Brand Brushstrokes: At the Nexus of Art and Luxury
Luxury, as a term, has become a placeholder, a throwaway description that, more often than not, lacks evidence. And its ubiquitousness, especially in the world of business, has dampened the word’s significance.
But the world of fine art has managed to maintain a level of symbolic authority, perhaps due to a slew of institutions’ dedication to consecrating it, and that authority can be invaluable to brands who employ it effectively.
Plenty of brands, designers and creatives have been intensely influenced by art, both overtly and in ways we’ll never know. It’s a fairly abstract notion but a widely accepted one. That life imitates art, but that art is influenced by life.
Maybe the reason why the luxury store – or other forms of branded space – has become far more gallery-esque is due to a belief that ‘art drives taste; taste drives consumption.’ And if brands can build artistic endorsement, either through history and heritage, collaborations or by literally creating new forms, the cultural credibility art has already established will filter into your brand perception.
But let’s rewind slightly, and talk about the event that elicited this exploration.
Walt Disney: Animating the Inanimate
Last month, we were invited by the French Chamber of Commerce to attend The Wallace Collection’s latest exhibition: Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts. And it was as wildly fantastical as you’d imagine.
Galleries and galleries of the animator’s twentieth-century hand-drawn creations placed alongside rococo art and furniture – a uniquely ornamental type of French artwork, architecture and decor popular in the 18th century – reveal the surprising and enchanting connections between these two artistic moments in time, one of which led to the creation of one of the most valuable brands in the world.
As an ambulance driver in WWI, Walt Disney’s time in Europe sparked a lifelong fascination with Europe and a deep affection for France. Sparking his imagination, the elaborate interiors set the scene for many of his renowned tales.
Part of the exhibition explores the parallels between Beauty & The Beast’s beloved characters and the ornate furniture they were inspired by. From a charming candelabra called Lumiere to a tightly-wound clock known as Cogsworth, Disney popularised the fancy trappings of the ancien regime.
Check out our trip to the exhibition on our instagram via this link.
Embracing theatricality and exuberant fantasy while flirting with romanticism, the exhibition in its entirety – along with a seminar on the intersections of art, pop culture and luxury – epitomised how the storytelling, craftsmanship and imagination underpinning the finest rococo works of art inspired a movement, and how that cycle has continued to this day. Not only in terms of art, but by causing cataclysmic shifts in entertainment, hospitality, travel, business and luxury itself.
At its core, luxury is about animating the inanimate.
Imbuing a product with meaning far greater than the sum of its parts. Designing what ownership of a luxury item represents for the owner – both internally and externally – through the origin of the product and the meaning attached to it.
Luxury, from whichever era, appeals to higher levels of aspiration, imagination and fantastical beliefs. Through the creation of desire and stimulation of dreams.
It appeals to an idealised inner self, and it's the job of luxury brands to define the parameters of that idea. Just as eighteenth-century rococo artists did. Just as twentieth-century Walt Disney did.
Artifying Luxury Items
Visually experiencing the close connection between art and Disney’s origins encouraged us to consider where the cycle of inspiration has repeated in art and luxury since.
The duality of the two is most obvious for purveyors of high fashion and couture. At surface level, their connection is clear via the creative process (design, craftsmanship, showcase) and the elements (textiles, patterns, colour) of fashion that are intrinsically artistic.
Beyond the surface, the quality of timelessness is a defining characteristic of both art and luxury. The value of art increases with time, as does the value of luxury. In high fashion’s case, garments themselves aren’t untouched by the hands of time (though luxury quality and a shift to sustainable service mindsets should denote longevity) but their brand exists beyond temporal dimensions.
And as meta as that sounds, these tethers between luxury and art are everywhere in the world of fashion.
Standout examples usually consist of a collaboration between house and artist, with the latter bringing a moral and aesthetic endorsement of the brand as well as a paradoxical justification of high price points.
Yves Saint Laurent X Mondrian
It’s impossible to exemplify the close ties between luxury fashion and fine art without mentioning YSL’s Mondrian dress. Fashionistas would throw a fit.
An ode to Dutch painter and legend of neoplasticism, Piet Mondrian, the iconic shift dress (inspired by his 1929 painting ‘Composition II in Red, Blue and Yellow) was designed for the luxury French fashion house’s 1965 Fall/Winter collection.
Lauded as ‘revolutionary’, the design sprang from Laurent’s desire to draw comparisons of craftsmanship between couturiers and fine artists as well as a personal need to imbue his collection with modernity, focusing on simple cuts and geometric lines.
