Performing Arts

Making a song & dance

Luxury brands are reinforcing their commitment to traditional crafts by sponsoring costumes and sets for opera and ballet. Avril Groom reports.

March 12 2011
Avril Groom

High above the auditorium of the Opéra Garnier in Paris is a stunning reminder of the long-established links between art, craft and patronage. In 1964, Marc Chagall painted the vast ceiling with a contemporary evocation of music that stands in contrast to the rest of the ornate, neo-baroque interior. Chagall created this work as a gift to the world-renowned opera house, but, as more than 2,000 people see it each performance, it did his profile no harm.

Now Chagall’s ceiling is playing a role in the modern equivalent of performing-arts patronage, which involves luxury companies rather than individual benefactors. Vacheron Constantin has made, for display, a watch that reproduces all the detail of the ceiling on a 40mm dial – a painstaking creation which took five months of work, seven days a week, to complete. This is a physical manifestation of a (so far) four-year collaboration with the Paris Opéra, where the watch house provides funds for opera and ballet productions. The performances are notoriously expensive to mount, involving hundreds of costumes and complex, handmade sets. Fortunately, these costumes and sets rely on long-established crafts that appeal to luxury brands seeking to emphasise their credibility in traditional arenas.

Other firms have also concluded that backing the performing arts is a form of social responsibility. Tod’s Group has committed itself to a year of productions at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala under the banner of “Made In Italy”. President and CEO of Tod’s Group Diego Della Valle set up this movement to promote the best of Italian handcraft – illustrated, he feels, both in a lavish Teatro production and his company’s pebble-soled shoes and celebrity-favoured handbags. One imaginative result is atmospheric conceptual art video An Italian Dream. Shot in the opera house, it depicts a short ballet, choreographed by lead dancer Gianluca Schiavoni, that evokes the physical craft of constructing Tod’s leather products. It sounds unlikely, but actually works – and even appears on an iPad app.

The contribution from Tod’s Group, which had revenues of more than €700m in 2009, is understood to be the largest single luxury-company donation to Teatro alla Scala, around €2m, but Della Valle has even bigger ideas. He has now agreed to fund the restoration of the Colosseum in Rome – a project for which the Italian government had been keenly seeking sponsorship – to the tune of €25m. Given the building’s history of staging drama and battle re-enactments, as well as gladiatorial contests, there is a link to performance art here too.

Also in Italy, Miuccia Prada collaborated with the costume department of the New York Metropolitan Opera to create attire for Verdi’s Attila, which premiered last February. However, this was not part of her more visual-arts-orientated Prada Fondazione, but a reflection of the intense interest in artisan crafts that currently leads her to acknowledge Indian makers of woven leather shoes and hand-embroidered summer dresses, denim made in Japan and alpaca knits from Peru in her “Made In...” project.

German watchmaker A Lange & Söhne also takes a keen interest in opera, sponsoring performances at a festival in Salzburg, Austria. It does so for very specific reasons, as PR director Christian Engelbrecht explains: “We sponsor the small Whitsun Festival, a project of Riccardo Muti’s featuring lesser-known Italian operas, which is exactly how we view our history – reviving a forgotten masterpiece.” The firm also sponsors museums belonging to Dresden State Art Collection.

The obvious conclusion is that luxury companies see this as a way to both burnish their social responsibility credentials and offer valued clients hospitality in a sophisticated cultural environment. This is undoubtedly the case, but the whole truth is more subtle. In an area experiencing intense competition from global mass production, it is essential to promote and support traditional crafts. Their use is luxury brands’ very point of difference, something they feel the need to emphasise especially to their growing clientele in emerging markets – hence Tod’s Teatro alla Scala video, with its specially created pas de deux, which has already been shown in Tokyo and Beijing.

For Della Valle, arts sponsorship per se is nothing new. “We have an ongoing relationship with the Whitechapel Gallery in London and have supported other galleries,” he says. But an informal chat last year with Teatro alla Scala’s artistic director Stephane Lissner gave him a different perspective. “We talked about doing something together that would underline the importance of ‘Made In Italy’ and our common aim to preserve the unique heritage of Italian craftsmanship.” An Italian Dream is the first time the Teatro has collaborated with a luxury goods company, so it was widely noticed. Della Valle says they felt that “if two iconic institutions joined together to promote this unique tradition, then the message would have more impact. I strongly believe that we need to support and protect our country’s treasures, and this applies also to my offer to restore the Colosseum. I see it as a duty and an honour to contribute to supporting Italy’s image, credibility and cultural heritage – something I do with my heart for a city I love and a monument that still takes my breath away, not for any commercial gain.”

Equally, he says that hosting parties and getting seats for clients at prestigious venues is not his focus: “It is about long-term commitments with people who have similar values to ours, and I am interested in prolonging the Teatro alla Scala arrangement for perhaps another two years.” However, the credibility that comes from such top-level performers creating special projects for Tod’s cannot be overestimated, as Della Valle appreciates. “We benefit from being able to collaborate with their creative forces on live performances, and in their support and presence at our premieres worldwide,” he says.

In March, Tod’s is bringing a performance of the video and live ballet to the Whitechapel Gallery. This will undoubtedly raise the brand’s profile in London, but sometimes a more direct approach is needed. As one of the largest sponsors of the Opéra Garnier’s fundraising charity, l’Association pour le Rayonnement de l’Opéra (AROP), Vacheron Constantin was entitled to some presence at the grand gala celebrating the Association’s 30th anniversary last November. The one-off watch was in pride of place by the great staircase, and there were seats for top clients among the diamond-and-evening-gown-clad great and good of Paris at the concert and dinner. There will also be a commercial spin-off: a series of 14 unique, enamelled, gold watches, each dedicated to one of the composers symbolised on Chagall’s ceiling, which will be released over the next two years (from April 14; £76,500). Brand equity and heritage director Julien Marchenoir says, “Making the original was crazy for the engravers and enameller. There were two months of intense study and experimentation and then the making time, so we are keeping it as a special piece.”

Other aims also lie behind Vacheron Constantin and AROP’s collaboration. Like Tod’s and Teatro alla Scala, the sponsorship came about through a meeting “between our CEO Juan Carlos Torres and Gérard Mortier, former head of the Opéra, because we wanted to find ways to contribute that would sponsor craft and also provide a way to entertain clients”, says Marchenoir. “The workshops at the Opéra represent 60 different crafts, much like our company heritage, which goes back to 1755. For AROP’s 30th anniversary we wanted to challenge our craftsmen rather than just fund, and future plans include meetings of our artisans with the Opéra’s.”

It is a similar story at Lange: “We are able to invite clients and display watches at the Whitsun Festival and this summer we will launch a new model there,” says Engelbrecht, “but we can show our craft practically too. For the reopening next year of the maths and physics museum in Dresden, we are restoring clocks and making models that visitors will be able to touch.”

In London, Louis Vuitton has set up a Young Arts Project to focus on the next generation of craftspeople. Its five-day Summer Academy offers deprived youngsters a look at behind-the-scenes craft experience, from artwork handling at the Tate to costume-making at the National Theatre. According to Vuitton CEO Yves Carcelle, the project “seeks to instil and nurture in young people an exploration of and passion for arts and craft which they can take into adult life and perhaps follow as a career”.

Della Valle, meanwhile, hopes that the success of his company’s example will persuade “other craft firms to follow in support of the arts and craft heritage that makes Italy so special”. With such muscular luxury names on board, the future of high-level artisan crafts and their employees looks increasingly rosy. Rather more sotto voce, the possibilities of pleasant cultural jollies for clients look pretty good too.