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Fashion’s Art Fair Love Affair

Today, to coincide with the start of Art Basel Miami Beach, Hettie Judah considers the increasingly intertwined markets for fashion and art. Tomorrow, we examine the anatomy of fashion’s most spectacular artist collaboration to date: Yayoi Kusama for Louis Vuitton.
Dior Homme campaign S/S 2014 | Photo: Karim Sadli
  • Hettie Judah

MIAMI, United States — Heroically poised against the bleached-out blue of a winter sky, feet planted on a bone-white beachfront, surrounded by torqued metal frames and canvases scraped with abstract smears of paint, Dior Homme's latest campaign depicts Miami man, perfected. Not the bronzed, beefcake Miami man of old, but a new version: the languid aesthete, picking his slim-hipped way around the art circuit to emerge blinking in the sun of its winter highlight.

This week is the eleventh edition of the Art Basel Miami Beach fair. This time last year, Dior Homme's creative director Kris Van Assche was sweltering his way through events and exhibits at the fair and beyond, questioning the logic of a black tie dress code in 24-degree Celsius heat. His response was spring and summer collections for Dior of cut-about tuxedos — sleeveless jackets, formal shorts — and shirts and ties printed with rough brushstrokes.

Van Assche’s Miami-inspired collections are a neat snapshot of the evolving relationship between the world of art and the world of fashion. The fact that — as a matter of course — a Paris-based menswear designer now attends a Florida fair ostensibly aimed at upper-bracket art collectors from the Americas is itself a testament to a decade-long love affair between the top ends of two globalised industries. The fact that Van Assche has designed collections inspired not by an artist, or by a work, but by the fair itself, is an illustration of quite how self-involved this affair has become.

While fairs for contemporary art have existed since the late 1960s, the debut of the Miami fair in 2002, and the first London edition of Frieze the following year, marked the start of a significant crossover: the art fair not just as a site for art, but as a site for fashion. A decade on, so entrenched are the fairs' reputation for high style that Frieze is jokingly referred to as the "fifth fashion week" and The New York Times runs grumbling Miami previews about art being upstaged by fashion parties.

Amanda Sharp, co-founder and now co-director of Frieze, remembers her “biggest shock” in 2003 being how the fair “captured the imagination of the creative industry in London and across the world. Right from the start you’d see the most interesting architects, fashion designers and chefs there; it made it very exciting. You’d see most of the leading fashion designers from around the world walking around the fair. At the time I didn’t question it — in retrospect I realise that fashion was having a pretty exciting moment back then.”

This year, for the first time, a fashion house became one of the fair's sponsors. Sharp recalls Alexander McQueen visiting in 2003, and returning eagerly for subsequent editions; "for years you'd see him lined up at the front of the queue on the first day." The relationship between the fair and the fashion house continued after the designer's death in 2010. After the Metropolitan Museum's Savage Beauty exhibition in 2011 the house of McQueen began to think about partnering with an organisation in the art world and started a conversation with Frieze. Sharp describes McQueen's sponsorship as a first step in an ongoing relationship; Frieze has art world credibility and contacts, but is interested in opening the field up to a broader audience than pure art world insiders. "There are different communities that overlap between the two parties," concludes Sharp. "There are a lot of people who are potential clients of McQueen among our collectors. When we co-host a dinner it's nice to bring these people together."

A stand at a top art fair such as Frieze represents a major investment for a gallery; space at the New York edition of the fair costs $775 per square metre (£362, or about $600, per square metre at the London edition) and the largest galleries take as much as 120 square metres apiece. One can’t imagine Frieze proceeding with such a deal if they thought for a second that association with a fashion house might dampen their commercial allure to exhibitors.

For the luxury goods houses, the fairs and other major artworld events mark an evident crossover of interest. The market for contemporary art has remained remarkably (some would say obscenely) buoyant — the recent $58.4 million auction sale of Jeff Koons's Balloon Dog (Orange) bust a record for work created by a living artist set by a Gerhard Richter canvas ($37.1 million for Domplatz, Mailand) at Sotheby's in May of this year, which in turn broke a record of $33.4 million for another work by the same artist, Abstraktes Bild (809-4), in October of 2012. This is not just really big money; it's surreally big money.