Versace X Warhol
Introduced as part of Versace’s Spring 1991 Pop Art-inspired collection, the motif of Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych has spanned the tenure of both Gianni and Donnatella as creative directors of the storied Italian fashion house.
As the former was unprecedentedly passionate about Warhol’s ability, the objective of the original collection was to literally break the barriers between fine art and contemporary fashion.
Lacoste X Li Xiaofeng
For their 2010 collector’s series, Lacoste challenged muralist-turned-sculptor Li Xiaofeng to reimagine their iconic polo shirt. One printed. One porcelain.
The former was inspired by Qinghua (China’s most famous china) and the lotus flower – an important symbol in Chinese culture.
The latter, and more sculpture-esque of the two designs, is made up of actual shards of porcelain, decorated with orchids, bamboo, chrysanthemum and plum blossom alongside the brand’s logo and crocodile motif, following the Chinese tradition of turning them upside down for good luck.
Damien Hirst X Alexander McQueen & Canary Yellow
Hirst loves a good fashion collab.
In 2010, the artist partnered with Alexander McQueen to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their signature skull scarf. Continuing to honour the distinguishing motif, Hirst created a 30-piece collection with a style reminiscent of his Entomology works (kaleidoscopic geometric patterns of insects).
The collaboration mirrored the house and artist’s paralleling aesthetic styles, both celebrators of dark beauty, nature and symmetrical design.
Eleven years later, Hirst created a wearable art collection with the late visionary Virgil Abloh and upcycle designer Tetsuzo Okubo for Abloh’s digital archive Canary Yellow. Each piece was once Hirst’s, now embellished with both artists’ trademark motifs (skull for Hirst, smiley face for Okubo).
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, Abloh ’described the collaboration as emblematic of the way creativity has managed to thrive despite the challenges of the past year.’
Dr. Martens X The National Gallery
According to GQ’s Hugues Pascot, ‘Dr. Martens and art are one.’ Off the back of two collections dedicated to artists in the last two years, 2022 has seen the seminal shoe brand nurture a partnership with The National Gallery.
Never one to lean on artificial influencer endorsement or hollow advertising campaigns, they’re leveraging the proven appeal of art. Adorning their iconic styles with the works of Van Gogh, Monet and Seurat – three universally admired artists, regardless of subjective aesthetic preferences.
It’s ‘a tribute to artists who walked their own path’, a sentiment indisputably aligned to Dr. Martens own values.
Ironically, it’s luxury leveraging art’s mass appeal. That’s what all of these brands are doing – intentionally or not. But at the same time, that mass appeal exists because we look to art for meaning. That’s its value. And that is what’s added when the lines between art and luxury are blurred.
Drawing Out Artistic Innovation with Digital
NFT assets aren’t always digital art, but more often than not, in the decentralised world of web3, they possess an artistic element. Whether it’s animation or a digital duplicate of a real-world item, NFTs have made an unprecedented impact on the art world, for artists, collectors and brands too.
In the last year, the luxury sector has stormed the beaches of web3. Most notably via NFT drops. The likes of Prada, Gucci, Burberry, Jacob & Co and Ray-Ban to name a few are already dabbling in digital.
Just like IRL art, scarcity is a key determiner of value for NFTs. Scarcity denotes rarity which ultimately appeals to a consumer’s psychological desire for exclusivity – bringing us all the way back around to a core tenet of luxury.
So whether digital is the future of art or the canvas will live to see another day is irrelevant to luxury brands who should be taking up space on both sides of the metaversal boundary.
We constantly reiterate the importance of relevance and distinctiveness with our clients, in everything they do. Because it’s true. And, done correctly, it works. Art partnerships work when a piece is distinguishably you. When it’s easy to tell if a piece is Prada or Balenciaga or Burberry at a glance. Lose your brand and the work becomes just another project by the artist, with every benefit to your brand fading into the background. Ensure whatever artistic exploration you embark on is distinctive for both parties.
Just as important as selecting an iconic item to artify is the assurance that the artist or institution you choose to partner with not only possesses but exudes the cultural credibility you’re looking for. At first, Dr. Martens and The National Gallery may not make total sense but clever messaging emphasising the shared values between the brand and the famed artists the gallery features ties them together in a powerful way. The landscape of modern luxury now requires brands to have an element of street cred and your perfect path to that could be through an artist.
Hirst and McQueen’s collaboration was a raging success in large part due to their shared sense of self. Shared style. Shared pursuit of uncompromising creativity. Shared love of rebellion. All brand and artist collaborations need to find this alignment, the union in their venn diagram. Without it, spectators will never convert to customers as they’ll be too busy questioning the logic of your partnership. And confusion is not the most compelling reason to buy.