We live in the age of crazy—if not always dope—collabs. The bottomless thirst for strange corporate bedfellows has brought us Telfar working with Uggs, Ben and Jerry’s designing Nikes, and Vetements reviving Juicy Couture. When Justin Bieber posts a hint on Instagram that he might be working with Crocs, the world no longer recoils in confusion—it sends Crocs’ stock prices soaring.
Yet there is still the occasional collaboration that sends this unflappable universe into a tailspin. The latest example: Cole Haan’s new sneakers in partnership with the workplace chat application Slack. A moody, cinematic Cole Haan Instagram on Tuesday teased the white knit sneakers, trimmed in four colorways to represent the four colors of Slack’s logo, with the logo itself at the heel. Further details were released on Wednesday, along with the $120 shoe itself. “Our limited-edition collab isn’t just two great brands coming together,” Cole Haan’s website notes. “It’s a vibrant example of how Slack is everything you need to get your work done.” (For the many work-from-homers who find that platforms like Slack and Zoom have somehow simultaneously improved and crippled workplace productivity, this statement was perhaps more triggering than Cole Haan might have intended.) The brand noted that the sneaker was designed entirely on Slack—surely the first sneaker to make that claim. (Although Maison Margiela’s recent Nick Knight-directed videos unpacking the process of John Galliano texting, FaceTiming, and AirDropping his way towards a full fashion collection, and Virgil Abloh releasing his WhatsApp screenshots, suggests this is not so dissimilar from how many fashion brands now work.)
In part, what makes it so bizarre is that you don’t think of Slack as being quite...sentient enough to inspire a collaboration with a fashion brand. What does Slack represent, aside from making email communication look overly formal? There’s nothing ironic or knowing about the teamup, the way Telfar Clemens romanticized Ugg boots out of their Long Island mallrat reputation, or Balenciaga’s partnership with Hello Kitty made nostalgia feel adorable, or Travis Scott’s bromance with McDonald’s helped us learn what Fortnite tastes like. Then again, most collaborations don’t have that kind of amazing synergy—the latest Jean-Michel Basquiat sweatshirt doesn’t inspire quite the same thrill. And that might be the point: collaborations have become such a transactional part of marketing and consumer culture that they’re way past the point of irony. They are no longer about the surprising or creative linkup, but about a brand training its consumer to like other things it deems (or hopes to deem) in line with their place in culture. It’s like watching a marketing report work in real time: “We are the BMW of fashion brands!” Kith proclaims.
This Cole Haan x Slack collaboration (still feels weird to type that, all the way down here!) also pinpoints something important about the startup world’s odd relationship with sneakers. Sneakers make up a culture bigger than fashion itself, a major economy with an army of fanatics who track Yeezy releases and rare Nikes, furiously debating shoes on Reddit and social media. While some people were snarking on Cole Haan’s Slack sneakers, the sneakerheads were buzzing about the rhinestone Cactus Plant Flea Market Dunks.
But there is a parallel universe of sneaker hype in the startup world, one driven by brands like Allbirds, Veja, and Feit, that sneakerheads consider themselves blithely above. These shoes often vaguely echo other soft, squishy sneakers—most often Nike’s Flyknit, which is Mark Zuckerberg’s sneaker of choice, and Roshe Runs, Tim Cook’s favorite. They tout credentials that are utterly irrelevant to sneakerhead culture but right in line with the kind of overreaching virtue signaling that Silicon Valley adores: functional design, vegan or sustainable materials, and biological optimization. (Many sneakers claim to be sweatproof, for example, though one brand claims they are simply “beyond sneakers.”) They lack any of the excitement, design integrity, or intrigue that made the secondary market into a $2 billion a year industry.
Yeezy’s Steve Jobsian approach to product development in many ways parallels Silicon Valley culture, and though you used to see many guys wearing Boost 350s on the subway with sweatshirts and Everlane pants, they’re not necessarily the shoe of choice for the average power player. Though the hoodie, T-shirt, and sneakers uniform of the tech world is often thought to characterize a distaste for fashion or style, the dominant sneaker trends seem also to suggest that optimization itself is an aesthetic. The Slacks fall squarely into this category.
But all that feels irrelevant when you consider: Who wants to wear merch for a corporation where you don’t even work? The only people I can really imagine wearing the Slacks are those doing so with a dash of that Vetements irony—the ambivalent deskbound worker with much more brain power than his job requires, and an ironic appreciation for curated bowls. All it needs to take off is just the right spokesman. Which reminds me: Slacker heartthrob Jared Leto is a Slack investor. Will we see Leto in the Slacks? That could be a game changer. Cole Haan is typing...
Originally Appeared on GQ