By
with contributions from Luisa Zargani
 on August 13, 2019
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PARIS — Since luxury titans like Bernard Arnault, François Pinault and Miuccia Prada started opening their own museums, fashion brands have enjoyed close ties with the art world. But what started as a flirtation is blossoming into a serious relationship, as artists develop into brands in their own right.

The recent round of men’s shows in Europe saw a glut of collaborations, ranging from Versace’s runway installation by Andy Dixon to the partnership between Dior’s Kim Jones and Daniel Arsham, which extended from the show set through to the clothing.

In Paris, London and Milan, colorful patterns filled the runways. At Off-White, Virgil Abloh tapped street artist Futura to create graffiti-style prints worn by Gigi Hadid and rapper Sheck Wes. At Iceberg, Pop Art veteran Peter Blake worked with creative director James Long on vibrant patchwork prints.

Director Luca Guadagnino’s botanical patterns — hand-drawn on an iPad while he was making the horror movie “Suspiria” — added whimsy to Fendi’s garden-inspired collection, while Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli showcased the fantasy landscapes of Yes cover artist Roger Dean.

Gigi Hadid on the catwalk

Gigi Hadid on the catwalk.  Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

Meanwhile, at the Pitti men’s wear trade show in Florence, California-based artist Sterling Ruby, who has frequently collaborated with Raf Simons both for the designer’s namesake label and at Calvin Klein, struck out on his own with the launch of his S.R. Studio. La. Ca. ready-to-wear label.

Luxury experts noted that while the relationship between art and fashion stretches back to Elsa Schiaparelli’s collaborations with Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau in the Thirties, the phenomenon has gone into overdrive as brands vie for the attention of increasingly fickle Millennial consumers.

“Fashion today thrives on novelties, special editions, capsules or personalized products because it increasingly needs, in a crowded market, to create storytelling authentically tied to the brand,” said Paola Cillo, associate professor at the department of management and technology at Milan’s Bocconi University.

“At the same time, brands aim at providing consumers with a reason to visit stores and buy a ‘special’ product, especially in the era of rental. It is in this context that the collaboration between artist and fashion house should be viewed,” she added.

Sonja Prokopec, LVMH chaired professor of luxury brand management at the ESSEC business school, noted that art speaks to observers on an emotional level, with scientific studies showing that it can even reduce stress. It makes sense, therefore, to integrate culture into the brand’s storytelling.

“It’s a wonderful way for the brand to keep themselves more current, more in the spotlight in terms of the consumer’s mind,” said Prokopec.

Dior Lady Art bag by Mickalene Thomas.

Dior Lady Art bag by Mickalene Thomas.  Peter Ash Lee

Some brands join forces with blue-chip artists, like Louis Vuitton’s tie-up with Jeff Koons. Others, such as Dior with its Lady Art project, will take a chance on emerging talents that are known only to a niche audience of art world connoisseurs — relying on the status of the brand to sway the bulk of their clients.

“There are many levels of luxury consumers, and they are not all at the same stages, but the idea is that desire is fueled in different ways. For some, it speaks to them when they see these collaborations with artists and it tells them that they are buying a brand that’s breaking the boundaries and is as current as it can be,” said Prokopec.

“For others, it’s not completely comprehended. The main thing is that the status is there,” she added.

For curator and cultural strategist Isolde Brielmaier, the rising tide of art collaborations coincides with a general opening up of the art world.

“There are contemporary artists that have taken the work outside of the rarefied space of the gallery or the museum and moved into the public realm, or done things with brands that are a bit more commercial. Many artists themselves, young and old, emerging and established, have become brands in and of themselves,” she explained.

Brielmaier has contributed to bringing art into public spaces by curating installations for Westfield’s U.S. shopping malls. With fellow curator Bettina Prentice, she also launched Art in Resonance, the Peninsula hotel group’s global contemporary art program, during Art Basel Hong Kong in March.