It doesn’t take a great leap to imagine that an aesthetically literate consumer prepared to spend a seven-figure sum on a contemporary artwork might also spend a five-figure sum on a luxury handbag, or a six-figure sum on couture. Indeed the language of luxury goods over the last decade has increasingly come to resemble the language of the art gallery — terms such as limited edition, investment piece, codes, signatures and provenance are now entrenched fashion terminology. People now "curate" shops. They even — as in the case of the Louis Vuitton stores in London and Paris — curate bookshelves within shops.

Amanda Sharp's "exciting moment" ten years ago also marked an increasing openness among designers about taking inspiration from the artworld, and it has only grown more explicit. Back in January 2012, Dries Van Noten gave a firm contemporary jolt to his own reputation with a presentation that drew on the work of Gijs Frieling and Job Wouters, shown as the artists themselves painted a mural alongside the catwalk. That same season, Raf Simons created couture dresses at Dior inspired by the spray-painted works of Sterling Ruby. Prada presented their Spring/Summer 2014 collection against vast murals by six invited artists, and the Chanel show took place on a set that resembled an art gallery.

While Miami conservatives may grumble at the Louboutins treading across the territory of serious collectors, they would do well to recall that the fashion world doesn’t just come to the fair loaded down with champagne glasses and Fendi Bag Bugs. It also brings cash, clout and a surprising sense of civic responsibility.

“In Italy in particular, certain fashion foundations have basically had to take on the role of public institutions and museums,” explains Massimiliano Gioni, curator of this year’s Venice Biennale, and director of both the New Museum in New York and the Trussardi Foundation in Milan. According to Gioni, such foundations started stepping up in the 1990s to compensate for a lack of public art institutions. “The Trussadi foundation started in 1996. The Prada Foundation I think started [in 1995]. So for more than a decade a lot of the most ambitious public exhibitions of contemporary art in Milan have been organised and produced by fashion brands.”

Beyond Milan, François Pinault of Kering (who also owns the auction house Christie's) funnels his redoubtable art collection into the Pinault Foundation, the public faces of which are the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana in Venice. In 2006 Bernard Arnault of LVMH established the Louis Vuitton Foundation, which will be fronted by a new Frank Gehry-designed space in Paris in 2014.

Gioni's tenure at the Trussardi Foundation since 2003 has been radical and inventive  - the Foundation has become a nomadic institution that creates exhibition in unused, closed-off sections of the city and has not shied away from controversy. Maurizio Cattelan's Untitled (2004) showed three lifelike sculptures of children hanging from a tree in a prominent city square; Paul McCarthy's Pig Island, shown in 2010, included (among many grotesque diversions) the mutilated figure of George W. Bush engaged in sexual congress with a pig.

Gioni sees a symbiosis between the two fields that has grown and developed over the course of two decades. “The 1990s were the first decade in which the dialogue between fashion and art became richer and more stimulating for both sides of the conversation,” he explains. “Many artists who grew up in the 1990s — including Wolfgang Tillmans, Maurizio Cattelan and Vanessa Beecroft — learnt new ways to communicate and a new speed of communication from the fashion industry. Maurizio Cattelan’s generation looked at the fashion-art dialogue to learn a new way to seduce and manipulate audiences. On the one hand you have art discovering fashion and on the other hand, fashion being more and more curious about art.”

In 2002 and 2003, the visitor figures for the opening editions of both Art Basel Miami Beach and Frieze London were around the (then astonishing) 30,000 mark. The most recent editions of both fairs pulled in attendance figures of roughly 70,000. Over the same period, Gioni estimates that the audience for Trussardi foundation exhibitions has increased tenfold, from the thousands to the tens of thousands.

While the support of the foundations initiates a virtuous cycle, helping to expand the audience for contemporary art and making the houses hipper by association, beyond big-name collaborations, Gioni does not read commercial motivation into their activities. “Obviously fashion is interested in art because it sees a vehicle to reach a whole sector of intellectuals and figures that are maybe ideal consumers of fashion, but I think the driving force is a genuine commitment to art and a genuine commitment to unusual languages which define contemporary culture.”

But, of course, there is little that epitomises the entwined love-in between fashion and contemporary art better than the on-going string of major product collaborations. Artist-designed products that twenty years ago would have seemed bizarre, and ten years ago looked brave, are now big business.

Tomorrow, we examine the history of fashion collaborations, from Paul Poiret to Richard Prince, and talk to some of the key players behind fashion's most spectacular artist collaboration to date, Yayoi Kusama for Louis Vuitton.

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