Women's Fashion

Terms of engagement

The luxury industry is engaging with the arts in ever more enterprising ways. Lucia van der Post reports.

February 27 2010
Lucia van der Post

It used to be the world of rock’n’roll, the music and its stars, that was the true touchstone of the times we lived in, reflecting back to us our preoccupations, our passions, our notions of politics, life and living. These days it seems to be art and artists who are the key players. Artists are attracting the fans, the adulation, the attention – and the bank balances – that were once the terrain of rock stars. Everybody wants a piece of the action and art itself has never been more popular. It’s buzzy, it’s sexy. It was when Peter Tullin, one of the co-founders of Culturelabel.com, a website devoted to selling products with either cultural or artistic significance, noticed that more people visited Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project on its last day at London’s Tate Modern than went to Bluewater Shopping Centre that he first got the notion for selling art-inspired products online.

But what is interesting is that many of the big fashion and luxury brands got there long ago. There’s always been a symbiotic relationship between art and fashion. The life-blood of both, after all, is creativity. Both depend upon new visions and challenges to the status quo. Both need continuous renewal, and both – at their best – have a way of encapsulating an age, of capturing a mood, a moment in time.

Most fashion designers spend an inordinate number of hours in museums and galleries, searching for inspiration, and the influences of artists are often strikingly obvious in their work – one has only to think of the connection between Yves Saint Laurent and Mondrian, Balenciaga and Velásquez and, in more recent times, the grunge and urban warrior movement in fashion coinciding with the arrival of graffiti art (a supreme exemplar of which has to be the Stephen Sprouse bag for Louis Vuitton with its graffiti-like scrawls). As long ago as the 1920s Coco Chanel was a personal friend of the great artists of the day – Picasso, Igor Stravinsky and Jacques Lipchitz – and was designing costumes for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes as well as for Jean Cocteau’s plays Antigone and Orphée.

These days, fashion houses great and small want to capture something of the kudos that surrounds the world of art. From Agnès B’s art exhibitions and Diesel’s sponsorship of new designers to Puma’s handbag-cum-art object (the Reality Bag) launched in collaboration with the Serpentine Gallery, they’re all at it. It’s the grand fashion and big luxury goods brands, though, that are the most intimately involved in the world of art – after all, they have the biggest bucks – although the way they engage with art and artists is often strikingly different. Some see their sponsorships and support as entirely philanthropic (Rolex with its mentoring programme, Prada with its art Fondazione, Hermès with its Fondation d’Entreprise Hermès, MaxMara with its Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia), while others see it as a way of promoting, or at least reinforcing, the values of their brand. Yet others get artists involved in the creation of actual products.

Chanel, for instance, recently took its Mobile Art project, which displayed works inspired by Chanel’s iconic 2.1 handbag inside a Zaha Hadid-designed mobile pavilion, to New York and Hong Kong. It often invites artists such as Jean-Paul Goude, Pierrick Sorin and Xavier Veilhan to design exhibition spaces where fine jewellery is displayed, and in Chanel stores across the globe hang works by artists such as Jean-Michel Othoniel and Johan Creten – pieces that, in the words of a spokesman, “view the brand’s codes with a fresh eye and place it in a perfectly contemporary context”.

Versace has also joined the party, working with Tim Roeloffs and Julie Verhoeven to create new and diverting prints. Roeloffs is an edgy young Dutch artist based in Berlin who goes in for intricate collages. He was asked to come up with about 20 different 3-D collage works using images from past Versace campaigns as well his trademark scenes from Berlin. Not only were the vast collages striking artworks in their own right, but the dresses designed by Donatella Versace that were inspired by Roeloff’s work were ravishingly beautiful, different and created a major talking point on the Milan catwalk in 2008. It was a double whammy: the artist got greater exposure for his work, which was brought to the attention of a new audience, and Versace got to create clothing that made a significantly bigger wave than its usual frocks.

Louis Vuitton has probably the most varied relationships with artists, with at least three distinct prongs. First, it has commissioned a €100m Frank Gehry-designed soaring glass building in the Bois de Boulogne, scheduled to be finished in 2011, to house its new Louis Vuitton Fondation pour la Création with Suzanna Pagé as artistic director – it will have a big collection of art as well as specifically commissioned installations. Second, it has a wide variety of art on display in many of its “Maison” stores, partly to demonstrate in the most strikingly visible way Louis Vuitton’s permanent connection with the work of artists and partly because, as CEO Bernard Arnault says, “art is the best means through which to manifest our belief in freedom”.

