Promoting Art along with the Handbags

Article excerpt

Byline: Alexandra A. Seno

Long champions of public artworks, top luxury brands are beginning to develop their own exhibits.

Chanel's works of art go beyond the perfect suit. In late February, the company unveiled "Mobile Art" in Hong Kong, an ambitious traveling exhibit of commissioned works by 20 top contemporary artists, housed in a breathtaking white structure designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid. Eager locals and visitors snapped up the timed tickets throughout the six-week run, treating the sometimes challenging show with the kind of reverence typically reserved for major openings at MoMA or the Louvre. Soon others will get to enjoy it, too; last month Chanel dismantled Hadid's 700-square-meter space into 700 pieces for easy transport. The show travels to Tokyo in July and New York in September, then stops in London and Moscow in 2009 before finally reaching Paris in 2010.

With budgets and creative energy most museums can only dream of, luxury brands have become some of the most powerful impresarios of contemporary art on the international stage. To be sure, many luxury companies have long served as patrons of public art programs in the United States and Europe. But as new markets grow in importance, these brands are not only sponsoring other people's shows but actively creating their own, sometimes introducing conceptual works that many museums would consider too daring. The idea is that by linking its name to a cutting-edge collection or innovative new work, a luxury brand gains visibility and status.

Louis Vuitton first hit upon the winning mix of art and fashion when it opened an art gallery in its giant flagship Champs-Elysees store in 2005, complete with a velvet-cocooned elevator designed by the Danish conceptual artist Olafur Eliasson. Following on that success, the company in March opened another exhibition space inside its second biggest store, on Hong Kong's Canton Road. Diesel, a label known for high-end jeans that can retail for more than $1,000 a pair, recently launched "The New Grand Tour" in Beijing, an exhibit of quirky, edgy works created under its sponsorship and displayed in a former gymnasium in an old factory district taken over by artists. "Art and luxury have always moved together," says Bruno Pavlovsky, head of Chanel's fashion unit. "Both focus on the same demand for cultural relevance and both represent a permanent quest for quality, exception, creation and innovation. It is normal that a luxury brand should look for a new vocabulary and aim to innovative by enriching itself through exchange with other creative universes."

These are not, of course, selfless ventures intended simply to enrich the global culture. Chanel's "Mobile Art" contains plenty of blatant product promotion. The company briefed artists to produce works on the theme of its iconic quilted "2.55" bag, named to commemorate its launch in February 1955. "Asking artists from different backgrounds to express themselves through their perception of the Chanel quilted bag is a way to create a fresh vision of the brand, to spark people's imagination," says Pavlovksy.

The visions certainly are diverse. Japan's Tabaimo created a "well" with strange monochromatic shapes projected on the inside walls, a subtle representation of the 2.55 as not just a bag but as an object embodying a dream. A dark room by Leandro Erlich of Argentina features rue Cambon in Paris, where Coco Chanel kept an apartment, reflected prettily in bubbling pools of water. The Russian art group Blue Noses presents a witty video of a fat, naked woman floating off on a red 2. …