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Opinion | When the artist met the designer

  • Artists and brands have tied up for decades, but the difference today is the mass production of luxury products
  • While Vuitton and Gucci are billion-dollar brands, even relatively smaller brands are going for art

Yayoi Kusama in a campaign shot from her 2012 collaboration with Louis Vuitton. Photo: Louis Vuitton
Yayoi Kusama in a campaign shot from her 2012 collaboration with Louis Vuitton. Photo: Louis Vuitton

I am a big fan of Yayoi Kusama, the Japanese artist whose works are like a psychedelic sea of dots. Truth be told, I have always dreamt of buying one of her artworks. At an art fair, I mustered up the courage to ask the price of one of her paintings—it was steep, close to a million dollars. Clearly, my dream will have to remain a dream. And then, last month, at a vintage store in New York, I saw two bags, one red, one white, covered with her signature dots. They were from Louis Vuitton’s 2012 collaboration with Kusama, the pieces still in excellent condition, and I stopped and wondered: Should I? The price was $4,000 (around 2.8 lakh), not exactly cheap, but small when compared to a million.

Artists and brands have been collaborating for decades, but what is different today is the mass production of luxury products, and how that has the power to put an artist’s work in the hands of millions. When Salvador Dali collaborated with Elsa Schiaparelli in 1937 on the famous Lobster Dress—it is a diaphanousorganza evening dress with a massive orange-red lobster running down the length of the skirt—the production run was probably less than a hundred, if that. It may have even been just one, for the Lobster Dress was bought by Wallis Simpson as part of her trousseau shortly before her wedding to the Duke of Windsor. When Yves Saint Laurent made the equally famous Mondrian dress in 1965, my estimate is that the production run was a thousand at best, for luxury houses were relatively small businesses in those days. Fast forward to 2012’s Yayoi Kusama-Louis Vuitton collaboration: the number of pieces made would be in the hundreds of thousands, for there were not only bags, but dresses, scarves, coats, the works.

Art, in this fashion, is suddenly being mass manufactured, and luxury brands have become a distribution channel, unwitting as it might be. The artists that we could only see in a museum, a gallery or an art fair are suddenly available for purchase at hundreds of stores dotting the globe, for you to hold, to sling on your shoulder, even to wear. Agreed, it is not the original—not like a unique painting, there is just one Mona Lisa, right?—but it still comes from the same artist’s imagination, a sort of “mass-original" with mass-appealing prices to match. Artists with million-dollar price tags, accessible so far to a wealthy few, are now within the reach of millions of consumers. What we are witnessing is the democratization of Big Art, piggybacking on luxury brands.

If there is a big bang moment when this democratization took off, it would have to be the 2003 Louis Vuitton collaboration with Takashi Murakami, the Japanese artist who makes brightly coloured, cutesy cartoon images. And yes, he is big, his most expensive artwork has sold for over $15 million. This collaboration was a blockbuster, its success so massive that Murakami became an ongoing collaborator, turning out, over his decade-long association, icons like the multicoloured monogram, cherries, cherry blossoms, little panda-like characters and “Monogramouflage", a camouflage pattern running over the classic Vuitton monogram. The sales generated were in hundreds of millions of dollars. Even today, well after the collaboration has ended, his pieces hold value—for example, on the resale market, the aforementioned Monogramouflage baggage has seen its price go up by 20% in the last two years. It is even behaving like art!

No luxury brand has quite the clout of Louis Vuitton—its 2018 sales are estimated at $12.9 billion by Forbes and its retail chain of 400-plus stores is spread over 50 countries—and so its artist collaborations have gigantic reach. And it has done quite a few—besides Murakami and Kusama, it has teamed up with the likes of Stephen Sprouse (think graffiti logos) and, most recently, with Jeff Koons. The Jeff Koons rendition sort of gives you two-artists-for-the-price-of-one, referencing some of the most famous paintings of all time; for example, the Mona Lisa image reproduced on the bag with “DA VINCI" emblazoned across it, while one of Koons’ signature inflatable bunny lookalikes dangles at the end of a leather loop.

While Vuitton may be in the vanguard of this democratizing art movement, other brands haven’t exactly been slacking off; it’s just that their impact isn’t quite as splashy. The lobster dress has been reimagined in recent times and sent down the Schiaparelli couture runway. Damien Hirst did a collection of scarves for Alexander McQueen, using shared symbols of skulls and butterflies. Calvin Klein has worked with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and its latest collection has an array of Warhol’s iconic images adorning T-shirts, pants, hoodies, even shoes.

Lesser-known artists are finding traction too. Gucci’s artistic director Alessandro Michele—who has near-God status at the moment—seems to be shunning big names and collaborating instead with ones that connect with the Instagram generation. For example, the 26-year-old Spanish artist Coco Capitán, with whom he created T-shirts and hoodies with messages like “What are we going to do with all this future?" Or ex-Olympic skateboarder Trouble Andrew, who also goes by GucciGhost, has co-designed scarves, bracelets, pendants, even watches with Michele. Brand Gucci, in the meantime, has had an amazing spurt in sales ever since Michele took over, growing at a breakneck 30% yearly since 2016.

While Vuitton and Gucci are billion-dollar brands, even relatively smaller brands are going for art. Take the Swiss brand Akris—it has been making a habit of doing artist-inspired clothes almost every season, working with an eclectic bunch like Cuban painter Carmen Herrera (she is 103), German photographer Thomas Ruff and Romanian multimedia artist Geta Brătescu, among others. Art has become the brand’s central strategy, and it has cultivated a loyal following of customers that waits to see “Who is it going to be this time?"

Who would have thought luxury brands would become a canvas for art? It’s a movement that will only intensify in the future, for everyone wins. Radha Chadha is a marketing and consumer insight expert. She is the author of The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

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