Why PUMA Is Destined to Win With Rihanna, The Weeknd and Big Sean

We talk to PUMA’s Head of Select, Yassine Saidi, on why these aren’t just “collaborations.”

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When we’re talking about sportswear and sneakers, the names adidas and Nike often dominate the conversation. However, in the past few years, PUMA has really proven itself to be a strong contender for the top spot, injecting itself into the forefront of relevancy by consistently pumping out stellar collections featuring just the right mix of new and old. The company’s third quarter sales last year showed extraordinary growth, doubling its net earnings from the year before. Not only that, but Rihanna took Kanye West’s crown, winning the Best Shoe of 2016 award from Footwear News for her popular creeper.

At the helm of these successes is an impressive roster of executives who have been leading the company to this point, one of whom is Yassine Saidi, PUMA’s Head of Select. Within the German sportswear brand, Select is PUMA’s department responsible for collaborations and its platform for creating new styles and aesthetics. This is key to PUMA’s DNA — in fact, the brand pioneered the sportswear brand collaboration niche by being one of the first athletic companies to collaborate with fashion in a groundbreaking partnership with Jil Sander in 1998, predating adidas and Yohji Yamamoto’s Y-3 line by five years. Fast forward to 2017 and experimenting with fashion while still staying true to sports innovation is still a key to success in the industry.

Rihanna PUMA fenty

Under the PUMA Select umbrella are partnerships you’ve definitely heard of — from the aforementioned FENTY PUMA by Rihanna, to The Weeknd’s “Run The Streets” collection and Big Sean teaming up with PUMA Classics. While collaborations between sportswear giants and artists have almost become the norm (just to name a few — Kanye West x adidas, Drake x Jordan Brand, Kendrick Lamar x Reebok and more), PUMA is trying to go against the grain by offering full-fledged collections that go above and beyond. Think Rihanna’s full Paris Fashion Week show for FENTY, and all-new sneaker silhouettes created by these artists.

But PUMA seems to have found a sweet spot with Select. Treading the line between lifestyle and sportswear — where adidas excels in the former and Nike focuses on the latter — PUMA has been able to carve out a space for itself by creating lifestyle products with brands and artists that still clearly allude to the company’s roots in sport. “We don’t want to be a fashion label but we want to leverage sports and style and then bring it to the people,” says Saidi, “When we work with different people and brands, we always work with sports in mind and what I always tell them is that their creative direction has to be based on sports.” So on one hand, adidas Originals has found success creating lifestyle products with the likes of Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, but these products are definitely more fashion than function. On the other hand, Nike has strictly adhered to its roots in sports, pumping out technical wares even if it’s a collaboration (and even so, the Swoosh often collaborates with athletes over artists). Then, we have PUMA, who partners with names that do not have a clear athletic association, but the brand pushes these artists to find that association so that a basis in sport is still clear.

Rihanna PUMA fenty

Not only is this a focus, but Saidi’s vision for PUMA Select goes way beyond the surface definition of “collaboration.” In fact, he “hates” the term and says that PUMA is “co-creating” with these artists, which means allowing them full creative direction in an effort to produce authentic and meaningful products. Well, this formula has definitely produced stellar products that have undeniably resonated with consumers.

While all of PUMA’s partnerships have given the brand a facelift and a starring role in the sportswear spotlight, that’s not all of what PUMA is. The brand is sitting on 69 years of rich history, one that has always championed innovation, driving the brand to where it is today. “PUMA is successful today because our non-collaboration collections are great,” says Saidi, “Collaborations are maybe 10 percent of what we do, but if we are successful, it is because everything else we do in-house is resonating with the consumer.” Despite that, this 10 percent, one which features worldwide megastars like Rihanna, The Weeknd and Big Sean, is definitely giving PUMA new life and unparalleled visibility. We speak with Yassine Saidi to learn more about PUMA Select and how this segment is helping redefine the sportswear brand for a whole new generation of people.

What are your thoughts on collaborations?

