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Lessons from Art Basel’s Viral Banana

Maurizio Cattelan’s duct-taped banana drove the kind of buzz that brands dream about. What can fashion labels learn?
Maurizio Cattelan’s duct-taped banana | Source: Getty Images
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  • BoF Team

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Maurizio Cattelan’s conceptual art piece ‘Comedian’ — a banana duct-taped to a wall — caused so much commotion at this year’s Art Basel Miami that it was removed from display before the end of the fair. “The crowds surrounding the installation posed a serious health and safety risk, as well as an access issue, so the work was removed,” said Art Basel in a statement.

By that time, the banana, which came with a $120,000 price tag and was by far the most Instagram-ed piece at Basel, had already become a viral sensation, sparking plenty of debate on what constitutes art, landing on the front page of the New York Post and sending the internet meme-factory into overdrive, resulting in everything from bananas taped to Nike Air Force 1s to a rendering of Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam" featuring a banana and duct tape.

On Saturday, New York-based performance artist David Datuna went so far as to pull the original banana off the wall at Basel and eat it, recording the stunt for Instagram before he was escorted from the fair. (Cattelan’s gallery, Perrotin, which the day before had launched an Instagram account dedicated to the famous fruit, simply taped up another banana).

It was all a major coup for Cattelan and Galerie Perrotin. And underscoring the marketing genius of the piece, brands from Burger King to Jacquemus even got in on the game, posting their own takeoffs on Cattelan’s banana to social media in a bid to join the conversation.

Some have blasted ‘Comedian’ as hype, questioning both its artistic merit and price. But hype was surely part of Cattelan’s concept from the start and at the heart of what fashion brands can learn from the episode. Indeed, the piece was always much more than a yellow banana, grey duct tape and a white wall. Its eyebrow-raising price tag, along with the decision to unveil it at Art Basel’s buzzy Miami Beach edition, were integral parts of a work that was from the very beginning designed by Cattelan, a satirist, to spark controversy and drive conversation.

Most art works, like most marketing initiatives, are conceived as monologues to be consumed by passive audiences. But today’s media environment, dominated by the internet, is by definition conversational and the success of communication, whether it’s an art piece or a marketing campaign is largely dependent on whether it gets people talking (and sharing and, if you’re very lucky, making memes). Like Cattelan and his banana, those brands that embed conversation into their marketing concepts from their very inception are those that will win in today’s world.

THE NEWS IN BRIEF

FASHION, BUSINESS AND THE ECONOMY

Relatives of the fire victims mourning outside the hospital | Source: Getty Images

Fire at New Delhi handbag factory kills 43. The fire brought a fresh spotlight to the serious safety abuses that continue to plague the industry's complex and opaque supply chain. The factory was making handbags and stored lots of raw material which helped the fire spread quickly, local media reported. The fire is one of the worst to affect the garment manufacturing industry in several years, but it exposes common safety issues. 

France hits back at Trump's tariffs. The country's Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire says France is ready to go to the World Trade Organisation to challenge the US President's luxury goods tariffs. In July, the French government decided to apply a 3 percent levy on revenue — retroactively applied from the start of 2019 — from digital services earned in France by US firms with more than €750 million ($845 million) worldwide revenue.

Advisory firm recommends shareholders vote against Hudson's Bay's plans to go private. Chairman Richard Baker's C$1.9 billion offer comes seven years after he took the retailer public, and values the company at just a third of its 2015 worth. Hudson's Bay Sales have since slumped ahead of the vote on Baker's takeover bid. Comparable third-quarter sales fell 1.7 percent, while gross margins dropped 120 basis points. 

Tom Ford will head back to LA for next runway show. Since the Oscars overlap this year with New York Fashion Week, the designer has announced that he will present his autumn 2020 collection in Los Angeles, as he also did in 2015. As the chairman of the CFDA, Ford has made it his goal to try to make New York Fashion Week more relevant and global in appeal.

Hong Kong braces for store closures. Around 7,000 retail stores say they will be forced to close down in the next six months, according to the Hong Kong Retail Management Association. Retail sales fell by a quarter in October from a year earlier, the steepest drop on record, while tourist arrivals fell by a whopping 43.7 percent in the same month, squeezing malls and restaurants.

