“You will get kidnapped in those boots!” warns Rihanna in the press release for her new collaboration with Manolo Blahnik, a burlesque, thigh-high denim boot called the “9 to 5”.
It might look like a prop from a Jackie Collins bonkbuster about a cowgirl who moves to the Big Smoke, but it also makes total business sense. Rihanna’s a veteran of the fashion collaboration – River Island and her own Fenty line –and it works for the company, too: Manolo Blahnik is probably hoping to connect with an audience that doesn’t remember who Carrie Bradshaw was.
That equation: stylish R&B star plus brand is an all-important one in the competitive world of sportswear. Thirty years since Run DMC’s single My Adidasled them to make a deal with that brand, “sneakernomics” are still very much at play. Last year Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Pusha T all did footwear collaborations, while Skepta has announced he is to release a new Air Max in collaboration with Nike.
The result – the Air Max BW – has an eye on utility chic and streetwear noir. It is also indicative of how sophisticated these collaborations have become; Air Max are seen as a vital element of the grime uniform, and the timing feels well stage-managed, chiming with Drake signing to JME’s Boy Know Better label and grime’s symbolic break into the American market.
“Brands recognise that R&B acts are cool, and they are willing to pay for their influence on kids,” says Hattie Collins, features director at i-D magazine. For the musicians there’s no ideological crisis – they are not bound by the Generation X ideology of refusing to sell out. Instead, these sneaker collaborations are viewed as part of the same trajectory as their musical careers. The narrative, of the black, working-class kid succeeding against the odds, is the same.
“The culture is not to just succeed but to attain Dr Dre levels,” says Collins. “Anyone can be a millionaire – but how do you get to be a billionaire?” With record sales slipping, these collaborations are even more important. “They a pay better than record companies, and ask for less. What’s not to love?”