In 2011, Gagosian-represented painter Dan Colen founded Sky High Farm, a not-for-profit working farm in upstate New York, to help address food insecurity in the United States, where 35.2 million people live in households that lack adequate nutrition, according to a 2019 USDA report.
Now, Colen is turning Sky High into a mission-driven fashion brand with an innovative model. Building on a year of successful merch collaborations with Dover Street Market, Sky High Farms is set to join the Comme des Garçons-owned retailer’s brand incubator Dover Street Market Paris (DSMP) this June, expanding the line into workwear and more conceptual fashion, to be sold not only at Dover Street Market, but also via wholesale partnerships, starting in February 2021.
After supporting emerging brands with back-of-the-house services for years, Dover Street Market formalised the approach in 2019 with the launch of DSMP, a platform for nascent labels including Youths in Balaclava and Vaquera. Its partnerships vary in depth and structure. (DSMP offers services from brand management to distribution, though it does not take ownership stakes.)
The deal with Sky High Farm is wholly unique, however, requiring stakeholders across the value chain to reduce their profit margins so that more money can be donated to the farm, which is registered as a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt, non-profit charity. Retailers who carry the brand, for instance, will make a smaller profit than they normally would.
“Everyone who participates has to donate to the mission,” Colen explained. “At wholesale, at production. It’s a totally different financial structure.”
The partnership between Dover Street Market and Sky High kicked off in October 2020 with a four-chapter collaboration, the profits from which go entirely to the farm. Chapter One featured merch designed with streetwear brands like Total Luxury Spa, Denim Tears, Brain Dead and Supreme. The sell-out collection resulted in a $130,000 donation.
On May 8, to coincide with Frieze New York, Chapter Two — featuring the work of 23 artists including Colen, Elizabeth Peyton, Jenny Hotzer, Kara Walker, the late Dash Snow and Takashi Murakami — will launch online as well as at Dover Street Market in New York and Los Angeles, with food and fashion-focused “chapters” set to be released later this year.
While the forthcoming full-fledged Sky High Farm line was born out of this four-part project, Colen and DSMP plan to run the venture as a mission-led, but profit-generating business.
The line will consist of two seasonal collections, as well as a perennial offering, which will never be marked down and feature functional workwear, such as chore jackets, double-knee pants and even underwear, to be sold not only at fashion retailers but at gardening and homeware stores. (Pricing is still being determined, but it will be accessible compared to many of the collections sold at Dover Street Market, and the brand will offer a special trade discount to farming industry workers.) The seasonal collections will be limited-edition, designed in collaboration with friends of the farm, and be priced “aspirationally,” with the hope that more lofty designs will drive awareness.
“Every brand is dying to have a mission, and 99.9 percent of them have written a story, attaching it to their products,” Colen said. As a working farm first and foremost, Sky High has taken the opposite approach, starting with its mission and layering on its product offering. “People will listen to us,” he added. “We’ll have a voice other companies just can’t have in the dialogue.”
For DSMP, partnering with Sky High Farm is an opportunity to further explore responsible manufacturing processes — such as using deadstock fabrics at scale — and learn how to better measure environmental impact, from which its other brands can also benefit.
“We have to do this anyway,” said James Gilchrist, vice president of Dover Street Market USA and Comme des Garçons USA, who spearheaded the partnership. “This is challenging us to use methods that will benefit other brands in DSMP, too.”