May 10, 2013 7:03 pm

Does art really sell product?

Consumers feel at ease judging fashion but there’s a degree of self-doubt in buying a sculpture

It’s Frieze weekend in New York, which means that for the past two weeks the art-fashion love-in has been in full swing. It’s not just about events (Reed Krakoff’s dinner in honour of the book Women in Art: Figures of Influence or Dries Van Noten’s dinner in honour of the art fair itself) but product too.

In the window at Calvin Klein is designer Francisco Costa’s recent collaboration with Ellsworth Kelly – a reworking of a 1952 dress that Kelly had commissioned in conjunction with a painting, “Red Yellow Blue White” (granted, the new dress is part of a limited edition of 10, sold to museums) – while next door at Barneys, the Madison Avenue vitrines are dedicated to their limited-edition Roy Lichtenstein collection.

Yeah, yeah, you say: what’s new? I saw that Yayoi Kusama thing at Louis Vuitton months ago. Yves Saint Laurent (the original) had that Mondrian collection. Elsa Schiaparelli worked with Dalí. It was ever thus.

To a certain extent. And yes, we all remember the Vuitton/Takashi Murakami collaboration, and most of us saw the Vuitton/Richard Prince and, before that, Vuitton/Stephen Sprouse, which arguably started it all.

But what about the Jimmy Choo/Rob Pruitt collaboration (neon lace and zebra-print shoes; jewelled panda bags)? What about Dior/Anselm Reyle (neon camouflage bags, wedges and eye shadow palettes)? Or Marni/Claude Caillol (painted plastic bags)? Do they ring any bells?

Big silence.

And yet on they come, these collaborations. An art consultant in London emails with the news that young painter Tahnee Lonsdale has worked with Brit brand Lucas Hugh to put her multicoloured canvas “Babel” on sportswear, as well as using her painting “Impressions of a Wind-Up Bird” on scarves for London brand Mercy Delta; there’s also news of Antoinette Wysocki’s abstract paintings appearing on handbags by Hong Kong designer Piecco Pang.

Meanwhile, Euromonitor has just published a paper entitled “The Changing Face of Collaborations in the Luxury Goods Industry: Beyond the H&M Collaboration Phenomenon.” And guess what? “Collaborations between brands and artists are forecast to continue.”

Case in point: this autumn/winter, Vuitton’s men’s collection is inspired by the work of Jake and Dinos Chapman, who were commissioned to create a special print for everything from smoking jackets to slippers, bags and knits. It is, I suppose, the natural step on from the flagship store’s transformation into gallery space, as conceived by architect-to-the-industry Peter Marino (see such works as “Flying Eyeballs” by Alan Rath in Chanel’s SoHo store, or James Turell’s work at the Vuitton boutique on the Champs-Elysées).

But I can’t help wondering: does art really sell product? Art certainly uses product – see Joseph Beuys’ “Felt Suit” and Tom Sachs’s “Chanel Guillotine” and “Hermès Value Meal” – but does it move it? I don’t think it’s such a sure thing.

And I’m not just talking about the fact that fashion is supposed to be functional, while art is not. I’m talking about consumer psychology.

. . .

Fact is, people buy art and fashion for different reasons. The latter speaks to their shifting identity; the former to their eternal selves. This applies especially to the kind of fashion that is the meat of most collaborations: accessories, which are ephemeral purchases made to “update a wardrobe”, as well as pieces that are identifiable with a season and hence associated with a sell-by date. By contrast, art is supposed to be, to quote De Beers, “forever”.

Similarly, while most consumers feel at ease judging fashion (you like it or you don’t; your opinion is as valid as the next guy’s), art is a different matter. There’s a degree of self-doubt in buying a sculpture or a painting that requires education and consultants and multiple visits. So how do you reconcile the two if faced with an accessory bedecked with cutting-edge art? A consumer either has to trust in the brand and their stamp of approval, or opt instead for the standard logo number.

Of course, it’s possible that the commercial potential is besides the point, or icing on the cake; that it’s enough that the collaborations are a source of income and raised public profile for a painter, and a source of PR kudos for a luxury brand, both of which have value if not an actual revenue stream.

It’s also possible that someone would see buying a fashion/art piece as an investment. In the same way that accessories are a way into the brand, they could be a way into an artist’s oeuvre. Can’t buy the canvas? Buy the handbag! You could even put it on the wall and frame it.

Let me offer a final word: we have at home an old dentist’s cabinet that I call the Cabinet of Fashion Curiosities. It is filled with fashion products that I find too extreme in various ways to actually use, but that I kind of love: the Prada DVD case covered in faux purple fur, complete with purple bubble-wrap protective envelope; the Gucci teddy bear; the vinyl Vuitton bag. When people ask, I say the installation was inspired by Damien Hirst. Someday, I will bequeath it to my children.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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