“People think of art as this very high-brow, rarefied entity or space that’s supposed to uphold notions of taste and aesthetics, and there’s supposed to be this rich art historical lineage through every exhibition or every artist’s practice. But I think now all of that has been exploded. What art is now takes on many forms,” she noted.

Haegue Yang's installation in the atrium of the Galeries Lafayette flagship in Paris

Haegue Yang’s installation in the atrium of the Galeries Lafayette flagship in Paris.  Thibaut VOISIN

French department store Galeries Lafayette has longstanding ties to the art world, tapping artists to create installations in-store and displaying works on loan from museums in its windows. While its Lafayette Anticipations art foundation showcases edgy modern art, its store on Avenue des Champs-Élysées is more of a playground.

Recently, the flagship hosted the launch of a collaboration between Lebanese designer Mira Mikati and Japanese artist Mr., whose cartoonish characters were featured in an in-store display. “It definitely had a halo effect on the brand,” reported Clara Cornet, creative and merchandising director at Galeries Lafayette Champs-Élysées.

She noted a growing cross-pollination not just between fashion and art, but also other areas like food and design — but added that execution is key.

“It’s crucial today to think beyond the product and work on translating the concept into a physical installation or a digital platform,” she said. “Storytelling is a key factor for success, in terms of explaining how the collaboration came about, and the most organic are often the most successful.”

Gallerist Jeffrey Deitch is among those who have surfed the wave of democratization with his “Art for All” partnership with Uniqlo, launched in 2017, featuring artists’ products at accessible prices.

“T-shirts and other inexpensive clothing can be one of the most effective and accessible art mediums. Keith Haring’s Pop Shop was the model and the inspiration for many artists who extend their artistic vision into clothing and related products,” he said.

Jeffrey Deitch  Madison McGaw/BFA.com

Deitch also worked with Vuitton on a 2009 tribute to Stephen Sprouse, who kickstarted the art collaboration craze in the luxury sphere when he joined forces with Marc Jacobs in 2001 to revamp Vuitton’s famed monogram canvas.

“These collaborations give artists the opportunity to expand their audiences. When done well, these brand collaborations are artworks themselves, not just branding collaborations,” said Deitch.

“The most important element is that the collaboration results in a work of great quality and artistic interest. Just printing a pre-existing image from an artist on an existing fashion item does not result in an interesting object,” he continued.

For example, Vuitton’s high-profile collaboration with Koons in 2017 has been hotly debated, with some critics contending that its central premise — reprinting the work of Old Masters on classic Vuitton handbags — lacked the necessary creative flair.

Tellingly, the house has since switched strategies, spreading the risk by tapping not one, but six artists for its recent Artycapucines project, launched in tandem with “Louis Vuitton X,” an exhibition in Los Angeles celebrating its most memorable collaborations.

Michael Burke, chairman and chief executive officer of Louis Vuitton, suggested smaller, targeted collaborations were the next big trend.

“It’s ‘What can we do that keeps pushing the envelope of our creativity?’ That means engaging with other creative types, but you don’t need to make it a worldwide event. I think the associations have to be more bespoke,” he explained. “It has to be made to order, instead of general in-your-face hoopla.”

Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons  Stéphane Feugère

Burke insisted that making money was not the central objective.

“This is not a commercial activity. We do collaborations because we like the association of the designers and the artists. We do it because it creates unexpected objects. We do it on our side because it gives a great impulse to our studios — it typically forces them to work with materials that they’re not aware of,” Burke noted.

“For the artists, it’s the same thing. They are confronted with a set of constraints that they typically don’t have to deal with,” he added. “Both sides being forced to reevaluate the creative process: that’s interesting. That’s why we do it.”

Luxury consultant Valérie Radenac cautioned that the foundation for any rapprochement must be solid. “Even if the aim is to broaden your customer base, the positioning has to be coherent,” she said. “You could find yourself gaining a new set of customers, but losing your old ones, so it’s no trivial matter.”

