When it comes to sneakers, celebrity collaborations are something of a mixed bag. Without wishing to too heavily paraphrase a certain Tom Hanks-starring movie that hasn’t aged all too well: stick your hand in and you never quite know what you’re going to pull out. It is, not to extend the cinematic line too far, a case of the good, the bad, and the ugly – the latter of which can very much apply to either. But how, exactly, do you decide which camp a collaboration belongs to?
First and foremost, something that crops up time and time again when it comes to collaborations with celebrities is the concept of effort – of care and attention. Of, not to be too hokey about it, love. While what makes a good-looking shoe is, apparently, subjective – we all have different tastes, after all – it is a lot easier, and a lot more objectively obviously, to work out which collaborations are a labour of love and which link-ups are little more than marketing vehicles.
That a celebrity – be they an athlete, an artist, whatever – might not have all the time in the world to dedicate to sneaker design isn’t really surprising. It’s also fair enough. Most of us aren’t selling out stadiums and we still wouldn’t have the hours in a day to spend on the intricacies of a custom silhouette. But most of us, like most celebrities, would probably say yes anyway – talent, time, and even inclination be damned. Why not, basically.
This way of thinking and working has, over time, played out in some pretty shoddy collaborations – those which are either collaborations in name only or which have suffered from too much input from their namesake and not enough time for the professionals to come in and work out the kinks; a little like that Simpsons episode where Homer designs a new car for his brother’s company. The only difference, of course, is that while no-one wanted to drive “The Homer” – and, thus, no-one bought it and Herb Powell was ruined – sneaker collaborations tend to sell whether they’re good or not. Which is great for sneaker companies, but bad for considered, forward-thinking and creative sneaker design.
Still: it’s not all doom and gloo, so let’s not dwell on The Bad for too long. They know who they are and what they’ve done. And, while we’re not going to name names, I think it’s fair to say they should be feeling more than a little red-faced right now. Instead, let’s focus on The Good.
Case in point: Billie Eilish and her new Air Jordans.
While there has been some criticism – mostly coming from those usual corners of the internet that will always, somehow, find a way to criticise a young woman in the public eye – about the fact that Eilish is, among other things, not an athlete and thus not an appropriate ambassador for the Jordan Brand, these flimsy barbs are neatly offset by her clear, genuine enthusiasm for the project.
Speaking to the Nike SNKRS app’s “Behind the Designs” series, Eilish discusses her enduring love for Jordan Brand sneakers and her passion, in particular, for the Air Jordan 15 and Air Jordan 1 KO – both of which the brand have handed her to work with. The pleasure Eilish gets from simply talking about these shoes, let alone from creating with them is palpable and infectious: you’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel like this pairing just makes sense.
More than this, though, Eilish’s sneakers exist beyond the realm of celebrity novelty: with 100% vegan construction and over 20% recycled materials, they’re a testament not only to her personal beliefs and convictions, but also do the work of pushing the brand, as a whole, toward making positive change. Few collaborations can claim that. Few collaborations, in fact, claim anything at all: most exist simply because they can, with no thought whatsoever to whether or not they should and what that might achieve.
Eilish’s creative fingerprints, too, are all over these sneakers: where the Air Jordan 15s are concerned, this is nothing ostentatious, simply included where it counts in a careful counterbalance of Jordan branding and Eilish signature aesthetics already complimented by the silhouette’s unusual, laidback construction. The Air Jordan 1, it’s fair to say, is a little more in your face – by which I mean they’re bright green and glow in the dark – but not in a way that feels forced. Again: it just makes sense.
The key, really, to a perfect collaboration is that it needs to be exactly that. Ego can’t get in the way of a silhouette’s legacy and, looking at it the other way, the history of a sneaker can’t overshadow the possibilities for new creativity. Realistically, the only way to make this happen is with dialogue: not just between brand and collaborator, but – personally – between the collaborator and the sneakers themselves. When Skepta released his Air Max 97 SK collaboration with Nike in 2017, for example, it wasn’t without precedent: by that point, Skepta had spent years, decades even, forging a bond with the Air Max 97. No-one threw a pair at him, free from context, gave him a cheque and told him to just get on with it.
That’s why those sneakers work so well: they’re a patchwork of family history, creativity, artistry and a passion for the product as more than just a product. A testament to what can be done with a shoe when it’s in the right hands.
And that’s it, really. Not everyone is going to love a collaborative sneaker – or any sneaker for that matter – but, if the link between that co-branded silhouette and the name now freshly attached is anything less than honest, people are going to see through those flimsy connections and start asking questions. Good collaborations – no matter how ugly – will always have the answers.