The 10-year partnership between Gap and Yeezy, announced in late June 2020, came as a bit of a surprise to many. After all, we don’t expect highly-exclusive brands that put on elaborate fashion week shows to even acknowledge—let alone work with—mall brands.

Or at least, we didn’t once upon a time.

In recent years, that’s changed, with the line between fashion and streetwear and the runway and the mall becoming increasingly blurred. There’s no better example of how successful these types of high-fashion meets fast-fashion collaborations can be than H&M. The Swedish giant has, since 2004, made a habit of working with some of the biggest names in the fashion—with a capital-”F”—world, from Karl Lagerfeld to Comme des Garçons to Maison Margiela.

But, successful as they may be, there’s been no shortage of contention about the purpose they serve and the precedent they set.

While there are several H&M designer collaborations of note, it’s important to start with the one that kicked the phenomenon off. In November 2004, H&M launched its first designer collaboration with arguably the biggest “fashion industry” name possible at the time: Karl Lagerfeld. Lagerfeld and H&M viewed the collaboration as a win-win for both parties. In Lagerfeld’s eyes, working with H&M democratized fashion and allowed those who normally wouldn’t be able to afford or access his creations to finally get their hands on them. H&M, meanwhile, saw an exclusive, limited-edition collaboration with one of the biggest names in fashion as a sure-fire way to boost the brand’s standing in the fashion world. WWD gave the strategy an awkward, but apt, portmanteau name: massclusivity and masstige.

The collaboration was an undeniable commercial success, with H&M running through what they thought was two months worth of stock in roughly two days. Customers left H&M stores with hundreds of dollars worth of Lagerfeld-designed pieces; the frenzy gave H&M the veneer of a purveyor of sought-after goods and led to a 24 percent increase in H&M’s business.

Lagerfeld, however, was not convinced, telling German magazine Stern that he had envisioned the collaboration being more readily available, and accusing H&M of “snobbery” by keeping the quantities low. So committed to the democratization of fashion was Lagerfeld that he would later launch a more affordable eponymous label.

But disguised snobbery is not the only reproach H&M’s fashion collaborations face. H&M’s practices have long drawn the ire of industry observers, and there’s no denying that fast fashion is responsible for an inordinate amount of global harm. With the low prices that fast fashion retailers compete on, there’s no choice but for a number of corners be cut. It starts with poor labor practices where contracts go to the lowest bidder, which often means lax safety regulations and exploitative wages; sub-par materials and manufacturing standards, which lead to a vicious and unnecessary cycle of consumption and production that does nothing but create unnecessary waste and pollution.

Fast fashion sucks, there’s no debating that. By working with H&M, the fashion establishment has essentially co-signed the Swedish brand and the practices that it and its competitors engage in.

Unfortunate as that may be, though, there’s no denying that the collaborations played an integral role in blurring the line between high-fashion and fashion-for-everybody. Though Lagerfeld bemoaned H&M’s failure to democratize his designs, H&M has been tremendously successful at bringing exclusive labels to the masses—before collaborations between the likes of Supreme and Louis Vuitton or Nike and Dior were the norm. In that respect, it may be the singular time where H&M has actually set trends.

At a time where it feels like the “fashion industry” is as obsessed over as Hollywood, it’s the very same democratization that helped turn a once-insular industry into one where designers are as recognizable and celebrated as prolific movie stars.

Said another way: There’s a generation of kids who learned about Martin Margiela—not because of his work on the runway—but because his name appeared on the shelves of the local H&M.

So, despite the inarguable drawbacks to the fashion establishment co-signing H&M, it’s impossible to not see the Swedish company’s collaborations as the blueprint for much of what we’re currently witnessing. And—if you’re still not convinced, here are seven specifc examples that prove just how influential H&M’s collaborations were.

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Tags: fast-fashion, kenzo, olivier-rousteing, kanye-west, balmain, alexander-wang, maison-margiela, maison-martin-margiela, marni, versace, karl-lagerfeld, comme-des-garcons, hm, h-m