Serge Carreira, lecturer in fashion and luxury at Sciences Po, agreed that authentic connections are key. “These collaborations have to make sense. The public will shrug them off if they fail to perceive a dialogue between house and artist,” he said. “If it’s a purely commercial endeavor, it shows, and the customer picks up on it, too.”

Indeed, some artists are not afraid to stack up collaborations, at the risk of putting off not just consumers, but also their more conservative art-world patrons. “Gallerists and artists are very agnostic. They’re like celebrities — it’s not unusual to see them switching from one house to another,” Carreira noted.

Urs Fischer, Tschabalala Self and Alex Israel at the opening of Louis Vuitton X cocktail party in Los Angeles

Urs Fischer, Tschabalala Self and Alex Israel  Michael Buckner/WWD/Shutterstock

Alex Israel is one of these creative polymaths. After unveiling a suitcase with Rimowa in February, the Los Angeles-based artist presented three Vuitton collaborations in rapid succession: the packaging for its new range of colognes; his design for the Artycapucines project, and a collection of scarves.

Arsham, meanwhile, capitalized on his strong relationships with the fashion world — including collaborations with brands like Adidas — to merge his aesthetic with that of Dior men’s wear designer Kim Jones.

He noted that the concept of artist-as-brand is not new. “This has been true for a long time, mostly for dead artists, so you could say that Van Gogh is a brand — there are T-shirts and all kinds of things around that universe. So I feel like you may as well engage with that audience while we’re alive,” Arsham said.

“The work should not just be for museums or collectors who are in that universe, but kind of for everyone,” he argued. Luxury experts said that by bringing his signature erosion technique to items as varied as Dior baseball caps, knits and jewelry, Arsham brought added value to the brand.

“This new innovative approach to product design, using techniques borrowed from other disciplines, is the kind of narrative that speaks to Millennials, and they are driving the trend across all demographics today,” said Prokopec.

“They really look for value for money, so if they believe the products are created in a very innovative way, by a person they value and appreciate, for them that is value for money. Brands that don’t change, and merely stick to selling the same product they’ve always done, run the risk of losing their customers eventually,” she added.

Sterling Ruby Men's Spring 2020

A look from Sterling Ruby Men’s spring 2020 collection.  Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

An artist like Ruby arguably faces a tougher task in creating a new luxury label from scratch. On S.R. Studio. La. Ca.’s web site, a hand-bleached Soto sweatshirt will set you back $895, while a kimono goes for $1,950 — though as one buyer noted at the Pitti show, that’s still a fraction of the $150,000 price tag for his paintings.

“I think it’s very difficult to establish at the very high end because there’s too much competition…it’s not something that is sustainable over time,” Prokopec said. “Today for a brand to succeed, it really has to have a commercial element to it, and today, a commercial element is in the mid-range. This is what consumers want.”

As brands and artists test new approaches, the rules of engagement remain open for debate.

“I don’t necessarily know that there’s a right or wrong, but it’s important to just remain true to your vision and maintain your integrity,” said Brielmaier. “…In that conversation between artists and brands, artists carry a lot of weight and can maintain quite a bit of agency.”

She said this was especially important given the latest development in art collaborations: brands reaching out to cultural figureheads in a bid to burnish their credentials on issues such as diversity — sometimes in the wake of social media scandals.

Prada, for instance, tapped artist and activist Theaster Gates and award-winning writer, director and producer Ava DuVernay to co-chair the Prada Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council after facing online accusations that animal-like figurines and charms in its stores and windows evoked blackface.

“When I was growing up, art was very specific and the messaging around it was that it was oriented for specific audiences, so I love this opening up of work. But you want to really think through things before you agree to jump on board and collaborate, because there are things that feel like they’re trending,” Brielmaier observed, without singling out a brand in particular.

“We can write it off, or we can step back and observe and ask some pointed questions,” she continued. “[Brands are] realizing that to play in this space, they’ve got to do it in a substantive way. Fluff doesn’t really fly right now.”

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