The Muse is the Message: Art, Luxury and Digital Strategy No-Gos

Posted November 11, 2017 Rachel Huber admin

As far as flights of fashion fancy go, one of my favorite recent fashion moments has to be Dior’s sparkling Spring/Summer 2018 homage to Niki de Saint Phalle. Yet, however stunning designer Maria Grazia Chiuri’s trip down contemporary art memory lane proved to be, her nod to the sculptor, painter and filmmaker hardly comes as a surprise. After all, fifteen years after her death, Saint Phalle is enjoying quite the luxury fashion moment. First came bright and bold references to her from Peter Dundas for Pucci in 2015, then at Anna Sui for Fall 2016 and finally at Sonia Rykiel for Fall/Winter 2017.

Models on the Dior runway

But what sets Dior’s celebration apart from other recent references to her work and politics has to be its runway backdrop, a sparkling cavern that could be a Saint Phalle museum installation in of itself. Look back in fashion history and yes, Schiaparelli borrowed from Dali, Yves Saint Laurent from Warhol and Mondrian and Louis Vuitton has traded off collaborations with contemporary artists including Stephen Sprouse and Murakami. But, today artist installation and inspiration appear to be blurring within the fashion space, further muddying the already stylishly nebulous line between high fashion and art. And, whereas art once served as creative color and inspiration, a new kind of intermingling between art and commerce has taken hold, whereby items are positioned and displayed as pieces of art in themselves and an entire new luxury rationale has been established.

Niki de Saint Phalle’s Grotto in Hannover, Germany

Just as luxury items are being broadly accepted as pieces of art (and perhaps why not? Just look at Iris Van Herpen’s work), museums are being refashioned as brand spaces. From sell-out fashion exhibitions such as the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty retrospective, to the new The Glamour and Romance of Oscar de La Renta exhibit, which opens at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston this week, designer showcases have become lucrative blockbuster tickets for galleries. Just this summer it was not unusual for visitors to set aside several hours wait time to see the Dior exhibition, Dior Couturier du Rêve (Designer of Dreams) at Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Running through January 2018, the historical exhibition rounds out with a look at an in-exhibition workshop where visitors can watch and learn about Dior’s current couture, accessory and handbag-making techniques. All neatly showcasing Dior’s bankable leather goods business, the atelier insures that visitors who usually wouldn’t be able to stretch to the dream of buying a Dior gown would certainly leave aspiring to owning a Lady Dior purse.

During the 1960s Warhol’s mass-culture-meets-art pop art navigated the very same tensions between business and creativity. With a knowing wink, he held a mirror up to society’s obsession with fame and consumerism, suggested department stores had become museums and criticizing the elitist nature of fine art. At the time, Warhol was of course referring to the department store in its traditional guise, the cathedral of commerce that had appeared on the urban landscape in the 1850s, a place where objects were displayed and marveled at and where for the first time women could very acceptably socialize outside the home. Yet, think of the recent evolution of the department store and the emergence of the museum as a brand space and Warhol’s comparison also holds true when flipped on its head. In the digital age, where e-commerce and social media rule and where luxury has become democratized, museums have become the new department stores, and, most importantly the locus for change in the luxury industry.

Much of this change begins with the evolution of the department store itself. Whereas the department store in its early emporium-like incarnation which Émile Zola so perfectly described in the novel Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) created spectacle, inspired the imagination and fed aspiration, today the department store has become synonymous with shifting stock and offering deep discounts. There are of course flagship stores on 5th Avenue, Boulevard Haussmann and in London’s Knightsbridge that solicit excitement. But, it could be argued that these have become rare retail relics, figures of a commercial past to be visited and admired. Just watch the 2013 movie Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s for proof. Few other department stores complete with their outlet offshoots offer the same aspirational opportunities for disconnection and escape as their predecessors. Their data-collecting customer points schemes, loyalty programs, after-purchase phone calls and texts from sales associates, while useful in providing some tangible consumer benefits, can create the image of the department store as a supermarket. And while luxury brands have always maintained a tight grip on their in-store footprint and many take great pains to make sure they are not associated with department stores’ major discounts or sales, balancing exposure, ‘masstige’ and oversaturation is challenging.

