainly, some brands refine themselves with a recontextualion that elevates their product. On the other side, those that haven’t upped their aesthetic are just marked up to indoctrinate people into thinking they’re getting something that enlightens them in some regard.
Don’t go thinking that buying all the exclusives makes you a cultural pioneer on the Collaboration Trail. Otherwise you’re most likely just collecting short-lived, trendy products, and, therefore, bandwagoning.
8. Merch for merch’s sake
Grant us mercy, not merch.
Brands, artists, and politicians should ask themselves: Do we need merch to celebrate Halloween (too many to name), to promote a campaign (Biden or Bust), or propagandize a virtual event (Gucci Mane vs. Young Jeezy)? Ok, only the Verzuz merch can stay. But, seriously, we don’t need to “dimensionalize” everything with merch.
Merch as mementos are just souvenirs, yet they’re kind of becoming one in the same. There is something undeniably more special about the things you pick up from those Little Italy nooks, though. The way the kerning on some designs just execute kitsch properly, or clearly display a cliche that’s nostalgic. In short, souvenirs are sacred. Forget the merch, go support your local souvenir shop.
The good, the bad, and the fugly.
This feels like a given: Unexplainably ugly things are for a certain breed. And, unfortunately, a lot of collaborations end up churning into something unwearable and untenable. Not mentioning names here, but we’re all begging you, keep the Fugly Fits to the privacy of your Hypebeast bedrooms.
God does not love Fugly.
10. Hating That I Can’t Hate
Not all collabs are bad, clearly.
Stussy making Birkenstocks? Braindead teaming up with the Friday the 13th franchise and Magic: The Gathering? Better Gift Shop working with Marvin Gaye’s estate and Palace with Whitney Houston’s? There’s nothing to entirely hate save for some of the price tags, but I’ll try to stay positive.
Collaborations are just the nature of everything. It’s like Apple’s “there’s an app for that,” except replace app with collab. Cars, entertainment, music, gaming, decor, museums, experiences, food that’s actually good. The Whole Lot. These joint efforts between brands and artists show the endless possibilities (and sometimes stupidities) of all that’s around us.
Let’s just hope that future collabs can be strategic, maybe even meaningful, and don’t just feed into the Hype Machine for all the wrong reasons (which is quite difficult for a lot).
So, go ahead, live like the dual-logos aren’t judging you. “Nothing matters anyway,” Kat Stratford would say nihilistically. And in the spirit of 10 Things I Hate About You, I’ll sign-off like Kat reciting her poem of feigned hatred for Heath Ledger.
I hate it when you collab with Travis Scott,
and the fact that it didn’t flop.
But mostly I hate the way I don’t hate you,
not even close
not even a little bit,
not even every drop.