The new face of Céline is a TikTok star. The Hedi Slimane-led label has tapped Noen Eubanks, internet-famous for his eccentric "e-boy" style and goofy lip-sync videos. He has amassed over 7 million followers on the social media platform beloved by Gen-Z. The move is another sign that fashion is diving deeper into the viral world of TikTok, which this month hit 1.5 billion downloads.

Gucci targets China's tier two cities. Kering's strategy is to tap the network it has already built in top-tier cities while opening new stores in so-called tier two cities. A total of 14 new outlets are being planned for five of its brands across six Chinese cities including Dalian and Wuhan. Kering has been expanding its product offerings in the country since Gucci opened its doors in Shanghai in 1997, the first retail location in mainland China. The brand now has about 50 stores.

H&M's Cos to test clothing rentals in China with YCloset. H&M follows Banana Republic and Bloomingdale's, which are lending out their clothing for a monthly rental rate. The Cos brand's trial with YCloset would allow its parent company to explore customer demand, the business model, potential to scale and sustainability factors. H&M last week launched its first-ever in-house rental service of a limited range of festive gowns in its newest Stockholm store.

Zara owner posts strong profit growth. Inditex reported a net profit of €1.17 billion ($1.3 billion) for the third quarter and forecasts full-year sales growth of up to 6 percent. Revenue for the quarter was €7 billion. Inditex attributed the low inventory and strong sales in the financial period to its business model of tight control of products throughout the supply chain and to its quick response to trends.

THE BUSINESS OF BEAUTY

Perricone MD store interior | Source: Shutterstock

Lion Capital considers sale of Perricone MD. The London-based private equity firm is reportedly courting the potential sale of the skincare brand that could generate more than $200 million. Lion Capital is working with an adviser for the potential sale of the anti-aging skincare brand. 

Prada has a new beauty partner in L'Oréal. The luxury brand, which had been partnered with Puig since 2003, has inked a long-term deal with L'Oréal to produce its beauty products. The license agreement will come into effect on January 1, 2021, allowing the two industry giants to collaborate on developing and distributing luxury beauty products for the Prada brand.

PEOPLE

Elizabeth Spaulding | Source: Courtesy

Stitch Fix appoints president. Elizabeth Spaulding has joined Stitch Fix as president, effective January 27, 2020. Spaulding, who headed up Bain & Company's digital practice as co-leader, will report to Stitch Fix Founder and Chief Executive Katrina Lake.

Away appoints new chief executive amid workplace controversy. Lululemon COO Stuart Haselden will replace co-founder Steph Korey as the fast-growing luggage brand's new leader. The shakeup comes amid a tumultuous time for Away. Last week, technology news site The Verge published a report alleging an exploitative work culture created and reinforced by Korey.

Phillip Picardi exits Out magazine. Known for his work transforming Teen Vogue, the editor is taking a break from media amid ongoing financial challenges at LGBTQIA+ parent company Pride Media. At Out, Picardi brought a stronger sense of style and a less-masculine approach.

Ted Baker chief executive exits as shares plummet. The British fashion retailer's chief executive and chairman have departed as it warns over profits plunge. Like other British retailers, Ted Baker has been hit by weak consumer demand and last week pressure mounted on its management team, which may have overstated inventory by as much as £25 million ($32 million).

MEDIA AND TECHNOLOGY

SoftBank may sell Alibaba stock to fund buyback. SoftBank's February announcement of a $5.5 billion buyback sent its shares to a peak in April, but the stock has since lost most of the gains. SoftBank may use Alibaba shares as collateral after investors got spooked by the one-two punch of Uber Technologies Inc.'s plunge after an initial public offering in June and WeWork's meltdown that forced a bailout by SoftBank in October.

Blockchain CEO pleads guilty to fraud. Eran Eyal admitted fraud in connection with an estimated $42.5 million initial coin offering by his blockchain start-up, Shopin. He has agreed to step down as Shopin's chief executive and has been ordered to pay $600,000 to Springleap investors after receiving a three-year ban from raising capital and serving as an officer of a business in New York.

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