Donatella Versace threw a little party in New York on Tuesday night. It was a typically understated affair, befitting the godmother of all things outré and opulent. Rapper-du-jour Nicki Minaj was there, in a floral catsuit and green wig, and singer Ke$ha too – yes, she’s the one who spells her name using a dollar sign. There were glitter balls. There was champagne. There were acres of leopard print and miles of Grecian maxi dresses.
So far, so Versace. But of course this wasn’t just Donatella’s show, because New York’s most photographed had come together to celebrate Versace’s collaboration with high street behemoth H&M – the latest in a long line of love-ins between high end brands and the high street.
The credibility of these hi-lo collaborations arguably goes back to the Karl Largerfeld for H&M collection in 2004, and although that particular fling ended in near disaster when Monsieur Chanel objected to H&M rolling out his designs in larger sizes, the money still rolled in and precedent was set. Since then, the great names of fashion – from Lanvin to Stella to Sander – have ventured onto the high street with considerable financial success.
Huge money-spinners they may be, but they still have a whiff of the grabby and grubby about them. It’s a bit like when you spot a wildly mismatched couple across the room at a party and ponder unkindly to yourself about what exactly beauty is getting from the beast. The public sphere throws up plenty of these mismatches too – from Bernie and Slavica Ecclestone to Donald and Melania Trump – where filthy rich can buy a little slice of filthy gorgeous.
Of course the house of Versace has plenty to gain from taking a tumble with the Swedish giant – with over 2,300 stores worldwide, H&M is living proof that size really does matter. And it’s also worth remembering that although Versace has a grand European history spanning decades, the company only returned to profit this year after a tumultuous transition period. The gilt is still looking a bit tatty in places.
Us Brits know all about the relationship between old names and new money of course – the British aristocracy was dragged kicking and screaming from their grand estates and into industrial marriages in the interwar period, using coal pile fortunes to prop up a country house lifestyle.
But the high street has always looked to the catwalk for guidance and inspiration. As the balance of power shifts in the retail landscape, these relationships have become ever more concrete. With high-end fashion houses traditionally being responsible for the pure creativity and grand storytelling that eventually trickles down to the churning high street machine below, there may be a risk that these increasingly common flings will remove the luster a little. Something that will ultimately do no one any favours.