Paris’ Galeries Lafayette Department Store

Enter the modern art museum as a new type of escapist luxury branded space, one that is able to mimic the public sphere while also communicating lofty brand values. On one side of the spectrum this space exists as a completely private, tightly conceived purpose-built or renovated place, as is the case with Paris’ Gehry-designed LVMH Foundation, Milan’s Rem Koolhaas-designed Prada Foundation, Florence’s Gucci Museo, Paris’ Cartier Foundation or even the Pinault museum that will soon take over Paris’ Bourse de Commerce. On the other, as previously discussed with exhibitions, come brand partnerships with already long-established cultural institutions. According to both scenarios, love it or hate it, luxury place-making has taken a distinctly artistic turn and museums, arguably one of the last urban bastions for disconnection and dreaming, have been mobilized to sell a brand viewpoint. By making museums showcases for brand stories, art no longer simply communicates bohemian visions of utopianism, but now also aspiration. Sound familiar?

Paris’ Fondation Louis Vuitton

Storytelling opportunities and prestige through association currently form the main basis of what currently benefits brands with museums ties. For a company, the act of aligning a luxury conglomerate’s name to contemporary art curation alone can obviously cast a favorable aura. And when museums such as the just-opened Yves Saint Laurent museum in Paris focus an entire institution to the work and legacy of one designer, the brand can elevate its position as cultural icon and influencer. Add to that hashtag-powered social media campaigns and merchandise opportunities and museums serve as an important way for brands to build and maintain social and cultural relevance while building bridges to products and services.

However, beyond sign value and association, when surveillance and digital strategy meet in a branded art space, art can also, not so figuratively, provide a blank canvas for brand goals and can even create a new frame within which to consider the brand. Take Ebay’s current “The Art of Shopping” pop-up in London which has been created to promote its soon-to-be launched AI-powered personalized rolling homepages. Designed to mimic a mini gallery space, the pop-up features an exhibition of ten Saatchi-curated pieces which visitors view while wearing a special brain monitoring EEG headband. When the visit concludes, participants are then able to see which pieces of modern art they most responded to and which made them the happiest. Ebay then handily suggests a range of associated products (from juicers to bikes) that match. As such, by dipping into neuroscience to monitor consumer behavior, Ebay is able to frame itself as a champion of (increasingly popular) mindful, conscious consumerism, all while normalizing AI and basking in the luxurious glow Saatchi provides.

Ebay’s The Art of Shopping Pop-Up Gallery

Yet, no matter how fun Ebay’s example, it also displays the tightrope the luxury industry must walk when aligning digital strategy with art, innovation and engagement. Because if facial recognition, neuroscience and AI is already developed enough to be able to be used in branded art spaces, the new dare-to-dream aspirational department stores of the luxury industry, they should be used with caution. To make sure the museum as brand space doesn’t go the way of the department store to become nothing more than a rationalized sales point where visitors are pitched luxury items in relation to the works of art they viewed, the luxury conglomerates behind these art spaces need to protect the museum’s role as a place of contemplation that is disconnected from the distractions of modern life.

If anything, digital should be used to connect visitors to the aesthetic experiences and the ideas luxury goods telegraph and not simply product picks. In short, when co-mingling and co-opting art, brands should keep a twist on McLuhan’s famous assertion “the medium is the message” in mind. Because, when it comes to art, brand space and luxury, the muse is the message. After all, if art serves as a muse for luxury and luxury goods, by extension, brands and brand ideals can serve as a muse for individuals in the curation of their lifestyles. Think more connection with ideas and aesthetic experiences, deeper disconnection from the everyday life and more inspiration.

What do you think? Should Pinault be donating his art collection to the city of Paris rather than creating his own private museum? Should museums be partnering so heavily with brands? Have your opinions on a brand been changed by a museum exhibit?

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