By Jacob Gallagher 

EARLY THIS FEBRUARY, before we all began sheltering in place, visitors streamed into the Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in downtown Manhattan to ogle a one-of-a-kind Porsche.

The refreshed vintage Porsche 964 coupe -- white with a shiny red Pegasus emblem, a honey-tinted leather interior and a swooping "duckbill" spoiler tacked on the back -- was designed by Teddy Santis, the founder of Aimé Leon Dore, a 7-year-old streetwear label based in Queens. The result of an official partnership between the label and the German automaker, the car sat in the gallery's center on an interwoven heap of Persian-style rugs. For four days, Mr. Santis's fans poured through the doors in droves to inspect the interior's splashes of Loro Piana fabric, scoop up co-branded apparel and take photos of the extremely hyped, extremely not-for-sale auto.

The partnership was the first of several 2020 pair-ups between luxury automakers and youth-seducing clothing designers. This April, Italy's Lamborghini and the streetwear virtuosos at Supreme released a run of hoodies, quilted jackets, tees and other items splayed with the car brand's glimmering gold-lettered logo. In September, Mercedes-Benz debuted " Project Geländewagen," a widely publicized and frankly confusing initiative in which the German carmaker worked with artistic director Virgil Abloh of Off White and Louis Vuitton to design a G-Class SUV. The only tangible result: Sotheby's auctioned a one-third-scale mock-up of the concept car, with the proceeds going to charity.

The most extensive collaboration yet -- between BMW and Kith, a New York hoodie-and-sneaker emporium -- was unveiled last week. The results included: a co-branded 94-piece clothing and accessories line; a single rebuilt vintage BMW M3; and 150 special-edition, Kith-branded M4 Competition sports cars that started at $109,250 and were distributed through BMW dealerships.

By selling an actual automobile, the BMW-Kith partnership most closely resembles car and fashion pair-ups of the past, which typically focused on producing limited-edition automobiles. Among the many motor-minded marriages of the past: Lincoln and Givenchy (1979), Peugeot and Lacoste (1984), Mercedes-Benz and Armani (2004) and Thom Browne and Infiniti (2013).

During a preview last week, Kith owner Ronnie Fieg was quick to point out that outsiders might underestimate the number of big spenders who worship his brand. And true enough, within an hour of the Friday morning release of the Kith-ified M4s, all 150 of the six-figure cars were spoken for.

However, for the 2020 partnerships, selling a car is not, the only (or even primary) objective; for the automobile brands, it's also about targeting a young demographic that could someday evolve into a reliable customer base. As Uwe Dreher, head of marketing for at BMW North America put it, it doesn't matter if the "people who buy the hoodie with the Kith BMW logo....also buy the car." As he said in an interview before the launch, many of Kith's shoppers aren't even old enough to drive. The partnership is also about building awareness.

For car manufacturers, young people are an increasingly elusive demo. "The people who are buying new cars are people my age, baby boomers," said Carla Bailo, the president and CEO of the Center for Automotive Research, a nonprofit in Michigan. A study released in 2019 by Sivak Applied Research found that in 2017, half of all vehicle buyers in the U.S. were over 54 years old, while those 34 and under comprised just 14% of the total. Instead of purchasing cars, many young people are turning to ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft.

Mr. Santis, the Aimé Leon Dore designer, said that Porsche voiced these very concerns at the outset of his collaboration with the brand. "They came to us and they felt like the sports car consumer and enthusiast they had was kind of getting aged out. And the newer kid, the younger kid was more caught up with, you know, Uber and Lyft," he said. Deniz Keskin, Porsche's head of brand management and sponsoring, said that "getting access to these new people was definitely a plus" in working with Mr. Santis. Many of the oglers who poured into the Jeffrey Deitch Gallery to see the resulting car, he said, "were only coming from the angle of Teddy's fashion brand and would normally not attend a Porsche-type event."

Brandon Watson, 27, a commercial photographer in Buffalo, N.Y., was one such onlooker. As a longstanding Aimé Leon Dore customer, he was duly impressed that Porsche tapped an emerging clothing label. By tying itself with a "streetwear brand," Mr. Watson said, the automaker "refreshed people's memories of what Porsche actually is."

And what's the perfect way to draw in auto-agnostic kids? Clothes. If streetwear has proven anything, it's that when armed with enough clout a clothing brand can make any partner -- no matter how random -- appear desirable via a co-branded T-shirt or hoodie. Kith's recent collaborators, for example, have included properties as disparate as the see-and-be-seen eatery Nobu, Looney Tunes and Coca-Cola.

Such apparent randomness aside, Mr. Fieg said that he's felt a personal connection to all of Kith's collaborators. BMW is no different: his grandfather owned a 1989 M3, the same model Mr. Fieg worked on restoring as part of the collaboration. As for the idea that anything he stuck his logo on would sell, Mr. Fieg said "I never go into anything assuming that. But we have definitely built a loyal consumer in nine years." "Loyal" might be an understatement: All of Kith's recent collaborations have sold out swiftly.

In both the BMW and the Porsche collaborations, the idea of bundling in co-branded tees, keychains and other take-home souvenirs came from the clothing brands. Both Mr. Fieg and Mr. Santis viewed that element as vital to making the collaborations a success. "There's got to be some component of product or merchandise or something tangible that the kid who knows nothing about what we're talking about shows up and leaves with something," said Mr. Santis. Porsche went along with the idea of offering clothes; the collaborative pieces sold out in two days.

The art gallery event also allowed Porsche to wiggle further into Instagram, another key piece of the teen-and-twenty-something ecosystem. The entire space was set up like one giant Instagram shoot, complete with the sort of verdant potted plants you can't escape on the social media platform. Even after the clothes sold out, fans continued to pour into the Dietch gallery to snap selfies next to the Porsche.

Covid-19 has temporarily derailed plans to host these kinds of bustling events, though automakers are trying to find workarounds. For "Project Geländewagen," Mercedes-Benz created a digital simulacrum of the car that Instagram users could "place" in their homes using augmented reality. Though in theory a savvy way to bring the collaboration right to users, the technology proved a little awkward to use. (Mercedes-Benz declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Meanwhile, BMW and Kith previewed their collaboration for editors and influencers at a small, relatively socially distanced event in Brooklyn, spurring some buzz on social media -- albeit much less than Porsche enjoyed from its partnership with Aimé Leon Dore. Nevertheless, by Friday afternoon, just a few hours after it launched on Kith's website, most of the clothing collection had sold out.

Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 26, 2020 12:14 ET (16:14 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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