EVEN AFTER HIS concessions at Saks Fifth Avenue stores country-wide shuttered last year, followed quickly by his website and standalone store in NYC, Reed Krakoff was still one of my favorite designers, hands down. To this day, his is the only luxury handbag purchase that I've ever made for myself, and I'd be able to pick one of his iconic silhouettes, such as the Boxer or the Atlantique, out of a lineup anytime, anyplace.
Which is exactly what I did last night while lost in a Kohl's, desperately seeking the activewear section for some much-needed workout wear. (And for the record, that "much-needed" refers mostly to the "workout" part.)
Out of the corner of my eye, I could have sworn I saw, sitting atop a jumbled display of polyurethane and wrapped in a slim, strategically-tied strap, an angular, color-blocked tote, the kind of bag I once fantasized about stuffing with a laptop and bandying about on a business trip by train. Across Europe. And also in the fantasy, I'm Angelina Jolie circa The Tourist, but that's neither here nor there.
Like so many cartoon characters before me, I did a double take. Had some well-to-do woman stumbled into Kohl's for help, or perhaps for a discounted set of Caphalon cookware, and accidentally left her Reed Krakoff Atlantique atop a table? Was she nearby? Was she hurt, or lost?
A quick scan of the the shelves provided the answer. Mais oui, this was the legendary "Reed Collection," the latest in a string of countless high-low designer collabs aimed at democratizing fashion. (See also: "maximizing sales by reaching new clientele without permanently altering brand strategy;" "increasing brand awareness;" and "majorly boosting the prestige factor for down-market chains.")
H&M famously broke the internet and arguably shut down sidewalks country-wide with their Balmain, Versace, and Maison Martin Margiela collections, to name just a few. And let's take a moment of silence to remember mother-daughter duos fighting other mother-daughter duos for ikat-printed bicycles, bikinis, and barware from Missoni x Target. Kohl's has also already dabbled in the collab game, bringing in capsule collections from houses such as Thakoon, Milly, and Peter Som under "DesigNation," a line specifically designated for such partnerships.
Reed Collection, a standalone collection that sits outside of the "DesigNation" umbrella, "launched" at Kohl's in late April, just over a year after the designer announced what is slated to be a temporary closing and restructuring of his eponymous line, which he bought for $50 million from parent company Coach, Inc. only a couple years prior.
I use quotation marks around "launched" because while Reed Krakoff x Kohl's is still in its infancy, the designs themselves are several seasons old.
Unlike pretty much every other designer collaboration, the pieces in Reed Collection don't just reference the designer's highly-coveted pieces from his offerings at Saks, Neiman Marcus, and other luxury outposts including his own stores, they are exact replicas. I'd even venture to call them knock-offs of his original designs, composed in cheaper materials (in this case, "technical leather," a coated canvas that looks and feels like leather) but that are otherwise identical. Even the names are the same - Boxer, Atlantique, and RK40 are all iconic and recognizable monikers from collections past.
A search on Google for "Reed Krakoff Atlantique," for example, pulled up results from Saks and luxury resale website The Real Real alongside items from Kohl's. Products from both websites are virtually identical in appearance; the only difference is the price, and the somewhat conspicuous absence of the designer's last name.
Similarities don't end there. Many of the current Kohl's offerings also utilize proprietary prints from past Reed Krakoff collections, like a hand-drawn checker print that a former Reed Krakoff Sales Associate at Saks in Boston told me was based on Krakoff's own rough sketches, or the whimsical, watery floral screen print that is nearly identical to the original - and is styled almost identically in ad campaigns for both his own line and the Kohl's collection.
Aside from the issue of knocking off his own designs, there's also an emotional element, too, as truly meaningful fashion should conjure up. When I first spotted the bags at Kohl's, my thoughts immediately flew to the fact that a couple years ago, I saved up a few hundred dollars to invest in a Reed Krakoff Mini Boxer bag. At that time, I meditated long and hard on which silhouette I'd get. I prayed on color selection. I counted down the days and the dollars until the bi-yearly sale when I knew I'd get not a cheap price, but a significantly lower price. Making a luxury purchase - my first, in fact - was not easy but it was worth it. I felt like I was getting a piece of art, especially after having met the designer at a fundraiser in Boston and having the chance to chat with him about his passion for design and architecture.
