Contemporary art Fairs USA

Artists add lustre to luxury brands

Collaborations between fashion houses and contemporary artists can benefit both parties

Artist Sebastian Neeb working with antique furniture for his Fendi installation at Design Miami

Culture converges with commerce in the Design District this week as fashion brands collaborate with contemporary artists.

“Art Basel [Miami Beach] has become a ‘cultural happening’—not just an art fair,” says Design Miami co-founder Craig Robins. “There’s a real interest in merging different disciplines.”

Paul Thompson, rector of London’s Royal College of Art, some of whose students recently created in-store performances and installations for the recent opening of Italian luxury leather goods company Fendi’s new London flagship shop, says: “Commissioning avant-garde designers to work with them allows these brands to stress their heritage and contemporaneity in one breath,” he says. “And to present these collaborations at Design Miami brings them into contact with their core market: wealthy individuals who collect contemporary fine art and like nice handbags.”

Robins believes Fendi “has created a distinct line between its brand and design in general”. In 2009, Fendi’s live “Stereo Craft” performance at Design Miami had US rock band OK GO playing Gibson guitars customised with Fendi leather and fur. For its 2010 show Fendi collaborated with New York architects Aranda/Lasch on Modern Primitives, an installation that softened the stark, geometric forms of armoured-vehicle material into seating using hand-crafted throws.

Craft Alchemy, this year’s Fendi installation at Design Miami, is a dreamy metamorphosis of 18th-century furniture by designer Elisa Strozyk and artist Sebastian Neeb. The Berlin-based duo are working on site as they braid, emboss and sew discarded Fendi leathers on to vintage pieces as a counterpoint to the original Baroque carving and marquetry. They have also created the installation’s setting—a fantasy palazzo room—and have extended this theme into Design Miami’s Collectors Lounge, hosted for the first time by the Italian company.

“There’s no immediate commercial application for these projects,” says Fendi’s chief executive, Michael Burke. “Instead we’re putting on show the design process and exploiting the freedom to innovate and experiment.”

The director of Design Miami, Marianne Goebl, says: “I’m impressed with how Fendi approaches these projects. Creating experimental platforms for artists and encouraging young designers is true patronage.”

Crossovers are not just a matter of patronage, but a way for brands to emphasise their own cultural importance. “If brands are seen to be fostering interesting work, it can give them a relevance that is not purely commercial,” says Dani Salvadori, the director of enterprise and innovation at London’s Central Saint Martins, a college of art and design. “But brands must choose the right artist to work with and have a real understanding of their own values and heritage to do this successfully.”

For Design Miami, Christian Dior has chosen German artist Anselm Reyle. At a pop-up store in the Design District’s Moore Building, Reyle is making his debut fashion collaboration that includes wallets, handbags, jewellery, sunglasses, scarves, footwear and charms featuring his signature coloured triangles. “Most of my work builds on objects that already exist, which I then transform. I applied the same philosophy here,” he says. The pop-up space is also influenced by Reyle’s works of art.

At another temporary store British artist Liam Gillick is collaborating with knitwear brand Pringle of Scotland—both structurally on an artistic intervention and with the brand’s design director, Alistair Carr, on a knitwear and accessories collection. Located in the Mosaic Building, the pop-up store will tour globally following its Miami launch. Gillick, whose work is in collections at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, London’s Tate and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, moves easily between various creative spheres, working with architects, writers and film-makers. His starting-point for Pringle was a series of abstract colour-blocks with the structured shape of each bag, wallet or iPad holder echoing the print’s geometry. The knitwear colour palette similarly references Gillick’s work in what could be perceived as a comment on the shifting status of art objects in contemporary culture.

Permanent Design District fashion retailers are also upping the ante this week. Maison Martin Margiela is exploring the brand’s relationship with designed objects through an in-store exhibition called “Love etc”, while Marni is broadcasting videos by Tellas, a young multimedia artist, in its windows. One documents the creation of Tellas’s mural on Marni’s Milan warehouse while a T-shirt designed by the artist for Marni’s online shop is also available in-store.

“Art, design and fashion are different facets of the same thing,” says Duncan Quinn, a Design District bespoke tailor. “All these genres are about harnessing creativity. It’s a way for bigger brands to stay current, project a message and engage an audience.”

Some brands incorporate this creative infusion into their core business while others take a more detached approach. As a long-time arts supporter and Art Basel partner for five years, Cartier has a strong pedigree of creative patronage. In Miami this year the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art’s debut will present artist Beatriz Milhazes’s Aquarium.

This monumental mobile, crafted by Ateliers Cartier using pearls and precious stones, is displayed in a jewel case-like space within the Collins Building. While clearly communicating a message about the company’s craft skills, it also explores the colours and patterns in Milhazes’s canvases and collages through an innovative, visceral vocabulary.

Craig Robins says: “Crossovers are about long-term brand-building but they also add a new dimension to the creative world.”

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