Why more brands are seeking product collaborations with urban boutique retailers.

By Jahla Seppanen

Curation is the ace of specialty retail.

Boutiques and their buyers have the unique opportunity to sell and showcase products that stand out, offering consumers something different. Although big-box and online retail have their own perks, uniformity is pushing many shoppers away. At the same time, conscious consumers are increasingly identifying with the little and local shops and brands — viewing apparel as a reflection of their own beliefs and self-image.

Sport and active lifestyle brands housed in both specialty and big box have taken notice of the former’s ability to offer increased value via original, highly selective pieces. So we’re seeing a movement of more brands like Vans or New Era (big players in their categories) collaborating with top specialty retailers on limited-edition, co-branded products that boost the brand’s authentic flavor.

Big Brand Meets Small Store
When action-sports brand Vans released its first-ever ‘running shoe,’ the OG Runner earlier this summer — a vintage trainer more fashion-focused with retro neoprene and leather — the limited-edition Vans Vault “Kitchi” version had an interesting logo emblazed on the heels and tread.

Sneakerheads knew the symbol as representing Sole Classics, a Columbus, OH-based premiere boutique retailer specializing in sneakers, apparel, lifestyle apparel and, most of all, consumer respect.

Sole Classics shares a photo of their team on November 14, 2015, captioned, "Lifestyle streetwear boutique squad goals #SoleClassics"

Sole Classics shares a photo of their team on November 14, 2015, captioned, “Lifestyle streetwear boutique squad goals #SoleClassics”

With an Instagram following of 28,000 and Twitter audience of more than 5,000 (most retailers struggle to reach the 100 mark), Sole Classics isn’t your average shop. It’s considered by many to be one of the best specialty urban retailers in the country, alongside UBIQ in Philadelphia, Bodega in Boston, and Shop 412 in Pittsburgh.

And you better believe Vans didn’t select Sole Classics at random. The collaboration was premeditated.

“Partnering with our retailers is an important strategy for Vans’ sales,” Michael Hastings, Vans Vault/Boutique Sales Rep for the East Coast, told SGB. Hastings works directly with Sole Classics and considers them a part of the tribe — perhaps a surprising priority for the footwear giant that also sells through national chains like Foot Locker and Famous Footwear.

Sole Classics Vans Vault OG Runner

Sole Classics Vans Vault OG Runner

“The opportunity to work with accounts in the most proactive way, to help drive their sales and provide an exclusive release, has been very successful in Vans’ history as it builds momentum on all fronts, from the brand’s reputation to the retailer’s reputation to the consumer’s perception of both,” Hastings continued.

The Sole Classics Vans Vault OG Runner is currently sold out in all sizes.

Sole Classics Vans Vault OG Runner

Sole Classics Vans Vault OG Runner

The Cool Contagion Starts At Specialty
So here’s the pipeline: Vans partners with trending urban boutiques to boost the big company’s authentic vibe, then takes its street cred to chain franchises who are looking for cool brands to stock the shelf.

Vans and Sole Classics even infused a local heritage storyline to the Vans Vault “Kitchi” OG Runner. “The Story of Kitchi,” harkens to Ohio lore from the 17th century. The abridged version of the tale is that a young boy named Kitchi wandered from a migration group through the woods and across a river to eventually lead his tribe to settle in Zanesville, OH. So DJ Khaled had it right when he sang, Rep My City — a mantra all successful urban lifestyle boutiques seem to have infused into their business strategies.

Despite the great originality of many brands today, local retailers have a tool belt of regional knowledge and pride that translates to meaningful, authentic product stories that also attempt to work off today’s “buy local” trends. For instance, marketing photography for the OG Runner is set to an Ohio river backdrop, where a dreadlocked 20-something guy wanders through the scene — it’s both urban and wild.

The Cultivation Of Creativity
Pittsburgh’s Shop 412 is well known for entering collaborations with companies like Gore-Tex, New Era and even Heinz on products that pack a giving-back purpose, always relating to a philanthropic cause within the Iron City.

Most recently, 412 and New Era co-branded a line of salutary hats that honor the 200th birthday of the city of Pittsburgh. The retailer has done a few collaborations with New Era, which began in early 2016, and even built out a custom wall to showcase the bicentennial limited-edition collection.

“It’s about the cultivation of creativity,” said Shop 412 Co-founder Christian Kinkela, who opened the shop with his brother Aaron in 2008. “The niche game is very, very difficult so we’re looking at such fine-tuned details … for the stuff that lives outside of big box — we don’t want to look like them.”

Photo courtesy Shop 412

Photo courtesy Shop 412

The Path Of Retail Discovery
Meanwhile, a couple cities to the northeast, the hyper-boutique retailer Bodega, in Boston, recently co-branded a limited-edition sneaker with Amsterdam-based footwear label Filling Pieces. Bodega takes local underground to a whole new level. The shop doesn’t have a phone number — “It’s a lifestyle choice,” its Facebook justifies — and the shop’s physical entrance is hidden within a convenience store, behind a faux vending machine. Bodega has done collaborations with Nike, Reebok, Vans, Saucony and fellow local brand New Balance.

Its website creeds, “Bodega has been a refuge and tool for the clandestine group of artists behind the space & brand. Approaching retail as installation art…”  In numerous interviews, the owners have talked about the importance of retail experience as being one of discovery.

As for its social stats, Bodega has more than 128,000 Instagram followers, and a Twitter audience of 41,000-plus.

Co-created retailer/brand partnerships have become a way to exchange invisible currency. Authenticity and brand image is made through these boutique collaborations, and for the most part, these retailers can’t be bought.

“In a world where everyone tried to sell their soul, we only partner with brands we trust and have a relationship with,” said Aaron Kinkela, Shop 412 co-founder.

Expect to see more big-name products sporting cryptic logos that rep local hole-in-the-wall retailers. And start following the social media and blogs of these specialty footwear, apparel and lifestyle stores for culture and style forecasts. They are the trend setters of the industry.

Lead photo courtesy Vans