The Emotional Turmoil of Studio Nicholson x Zara

I love Studio Nicholson, let’s get that out of the way first. Designer Nick Wakeman has cannily set her label up to be a progressive low-key luxury powerhouse, with Studio Nicholson’s sophisticated silhouettes indicative of a move towards dressing for the self. I love that intimacy, that intent, which is why I’m so conflicted on Studio Nicholson’s new Zara Man collaboration.

Launching September 9 at international pop-ups in London, Korea, and China — Studio Nicholson has an especially devoted following in Asia — with a subsequent release online and at Zara stores in coming weeks, Studio Nicholson x Zara is basically the designs of the former with prices leaning towards the latter.

A beefy, drop-shoulder hoodie is under $100, boxy tees are under $60, and reproductions of Studio Nicholson’s signature wide-legged pants range from $100 to $150. Some pieces push the pricing envelope — a hooded leather jacket is over $500, yellow sweater vest is $150, and wool Zara Home blanket is about $250 — but, by and large, this is pretty cost-effective stuff.

For comparison, a current-season Studio Nicholson lambswool sweater is $440, pleated trouser is over $400, and long-sleeved T-shirt approaches $150.

It ain’t exactly affordable but Wakeman’s vision of a perfect capsule wardrobe was never meant to be something that customers bought en masse: rather, she envisioned consumers slowly adding pieces to their wardrobes over time collecting seasonal favorites to shape a dedicated wardrobe of permanent staples swapped out as the weather demanded.

“I approach every new collection with the same rigor as an architect designs a building and begin by making sure the foundations are firmly in place,” Wakeman said in a statement.

“This attention to detail has meant that Studio Nicholson isn’t something that everyone can afford. The collaboration with Zara means the modular wardrobe is exposed to an exciting new demographic of consumers; people who may not have had the chance (yet) to experience the brand.”

“It gives us a channel to spread the aesthetic to regions and communities who might not have seen or heard of us before.”

Wakeman also makes a point about “editorial values,” which rings true. The Studio Nicholson x Zara collection’s campaign is lensed by veteran photographer Craig McDean, whose studio time may otherwise be too expensive for an indie brand like Studio Nicholson.

By partnering with one of the world’s fastest fashion brands, however, Studio Nicholson is forced to compromise on a few of its core components.

For instance, quality fabrics are a core pillar of Studio Nicholson’s ethos. There’s a reason that the label partnered with Sunspel and released a dedicated capsule collection of Japanese fabrics, after all.

This dedication to premium textiles has defined Studio Nicholson since its inception, even as production moved more to Portugal than London: the European country has a fabric production industry renowned for its dedication to quality, ethical production that’s lured designers as disparate as Raf Simons, Dries van Noten, Balenciaga, Toogood, and Highsnobiety itself.

There are hardly any truly “sustainable” or ethical ways to produce clothing at scale but this is a larger conversation for a different time.

The point is, the way Studio Nicholson makes its own clothing is fine. Prices are high because it costs a lot to design patterns, source good fabrics, pay workers, ship garments, and balance precarious margins. Even then, Studio Nicholson probably isn’t charging as much as it could to both to make itself a worthy profit and to pay its workers as much as they deserve.

Zara, like many other fast fashion brands, is no improvement. Fast fashion is implicitly built to profit from the worst elements of capitalism, exploiting laborers and the planet for the sake of making a buck.

It’s a tricky situation. On one hand, I’m glad to see a cool label like Studio Nicholson get more exposure, make more money, and spread the good word of thoughtful design. It’s not a bad thing to give price-conscious consumers easier access to affordable clothing, too.

On the other hand, it’s worth considering whether this is hurting the Studio Nicholson name more than it’s helping. The collection isn’t bad but is it going to encourage folks to save up for Studio Nicholson’s mainline fare or will it keep people hooked on cheap fast fashion?

It’s not like there’s any lack of designer fast fashion crossovers Plus, secondhand markets are already full of lesser-priced luxury goods.

Unlike most other designers that partner with fast fashion giants — JW Anderson, Jil Sander, Moschino, Balmain, Kenzo — Studio Nicholson is still independent, which surely makes it a financial strain to continue producing its unique style of considerate clothing in relatively small batches, especially as its collections are picked up by major e-tailors.

Hopefully this Zara collaboration eases some of Studio Nicholson’s growing pains. Otherwise, I’m not sure I can see much good coming of it.

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