Most particularly interesting, though, is Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton, on the top floor of Louis Vuitton’s flagship store on the Champs Elysées, where it regularly hosts special exhibitions around the signature themes of fashion, travel, heritage and art. This means that customers can move straight on from buying the handbag, the shoes or the dress to some cultural nourishment. Right now, the 11th exhibition is running until April 18. Entitled Chile – Behind the Scenes, it’s a multidisciplinary show curated by Hervé Mikaeloff.

Most famously of all, Louis Vuitton has had some hugely successful collaborations with artists who have come up with original, funky, hotly desirable objects. One has only to think of Takashi Murakami’s revamping of the LV logo (Marc Jacobs, the company’s creative director, came up with the idea: “I thought I would love it if the mind that imagined this dizzy-making world of jellyfish eyes, singing moss, magic mushrooms and morphing creatures would be willing to have a go at the iconic Louis Vuitton monogram”); Richard Prince’s reworkings of the handbag; and, of course, Stephen Sprouse’s graffiti-strewn bags (he, it seems, felt that “graffiti represented the triumph of the human hand in an age of mega-corporation and mass production.”). And these are merely the tip of a vast iceberg. All these artists brought new life to the company logo by reinterpreting it in joyful and vigorous, if irreverent, ways. And all were triumphantly successful commercially.

Pringle, the Scottish knitwear company which has been revitalised by the designing talent of Clare Waight Keller, has also decided to tap into artists’ capacity for reinvention by collaborating with Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of The Serpentine Gallery, and commissioning a number of contemporary artists (including Turner Prize winner Richard Wright and illustrator David Shrigley) to reinterpret Pringle’s most iconic products – the twin-set and the Argyle pattern, thus creating what Mary-Adair Macaire, Pringle’s CEO, calls “wearable art”.

For her it’s an important new strand in the company’s strategy. “We’re not seeking to start a museum,” she says, and the product is “very much a Scottish luxury product with a basis in practicality. What we’re trying to communicate is that we’re bringing in creativity and I think it’s what the markets are looking for at the moment – value for the investment, a way of dressing that isn’t like everybody else.” Only 195 (to signify the 195th year since its founding) of each design will be available (from £1,000). Half the collection is now on view at The Serpentine Gallery for London Fashion Week, and goes on sale in June; the other half will be shown at September’s Fashion Week.

The British fashion brand Mulberry entered the fray recently in a smaller way, teaming up with Fred, one of east London’s most dynamic contemporary art galleries, to commission five artists to design limited-edition tote bags. With a price tag of £395 and just 100 of each design, the bags sold out swiftly. This year there’s a project with the photographer Venetia Dearden, who is working on a limited-edition book about the Glastonbury Festival (Glastonbury being in Somerset, the home of Mulberry). The book will be sold in a Mulberry-designed fabric bag at the Bond Street store from May, and will also be available online from Venetia Dearden.

Others, meanwhile, are taking a less above-the-parapet route. At Hermès, products and artists’ work are mostly kept separate, though some of the scarves are from time to time designed by artists – there was a line of scarves in 2008 inspired by the paintings of Josef Albers. However, its Fondation d’Entreprise supports a large number of artistic efforts, from music festivals, ballet and opera productions to exhibitions of new work either in galleries or in dedicated spaces in its own stores – most notably in Tokyo, Brussels and Seoul but also in Bern, New York and Singapore.

Rolex has what it calls “partnerships” with many of the world’s leading opera houses – The Royal Opera, La Scala, the Vienna Philharmonic, to name just a few. (It avoids the word “sponsor” which implies merely the handing out of cash; Rolex likes to be involved in a more meaningful way, helping to choose artists and projects.) The director, Arnaud Boetsch, is clear that Rolex’s purpose is partly philanthropic but also partly to underscore the values of the brand, allying the name with artistic endeavour, and exceptional individuals and achievements. “First we allied our brand with a more rugged testing of the product – Sir Edmund Hillary climbing Everest, Jean-Claude Killy speeding down the piste, that sort of thing, but then we looked to add a more feminine, elegant nuance to the brand and so allied ourselves with culture, forming relationships with artists such as Kiri Te Kanawa and Plácido Domingo.”

On the other hand, its wonderful mentoring programme, run by Rebecca Irvin, is mainly philanthropic in aim (though as Irvin herself puts it, “Pure philanthropy is anonymous and we’re not”). It’s been hugely successful, managing to persuade some of the world’s most distinguished artists (the painter David Hockney, theatre director Peter Hall, writer Mario Vargas Llosa, the Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou) to mentor young, up-and-coming but probably unheard-of artists across a wide range of disciplines. Every two years Rolex helps find the mentors and the mentorees; it gives the mentors an honorarium of $50,000, while the protégés get $25,000 during the mentoring year and then another $25,000 to do an artistic project, plus travel and living expenses.

