Stroll through the galleries of the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the British Museum and you’ll find plenty of masterpieces that weren’t created as art for art’s sake. They were custom orders from royalty, the Catholic church or even successful merchants—like the Medici family, who’ve become shorthand for art patronage.
Today, our concept of an artist is usually someone working independently. But with more and more brands keen to benefit from the halo effect of collaborating with artists, fashion houses are becoming major art patrons. The recent Art Basel Miami Beach hosted so many brands it could have passed for an unofficial fashion week. Among them: Bottega Veneta, Loewe, Versace, Miu Miu, Chloé and Gucci. But why so cosy, and why now?
With traditional marketing methods in decline, companies are looking for new ways to cut through the noise and build their image. By working with artists, brands gain a certain intellectual and creative cachet, while artists reap financial and often logistical support, not to mention increasing the value of their work.
It’s also personal. For fashion industry titans such as Bernard Arnault and François Pinault, art collecting is a passion—and a way of leaving a legacy. For designers, the visual appeal of art is clear. A quick look at the inspirations of Gucci’s Alessandro Michele or Dior’s Kim Jones would reveal the symbiotic relationship between fashion and art. In the past, Michele has said: “Art is about connection. No real artist wants to make a piece and close it in a box so that nobody gets to touch it. In the same way, fashion is about connection.”
Here is a primer on the players:
Since it opened in 2014, the Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris has showcased artists including Damien Hirst, Wolfgang Tillmans, Andy Warhol, Gilbert & George and Louise Bourgeois. In April, the museum is hosting a Cindy Sherman retrospective featuring 170 works, some of which have never been exhibited before.
The museum was created by Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive of LVMH Moët Hennessy to support contemporary French and international art, but it also reflects the company’s heritage. Louis Vuitton is no stranger to the art world, having commissioned artists to create windows, perfume bottles and products as far back as the early 20th century. But it was Marc Jacobs, during his time as women’s creative director, who pioneered a new form of artist collaboration for the brand. In 2001 he gave artist Stephen Sprouse free rein over the LV monogram—the first time such a privilege had been granted since its inception in 1896. The graffitied result sold out almost immediately, and an ensuing Takashi Murakami collaboration became one of the most iconic “It” bags in fashion.
Last year the French fashion house held an exhibition in Los Angeles, Louis Vuitton X, about its history of collaborations. It also introduced six new products by artists Sam Falls, Urs Fischer, Nicholas Hlobo, Alex Israel, Tschabalala Self and Jonas Wood.
Before he became a couturier, a young Christian Dior opened an art gallery in Paris with his friend Jacques Bonjean. In fact, it was they who, in 1931, exhibited their friend Salvador Dalí’s painting The Persistence of Memory—featuring his famous melting clocks—in France for the first time.
Fast forward to today and you’ll find art on the runway. Kim Jones, who joined Dior Men as artistic director in 2018, cites the founder as his biggest inspiration. At his first Dior show, he commissioned the artist KAWS to construct a nine metre-tall floral statue symbolising Christian Dior. And in each collection since, Jones has collaborated with an artist: pre-fall 2019 saw a metallic fembot by Hajime Sorayama, fall 2019 featured works by Raymond Pettibon, and summer 2020 was the turn of Daniel Arsham.
“I’m curating what a modern Dior would be looking at,” Jones said last year. “For example, Raymond Pettibon’s romantic vision compared with a Jean Cocteau. Daniel Arsham’s work in terms of Dalí. KAWS in terms of Picasso. You have to look at those things in terms of where we are now.”
On the women’s side, in the fourth edition of the Dior Lady Art project, the brand gave 11 artists carte blanche to reimagine the iconic Lady Dior bag. French artist Marguerite Humeau blended art, science, fashion and technology to create a world first: a 3D-printed Lady Dior bag. Meanwhile, the house continues to support the Guggenheim International Gala each year, which raises funds for the museum’s world-renowned exhibition programme.
“Gucci has the power to make things ubiquitous and transcend them into popular culture,” said the Spanish artist Ignasi Monreal, who collaborated with Gucci on a recent campaign that combined Renaissance art, hyperrealism and, of course, plenty of Gucci clothes. Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele has embraced fine and street artists alike, having discovered many of them online, including @unskilledworker (Helen Downie) and @guccighost (Trevor Andrew).
Last year, the Italian brand launched an Artist In Residence programme at Chatsworth House in the UK. The residency invites artists to live on the estate for a period of time and create new pieces inspired by the historic property. And last December, Gucci brought its latest Art Wall concept to D’Aguilar Street in Hong Kong with an eye-catching mural featuring pop star Harry Styles.
Meanwhile, François Pinault, the founder of the luxury goods conglomerate now known as Kering, which owns the Gucci brand, will open his own mega-museum in Paris this summer. Pinault already has two museums in Venice, the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, but his Paris location at the Bourse, in the former commodities exchange, will display highlights from his 5,000-piece collection, beginning with a collaborative exhibition with the Centre Pompidou that will feature a “world-famous” male artist.
