Luxury fashion finds a friend

Brands collaborate with artists to strengthen their images

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Collaborations have become such a widespread fashion marketing tactic in the last 20 years that some in style circles have dubbed the practice “the C word.”

Luxury fashion labels have long sought to enhance their prestige with exclusive in-store experiences. Giorgio Armani’s Ginza day spa, Bulgari’s jewelry-boxlike chocolate store in Omotesando and Chanel’s collaboration with restaurateur Alain Ducasse at its Ginza flagship are just a few recent examples in Tokyo.

Top brands have teamed up with manufacturers on everything from cars to mobile phones and architecture. The $2.6-million Bugatti Veyron FBG sports car by Hermes is one prominent example, while Prada worked with LG Electronics on a mobile phone, and New York’s Plaza Hotel is getting into bed with Fendi Casa on the 24-story luxury Carlyle Residences in Los Angeles.

But art collaborations in particular have been a successful way for luxury labels to attract customers while maintaining an aura of exclusivity, says Tokyo-based Nicole Fall, from trend consultancy Five by Fifty.

“Fashion, especially in the higher-end luxury category such as haute couture, is about making one-off, unique items of clothing and accessories that have a real message — no different to what most artists try to achieve with their work,” Fall says. Luxury fashion saw tremendous growth during the 1990s, a decade of global expansion for many labels. But with the market heading toward saturation point, Fall says brands are seeking new ways to appeal to — and entertain — consumers.

“By using art to convey a brand’s story, art elevates what has essentially become another message lost in the increasingly foggy haze of designer labels, which are no longer exclusive or that luxury for that matter — except in terms of their price points,” Fall explains.

The Chanel Mobile Art exhibition (see sidebar) is the latest high-profile example, and it will touch down in Tokyo during the 30th anniversary of the French fashion house’s arrival in Japan. The director of Chanel’s fashion unit, Bruno Pavlovsky, says the traveling show is not simply a beautifully wrapped sales pitch, but a way to nourish Chanel’s image as an icon of luxury. But are these aims really so different?

“We have been asked if we are doing this because bag sales are down; actually, sales of bags have never been better,” Pavlovsky says. “It is about the image of the brand in the minds of our customers and of the journalists — that the luxury of Chanel stands apart from any other brand.”

Japan has long been fashion’s testing ground. The demand for the latest item is relentless, and collaborations have been a necessity for local brands seeking to stand out. In the late 1980s, Japanese fashion house Comme des Garcons worked with British artists Gilbert & George in the label’s famed magazine Six, while in 1993 U.S. photographer Cindy Sherman created visuals for the brand. In 1995, U.S. graffiti artist Futura 2000 created artwork for a T-shirt for streetwear label A Bathing Ape.

French luxury-luggage label Louis Vuitton’s first commercial collaboration, in 2001, was a meeting of high and low culture with U.S. underground designer Stephen Sprouse. But its most successful venture has been with Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami, first in 2003 and again in 2005.

The artist’s recent “©MURAKAMI” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles is perhaps the most frank exploration of the motivations behind many fashion/art stitch-ups.

The show includes a temporary Louis Vuitton boutique where museum-goers could purchase LV-monogrammed Murakami canvases, underlining the convergence of art and commerce in his work. It’s a twist on the common hierarchy, where artists usually add their touch to a company’s product, as it is often the artists who are seeking to increase their profile through such projects. The exhibition, which has moved to the Brooklyn Museum, will add new limited-edition goods on June 1.

Brooke Hodge, Curator of Architecture and Design at MOCA, says artists and labels must truly work together for such partnerships to succeed.

“Since Murakami’s work has a relationship to design, I think his handbag designs worked really well,” Hodge explains. “When it’s a true collaboration, I think it is great and benefits both. However, when it is more about achieving prestige by associating with an artist, then I think it is less successful.”

It’s not only high-end brands that are getting in on the act. In April, sportswear giant Nike announced a competition for a design to feature on a pair of Nike Dunk sneakers and be exhibited at the brand’s 1/1 Art of Football show in Basel, Switzerland in June 2008, coinciding with the art fair Art Basel.

Meanwhile, inexpensive Japanese clothing chain Uniqlo’s UT T-shirt brand has a constantly rotating lineup of artist-designed pieces, and Japanese cosmetic brand shu uemura started collaborations in 2004 with artists such as Ai Yamaguchi and John Tremblay.

Shu uemura Global General Manager Stephan Bezy insists it is a mutually beneficial relationship. He says artists benefit by gaining an increased profile, while his team is creatively stimulated.

“We see art collaboration as a shared opportunity for the artists and shu uemura,” he says. “It is an opportunity to show around the world the work of artists that we admire, and it is a natural process, as it is part of our DNA — the art of beauty.”

But with Murakami’s cheeky exhibition shop playfully exposing the bottom line of such projects, it remains to be seen how much longer fashionistas can remain tight-lipped about “the C word.”