I love Studio Nicholson, let’s get that out of the way first. Designer Nick Wakeman has shrewdly established his brand as a progressive and understated luxury powerhouse, with Studio Nicholson’s sophisticated silhouettes indicating a dress-for-yourself trend. I love that intimacy, that intent, which is why I’m so conflicted with Studio Nicholson’s new Zara Man collaboration.

Launching September 9 in international pop-ups in London, Korea and China – Studio Nicholson has a particularly devoted following in Asia – with a later release on line and in Zara stores in the coming weeks, Studio Nicholson x Zara is essentially offering the former’s designs with prices leaning towards the latter.

A chunky drop-shoulder hoodie is under $100, boxy tees are under $60, and reproductions of Studio Nicholson’s signature wide-leg pants range from $100 to $150. Some pieces push the price envelope — a hooded leather jacket is over $500, a yellow vest is $150, and a Zara Home wool blanket is around $250 — but, overall, it’s is a pretty profitable thing.

In comparison, a current season The Studio Nicholson lambswool sweater is $440, the pleated pants are over $400, and the long-sleeve t-shirt approaches $150.

It’s not exactly affordable, but Wakeman’s vision of the perfect capsule wardrobe was never meant to be something customers would buy in droves, anyway. Instead, she envisioned consumers slowly adding pieces to their wardrobes over time, gathering seasonal favorites to shape a dedicated wardrobe of permanent staples worn by the weather.

“I approach each new collection with the same rigor that an architect designs a building and start by making sure the foundations are in place,” Wakeman said of his collaboration with Zara in a statement.

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

Wakeman also makes a point about the “editorial values” engendered by the collaboration, which rings true. The Studio Nicholson x Zara collection campaign is shot by veteran photographer Craig McDean, whose studio time might otherwise be too expensive for an independent brand like Studio Nicholson.

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

Primarily, quality fabrics are at the heart of Studio Nicholson. There’s a reason the label teamed up with Sunspel and released a dedicated capsule collection of Japanese fabrics, after all: you can’t have a permanent wardrobe made of disposable textiles.

This goal has defined Studio Nicholson since its inception, although production has moved more to Portugal than to London: the European country has a fashion industry renowned for its quality, ethical production which has attracted designers like Raf Simons, Dries van Noten, Balenciaga, Toogood and Highsnobiety itself.

There are hardly any truly “sustainable” or ethical ways to produce clothing on a large scale, in Portugal or not, but that’s a larger conversation for another era.

The thing is, Studio Nicholson clothes are as good as they get. Prices are high simply because it is expensive to design patterns, source good fabrics, pay workers, ship clothes, and balance shaky margins. Even then, Studio Nicholson probably isn’t charging as much as it could both to make a sizable profit and to pay its employees as much as they deserve.

Zara, like many other fast fashion brands, is not getting any better. Fast fashion is implicitly built to take advantage of the worst elements of capitalism, exploit workers and the planet to earn money.

And it makes money: Zara’s parent, Inditex, would have appreciated a big increase of revenue in the third quarter of 2022.

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

On the other hand, it is worth asking whether this collaboration with Zara helps or hurts. The collection is indeed beautiful, but will it actually encourage people to save up for Studio Nicholson’s main fare or will it just make cheap, replaceable clothing that much more appealing?

How does Zara’s disposable design direction mesh with Studio Nicholson’s slow fashion approach?

And don’t rain on the Studio Nicholson show. Importantly, Wakeman’s brand has enough impact to capture the attention of a company the size of Zara and hopefully the funds from this partnership will ease Studio Nicholson’s growing pains as ‘It’s expanding its operations to meet orders from larger e-tailors and a growing consumer base.

However, the questionable practices inherent in fast fashion, it’s hard for me to wholeheartedly support any related effort, even if it’s a brand that’s really close to my heart.

To take up a remark made on Studio Nicholson Instagram, a good design must indeed be accessible to all. But should it come at an unethical or unsustainable cost?

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