When art collector Susan Hancock realised there wasn’t a single desirable toy left unpurchased for the nieces on whom she dotes, she began buying them work by artists she thought they’d appreciate – contemporary pop art by the likes of Takashi Murakami and KAWS. At the same time she was throwing art parties at her New York apartment to share her excitement in the Japanese-anime-influenced work she collected. “I realised I was preaching to the converted in New York,” she says. “Then, after a divorce, and a move to LA, I thought about what I wanted to do with my life and opened Royal/T last year.” She chose the district of Culver City “because there are so many galleries – it’s like Chelsea in New York”.
Royal/T – part gallery, part café, part concept store – is a modernist shrine to the cult of Tokyo’s Harajuku Girls, who dress and promenade as gothic Lolitas crossed with the global contemporary torchbearers of pop art. Waitresses dressed as French maids serve tea to visitors flanked by $85,000 KAWS fibreglass scuptures. It’s all great fun.
At the rear of the shop is artist Nick Rodrigues’ Porta-Party, a Tardis-like booth with a mirrorball and an ongoing disco inside. “We’ve had Bar Mitzvahs here and there have been 12 kids crammed inside cranking up the music,” says Hancock. “I just want to share my art with people. I saw how the work excited my nieces and now I want people to come here, have tea, enjoy the art and go to our shop to buy something. Everything in the shop is art in itself, it’s just at a difference price point.” Thus Royal/T is a descendant of Warhol’s philosophy of art as a machine-made commodity. Not everyone will invest in one of the $5,000 Murakami prints, but a $1,000 skateboard or a $103 cuddly Murakami skull with flower eyes is less of a commitment.
Many of the pieces are exclusive to the store: when Hancock bought a tiger sculpture made from orange and black cord by Okamoto Mitsuhiro, for example, she negotiated with him to make a limited edition run of scaled-down versions ($2,000 each). There are Louis Vuitton handbags customised by Richard Prince and Murakami/Louis Vuitton painted panels that have been selling for $22,000 at auction in Europe (both price on request). At the other end of the scale are self-standing black crepe flowers ($15-$30), and cute ribbon-tie pillbox hats in the shape of cupcakes ($25) and croissants ($36) by local artist Crayon Fawn. “We saw her dancing in a club in one of her cupcake hats and had to get her to make some for us,” says Hancock.
A wide variety of dolls, from Dunny dolls, customised by Ernte ($550 each) to doe-eyed Blythe and Jun Planning dolls ($75-$1,000), are also popular. Some customers even bring theirs to the shop’s regular tea parties. And for the Royal/T customer who really wants to play at dress up, the frilly over-the-knee socks sported by the café staff are stacked up for sale by the cash register ($18.50).