Out of this has come some extraordinary work and relationships. Hockney’s protégé, Matthias Weischer, was a Leipzig painter doing reasonably well but he’d never been out of Europe and painted a lot of dark interiors. Hockney took him to Los Angeles and Yorkshire and introduced him to light, colour and the exterior world, and Weischer blossomed. Vargas Llosa mentored a young Colombian writer, Antonio García, who’d written one offbeat novel and scratched a living writing for a fringe magazine. Vargas Llosa taught him discipline – he asked for a chapter every Friday and rang García every Sunday with a critique of it. García’s second book has now been published.

But what pleases Irvin almost the most is the deep relationships forged between mentors and protégés. “We’d envisaged a top-down transmission of knowledge but it became two-way, with many of the mentors being greatly enriched by their relationship with the protégé.”

The Cartier Fondation, too, has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its founder and current president, Alain Perrin. “At the beginning it was just a nice way to help artists and Cartier but now it is huge. Today the Fondation is a destination place where people come to see some wonderful work.”

The idea came to Perrin because of his personal passion for art. “My parents were collectors and some of my best friends, such as César Baldaccini, were artists and so in 1984 I decided that Cartier should have an art foundation. In essence, we spend about €6m a year commissioning young artists and buying their work. I’m happy to say that many of them have become very successful – designers Marc Newson and Philippe Starck, as well as the painter Matthew Barney, the photographer Herb Ritts and many more were given their first exhibitions by our foundation.

“I believe profoundly that art belongs to the world, that it is ‘the witness of our days’ and that it has a major influence on education, on taste, even on politics. Artists are listened to and I believe they have a major contribution to make to society. Even though the economic climate has been difficult, we are not thinking of altering our commitment at all. Everybody at Cartier is very proud of it and what it has become.”

In was perhaps inevitable that the art-luxury symbiosis would find its place on the internet as well. The luxury-brand conglomerate LVMH will next week launch Nowness, an editorial website that pairs formidable talents from the worlds of film and fashion, art and design, music and literature to create one unique work of art each day of the year: short films and slideshows, interviews and interactive projects.

Some of the creative minds enlisted by Nowness’s international team of editors – whether for solo contributions or collaborations with other artists – include Francesco Vezzoli, the filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, recording artists Nick Cave and Patti Smith, and fashion designers John Galliano, Raf Simons and the sisters behind the fashion label Rodarte.

This close relationship between art and business isn’t without its critics. The French writer Cécile Guilbert, in an essay dedicated to Andy Warhol, cites “the complete absorption of the art market into luxury” and what she calls the proliferation of “business artists”; and notes that Warhol’s prediction that “all department stores would become museums and all museums would become department stores” is well on its way to being realised (witness Culturelabel.com).

For some this complicity between art and fashion is a source of contamination for art, a selling-out, but for others it is a way of bringing some of the magic of the artists’ imaginations into our everyday lives – an ambition, after all, long beloved by the avant-garde. Undoubtedly, it has made a visit to a store such as Louis Vuitton’s flagship Champs Elysées emporium infinitely more refreshing and adventurous than a trip into Primark ever is.

Given that many of these projects cost millions of dollars (the Rolex mentoring programme is rumoured to cost roughly $2.5m a year while, according to Women’s Wear Daily, Fondation d’Entreprise Hermès was launched with an initial budget of €18.5m and Fondation Cartier’s annual budget, as we’ve seen, is some €6m), one has to ask, “Why do they do it?”

Some, such as Cartier’s Alain Perrin, are frank about the business benefits: “I have to be able to prove that it is for the good of the company. In France a law, which I helped draw up at the request of the then Minister of Culture, was passed in 1987 that enabled a company to have tax relief on the money it spends on the arts, provided it could prove that it helped the business.”

Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the son of Jean-Louis Dumas who propelled Hermès from a small Paris-based company into a global byword for supreme luxe, and is the new artistic co-director of Hermès, puts it differently: “The only reason we support art is because the relationship between art and craft is the building block of civilisation. It is the mission of Hermès to keep that tension alive and dynamic.”

But when it comes down to the real appeal of the world of art to the luxury goods industry, it’s hard to improve on Mademoiselle Chanel’s own words on the subject: “I want to be part of what is going to happen,” is how she put it; and that, of course, is the deep purpose of art and what every one of these companies has to do if it is going to not only survive, but prosper.