And now, under the fluorescent lights of Kohl's sales floors nationwide lie what is essentially thousands and thousands of the very same bag, in the same shade of kelly green as the one on which I spent close to $600. It's like seeing an Elvis impersonator, or biting into a piece of sushi made with imitation crab meat. It's just not the same. It's not the original, despite how hard it's trying to be so.
"There's this amazing opportunity for handbags in this space and for design that's absolutely unique and exciting and affordable. [At] the highest order, the mission of Reed Collection is to create excitement in accessories. It's not a very dynamic spot right now," Krakoff told WWD.
Ok, but...these designs aren't exactly "unique," and this process isn't necessarily "dynamic," given the fact that the entire range of handbags is either an exact copy of, or very strongly based on, existing designs. Recreating expensive items in a cheaper way is a conundrum as old as fashion itself; it's certainly not a new or dynamic concept. If any other designer or manufacturer attempted to copy designs in such a blatant and outright way, a lawsuit would surely ensue, or at least some outraged blog posts, like when NastyGal sold an exact replica of the Balmain jumpsuit Taylor Swift wore to the Billboard Music Awards in 2015.
So why is it okay for a designer to cannibalize his own creations, made under one label, for a new collection with a completely different enterprise? And most importantly, where's the "design" and creativity that one would expect from a creator as publicly passionate about art and architecture as Krakoff?
BESIDES THE FLAGRANT lack of originality, there's also a lack of respect for Krakoff's former clients (myself included, although just barely) who shelled out significant dollar amounts for the originals only to see a designer-condoned knock-off for around 90% of the original price. It just feels wrong, like a sacred bond has been broken or a piece of art has been sacriledged. It renders the originals a bit less rare, a bit less special, which was, for all intents and purposes, an unwritten promise built into the private label price-point.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for attainable fashion. There's absolutely no reason why looking like a million bucks, or being able to collect well-made, beautifully designed pieces from top design talents for that matter, should cost a million bucks or in any way be a luxury reserved only for an elite few. And certainly, by no means do I think Krakoff should let his skills atrophy while he gets his house back in order. He's one of the most talented American designers out there, churning out season after season of bags, shoes, and RTW that at once entices and challenges. In fact, it's arguably those very design skills and business savvy that resulted in a major turn-around for Coach from a floundering outlet-mall brand back to a serious style contender during Krakoff's tenure as Executive Creative Director. Let's not forget that while Krakoff was at the helm, Coach went from $500 million in sales to $5 billion.
But as a designer and businessman, he's now also perhaps guilty of some of the same business practices that once made Coach bags ubiquitous to a fault - steep discounting practices from which he seemed to have steered Coach away only to quickly adopt now in his collaboration with Kohl's.
And what does this mean for his own line, if it will, indeed, return as planned with a lower price point that the first iteration. As I reported in in March 2015 here on this blog, representatives of the brand say prices will skew towards "entry-level luxury," which falls between $500-$800. That's a far cry from the $129 price cap for a Reed Collection bag at Kohl's and the sometimes 5-digit figures his private label bags commanded. That puts Krakoff, as a business, a designer, and a label, all over the spectrum of pricing, which could be hard for his business down the road when he tries to settle down somewhere on that spectrum but finds that he's competing against standards he himself set.
Krakoff is - or was - an artist. So why didn't he come up with new designs for a new line with Kohl's? Perhaps he strategically sacrificed existing silhouettes like the Boxer and Atlantique because he's saving new designs for his own collection, when it relaunches? If so, that feels cannibalistic, like he's squeezing the last drops out of the designs that elevated his own label to cult status, and that doesn't seem to be a sustainable model, nor one that points to a successful rebuilding and rebranding of what could be a continuation of the empire he was starting to build with his private label.
In an interview with Fashionista, Krakoff told the site "It's a very emotional category. When you carry a bag, it’s a badge for you, what you believe in, the kind of of fashion you support... it's really very much of a symbol." So what does this Kohl's collection symbolize for the future of this designer?