Gap, Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie and Fitch, J.Crew and Aeropostale have thousands of people on staff, hundreds of retail stores, and complex global supply chains. But having largely failed to deliver shoppers better products, inspiring brands and exciting retail experiences, they are now clinging on to their audiences.

The reasoning is rather simple: people don’t really want the products many of these big brands are making now or will continue to make in the future. What shoppers do want, however, are products from younger designers and brands that have their pulse on where the market is going—not where it has been—and are able to tap into shoppers’ existing and future needs.

Standing at this crossroads, a small number of these big brands might truly reinvent themselves—most won’t. But this doesn’t mean they should just call it a day. Big brands can fill in the holes that emerging brands and designers can’t: they have expertise at scale, vast retail footprints, global supply chains, and, most importantly, massive audiences dying for the next big thing. Both parties need each other, and it’s about time they realize it.

Many big brands have the opportunity to shift from being just brands to being service platforms. In doing so, they could incubate and accelerate brands by unbundling their infrastructure into microservices—a common term in the tech world. Instead of looking at Gap as a brand, it could be a service platform with various capital, supply chain, retail and marketing functions.

Two examples of this potential are Comme des Garçons’ horizontal growth and Virgil Abloh’s Nike collaboration.

Comme des Garçons

Comme is unique because of its horizontal approach, which features dozens of different brands under the Comme umbrella. While most brands are getting rid of their diffusion lines, which caused massive cannibalization of their main lines, Comme continues to invest in new adjacent lines run by a growing family of designers.

The brand takes its time to invest in and promote talent from within, and it currently offers a handful of lines that came out of the family: Junya Watanabe Comme des Garçons, the now-shuttered Ganryu Comme des Garçons, and most recently, Noir Kei Ninomiya. Comme gives the designers of these brands the full power and distribution, allowing them to design, produce and sell better products to more people than they could on their own. It has also worked with the streetwear designer Gosha Rubchinskiy, which provided all of his production and sales infrastructure, so he could focus on designing.

Nike x Virgil Abloh

Virgil Abloh’s recent collaboration with Nike, which shows the promise of turning a brand into a service platform, might be a more interesting example. While this was technically more of a collaboration than a full brand that Nike helped support—the designer put his own spin on ten classic Nike styles—Nike gave Virgil and his team access to Nike’s archives, design talent, retail and marketing infrastructure, among other benefits.

Importantly, the wildly successful offline experience for the release, which allowed young designers to work with Virgil in London and New York and customize their own version of the shoes, was a teachable moment for Nike. Since then, both the products and the workshop experience has inspired new Nike retail experiences. The entire first floor of Nike Soho is now an Air Force 1 customization lab, which came out of the smaller version pioneered with Virgil, proof that big brands have a lot to learn and can find inspiration from designers who are not on their direct payroll.

The playbook for how big players can unite with smaller brands is rather straightforward, but will take time to iterate on:

  1. Start working with a handful of younger brands
  2. Give them access to your retail, supply chain, capital, etc.
  3. Take an equity stake, a revenue share, or both to cover your costs
  4. Watch these brands grow with your help and maybe buy them in the future or invest
  5. Repeat

Interestingly, the formula above can work both for emerging brands and for other big companies that have very valuable IP, acting as a replacement for licensing. Take Disney, for example, which has hundreds of licenses with a range of manufacturing companies in many different categories. Instead of licensing its IP to these big, unbranded companies that make products to sell to the wholesale distribution chain—and earn Disney somewhere under 20% of each item sold—what if the company worked with big brands and used them as the distribution channel?

One example of this is Disney’s ongoing collaboration with Uniqlo, which helps the entertainment empire sell directly to an end retailer, bypassing the traditional middlemen. Through this mutually beneficial avenue, Disney could maybe earn 40-50% of the revenue, with the rest going to the big brand. Additionally, the manufacturing company that Disney used to work with could now turn into a service platform itself, following the same trajectory as the big brand and helping to support emerging designers.

As the retail landscape shifts away from massive brands and moves toward more smaller and medium-sized brands, the companies that can help these brands prosper and have economic upside when they do will prevent their own downfall. The first step to realizing it is unbundling the services these big brands have built and opening them up to younger companies. The multi-billion dollar mono-brand might be dead. But the multi-billion-dollar brand portfolio sure isn’t.