Both devotees of fine art, Miuccia Prada and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, founded Fondazione Prada in Milan during the mid ’90s and opened a permanent facility in 2015. In addition to housing the Prada Collection of notable works from the 20th and 21st centuries, the museum has become one of the city’s leading contemporary art and culture institutions, hosting solo shows by artists including Laurie Anderson, Carsten Höller, Theaster Gates and Dan Flavin.
In an interview with Vanity Fair last year, Prada referred to the foundation as her way of reconciling the demands of being a politically aware person who runs a fashion company. “In my mind, it’s so connected: the fashion, the art, the culture, the politics,” she noted.
Another way the company engages with art is through a travelling pop-up cultural platform, Prada Mode. First launched at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2018, the event provides members with art programming, late-night music performances and dining, with stops last year in Art Basel in Hong Kong, Frieze London and couture season in Paris. And Prada itself has been an inspiration for artists, most famously the sculpture of a Prada store created in 2005 by the artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset in the middle of the Chihuahua desert in Texas. Described by its creators as a “pop architectural land art project”, the sculpture was intended as a take-down of commercialism. It speaks volumes about Prada’s appreciation of art and its purpose that, instead of shutting the fake shop down, she allowed the artists to use the brand’s logo and even donated merchandise to fill the installation.
The Fondation d’Entreprise Hermès uses its considerable resources to support contemporary artists around the world. For instance, the maison launched the Hermès Foundation Missulsang prize for Korean artists in 2000, before many other companies recognised the vibrant contemporary art scene in South Korea.
The initiative of Hermès artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the foundation has exhibition spaces in Europe and Asia overseen by specialist curators. As such, each space is a reflection of the local art scene, as well as a showcase for French and international artists. Often a curator will ask an artist to create a solo show specifically for their gallery—such as sculptor Camille Blatrix’s exhibition in Brussels last autumn.
Hermès also offers artists something that no gallery or museum in the world could: the opportunity to work with its artisans and access its materials. The artist residencies, which have been offered since 2010, have resulted in some extraordinary experiments. For 2019, Hermès welcomed artists Yuhsin U Chang, Guillaume Poulain and Guillaume Dénervaud under the mentorship of Michel Blazy, Isabelle Cornaro and Françoise Pétrovitch.
The French luxury house also collaborates with artists through its Hermès Editeur collections, having invited pioneering artists such as Gloria Petyarre and Ding Yi to design special-edition scarves.
Uniqlo, the Japanese fast-fashion giant, has a long relationship with the art world. Sixteen years ago, the brand launched a series of T-shirts featuring the work of Andy Warhol. In addition to numerous artist collaborations that followed (with the likes of Takashi Murakami and KAWS), the brand also now partners with leading museums.
Since 2016, Uniqlo has funded a series of after-hours events at London’s Tate Modern, providing a free and novel way for the public to discover art. Previous programmes have featured an international premiere by Kahlil Joseph, a major installation by Jenny Holzer, and video art from Solange Knowles and Wolfgang Tillmans.
Uniqlo also partnered with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in 2016 to transform 10 parks across the five boroughs into cultural destinations. Through its Park Expressions Grant, the company awarded New York City-based emerging artists US$10,000 to create site-specific art installations.
“I don’t think there is anything unique about taking inspiration from art,” Karin Gustafsson, creative director at Cos, told The Guardian last year, on the occasion of the opening of its Coal Drops Yard store in London’s King’s Cross. The location, she says, “is like a gallery and shop coming together in one space—closing the circle and showing our inspirations together with our collections.”
Cos, the sophisticated sister brand of H&M, presented its first collaboration with the art world at Frieze London in 2010 and has since supported London’s Serpentine Gallery, the Dia Art Foundation in the US and Milan’s annual design fair, Salone del Mobile.
In 2018, Cos partnered with the Dia Art Foundation to host a Dorothea Rockburne exhibition at Dia:Beacon, and last year sponsored an exhibition of early work by pioneering South Korean artist Lee Ufan.
Commissioning art to mark releases is a signature move of Nike, which calls its art residency programme Nike Running’s A.I.R. (artist in residence). At a Hong Kong exhibition three years ago, Nike joined forces with upand-coming female artists to launch their new workout pants line, Nike Pant Studio. One was the Hong-Kong born visual artist Nicole Chui, who works with photography and hand embroidery.
Last year, a project by Nike that encouraged artists to draw Nike Air Max shoes on their murals in São Paulo was awarded Grand Prix at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Using geolocation, visitors to the art murals could order the exclusive shoes from their phones. While this might seem like a rather literal way of turning art into commerce, the campaign had political undertones, coming at a time when the city’s governor was cracking down on street art, much to the dismay of artists and sneakerheads alike. Following the governor’s conviction for damaging cultural heritage, Nike resurrected six iconic graffiti characters that had been erased—only now, they were wearing the latest Air Max designs.