I hate the word “collaboration” — it’s been too overused. Now, I talk about the “co-creating” process. For some people, a collaboration and co-creation can mean the same thing, but for me, it’s completely different. For me, a collaboration is something like “here’s a shoe on the table, can you just change the colors and put your logo on?” But for example, when we’re working with Rihanna and The Weeknd, we’re putting two creative directions together. We’re mixing our views with his or her views, and our teams will sit together and redefine the creative direction. It’s two parties bringing ideas onto a blank page to co-create and co-build. At this level, it’s way more than a collaboration, it’s way deeper.

Rihanna PUMA fenty

But in today’s fashion and streetwear market, there are collaborations popping up every day.

Yes, the market is moving very very fast and there are things dropping every day. But I’m trying to bring meaning to everything we do, so it’s important for us to have a very proper creative process. I’d never want to do a collaboration just for the sake of a collaboration because it becomes meaningless. Also, the consumer can’t line up for everything, and everyone has a certain budget. So you have to consider the consumers who are lining up, who are actual product and sneaker fans. You can’t just drop for the sake of dropping.

I also want to mention that collaborations do not determine the success of a brand. Sometimes, it’s easy to think that dropping a collaboration means instant success. But PUMA is successful today because our non-collaboration collections are great. This is what I tell my team every day — we are not a collaborative brand. Collaborations are maybe 10 percent of what we do, but if we are successful, it is because everything else we do in-house is resonating with the consumer. So the co-creative part is a visible part — it’s easy and it’s what people want to see. But the company is sitting on a very strong foundation of innovation.

How involved are the ambassadors in the creation of their collections?

This is where co-creating makes sense. Our Select team and our partner’s team will go ahead and think of a creative direction based on research and what we want to do, and then our teams will meet and come up with something together based off what each team wants and thinks will work well.

Rihanna PUMA fenty

How do you balance a collaborator’s own vision with PUMA’s heritage and brand image?

PUMA is a sports company. That’s our main focus, to make athletes better and faster. Naturally, sport mixes with style and fashion and now, fashion labels are using sports codes and vice versa. We don’t want to be a fashion label but we want to leverage sports and style and then bring it to the people. When we work with different people and brands, we always work with sports in mind and I always tell them is that their creative direction has to be based on sports.

For example, The Weeknd’s collection merges basketball with running. Rihanna’s Creeper has roots in basketball. With Big Sean and our Classics collection, he always references basketball because the Clyde was a basketball shoe for him.

PUMA has a lot of ambassadors and partners with everyone from Kylie Jenner to Cara Delevingne to Big Sean and Rihanna. How do you guys choose these names?

How we choose them is based on a lot of things. For example, we wanted to develop our women’s business in different categories so it was very obvious to us that the best partner would be Rihanna. Similarly, we wanted to work with a renowned male artist so we partnered with The Weeknd, and then Big Sean for Classics.

When you look at Rihanna, Big Sean and The Weeknd, their combined portfolio covers almost the whole market. You have someone from Detroit, someone from Canada and someone from Barbados. They all have a love of music and covers the Top 50.

Rihanna PUMA fenty

So what differences are there between Kylie’s relationship with PUMA and Rihanna’s?

There are two categories in PUMA. Big Sean, The Weeknd and Rihanna are our product partnerships, where we are actually creating collections and products with them. And then Cara Delevingne and Kylie Jenner are marketing partnerships, where they are ambassadors for our brand.

I don’t personally work with Kylie or Cara, but they are equally as involved with the creative direction in marketing campaigns as Rihanna, Big Sean and The Weeknd are with their own collections.

Most of PUMA Select’s biggest collaborators are musicians. Why do you think so many musicians are crossing into fashion?

I think music, first of all, has always been at the center of style. Not necessarily “fashion” but style in general. I mean, from Run-D.M.C. and the adidas Superstar to Rihanna and FENTY, music has always been a part of how kids want to look.

Artists want to get into style and fashion because it is a natural extension. The music industry is now balanced and they want to extend their profile to different categories. These musicians also understand the reach that they have and the interest of building something together with a brand. We shouldn’t forget that they’re artists – their art is writing lyrics, composing music, performing and singing. But now, artists are beyond music and they want to work in multiple levels of art and we shouldn’t reduce these musicians to just music.

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