Friday, September 22, 2023

Why Fashion Invests in Art


Why Fashion Has Entered the Business of Arts Institutions

A look into the intersection of luxury, culture and marketing through brand-owned museums

Featured in
Issue 237

Why Fashion Has Entered the Business of Arts Institutions

A look into the intersection of luxury, culture and marketing through brand-owned museums


This article appears in the columns section of frieze 237, Threads


When New York’s Guggenheim Museum opened its Giorgio Armani retrospective exhibition in October 2000, the art world shrieked. Not only had fashion finally managed to penetrate this institutional paragon of artistic modernism – capsizing Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda and filling it, literally, with suits – it had scandalously done so by buying its way in through the back door. Rumours soon circulated that the invitation had cost the Italian designer a staggering US$15 million in the form of a future economic pledge to the museum – a quid pro quo arrangement converting exhibition value into marketing. Then museum director, Thomas Krens, didn’t deny this fruitful partnership (instead obfuscating its ethical implications), while co-curator Harold Koda – soon to be director of the Met’s notorious Costume Institute – clapped back at hyperbolic accusations that the world of fashion is driven solely by money and glamour. Bitingly, he offered in return: ‘What, as opposed to the art world?’

Fashion Runway at Museum.
Naomi Campbell walks the runway during the Fashion For Relief catwalk show at The British Museum, 2019. Courtesy: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

Two decades later, the institutional tables of art and fashion have turned so dramatically that they are nearly inverted: fashion not only has art surrounded but increasingly owns its institutional means of production. Since Armani’s clumsy tiptoeing into New York’s Museum Mile, the fashion industry’s conglomerate owners have been overwhelmingly busy not only with sponsoring major art museums but with erecting their own. Bernard Arnault’s Fondation Louis Vuitton (2014), Miuccia Prada’s Fondazione Prada (2015) and François Pinault’s bombastic trinity Palazzo Grassi (2006), Punta della Dogana (2009) and Bourse de Commerce (2021) are only the most lavish examples of museums by fashion brands devoted exclusively to the exhibiting of modern and contemporary art, offering the grotesquely large collections of their oligarchic owners for public display (and, in the case of Fondazione Prada, the occasional runway show). Art follows, and good art too – in fact, it cannot afford not to. Realized with a cast of world-class architects and enlivened by well-funded curatorial programming to match any public institution worth its salt, these museums – located in strategic urban centres of art power – represent the new exhibitionary sublime: spaces where both artists and curators are not only allowed but encouraged to pursue their most impossible, and expensive, dreams. This new institutional set (which also includes a second tier of art spaces and other institutional pop-ups sprinkled across the globe’s most coveted luxury retail destinations) delivers with the savoir faire of the art world and the sleek publicity of the fashion industry – and does so in the name of the museum, that artefact of Western modernity, which promised to deliver aesthetics to its public so as to educate them into democratic citizens. As one of society’s central civilizing rituals, museums embody Jürgen Habermas’s mythic public sphere by facilitating self-understanding through aesthetics – exhibited, seen and discussed by the people.

Models walk the runway at Chanel Metiers D’Art 2018/19 Show, 2018, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Courtesy: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

But, as Mary Douglas alerted us already in 1986, ‘minimally, an institution is only a convention’, and fashion’s takeover of art coincided with a generally shifty period for museums, tussled by the new forces of neocapitalism at the turn of the millennium. Globally, biennials mushroomed thanks to the fund-raising efforts of regional tourist boards, national culture funds and corporate sponsors (namely, fashion), stretching the concept of an art institution into a transnational world of cultural entertainment characterized by pop-ups. Where the biennial went, art fairs soon blossomed and competed all the same, offering ‘curated’ non-buyable projects, performances and talks programmes that dwarfed those of any local museum. Much was said in the name of the institution, this ephemeral cultural form that was deconstructed anew, repurposed for various use-values in the global experience economy. With institutional ecologies in flux, it shouldn’t have felt surprising, nor particularly controversial, that fashion would eventually join in. For, more than any industry, the millennial moment belonged to fashion: Europe’s dusty, family-owned couture houses shifted from private to corporate hands and transformed their timeless brands into wildly ambitious merchandising and licensing experiments that would, once and for all, globalize luxury. As the recent docuseries Kingdom of Dreams (2022) eloquently dramatizes, this was a period of ferocious corporatization of fashion’s heterogeneous players, a competition of billions played out, in particular, between Arnault – known colloquially as ‘the wolf in cashmere’ – of Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) and Pinault of Kering (formerly the Gucci Group). Importantly, this bloody game of thrones soon involved art collecting and museum-building, as these CEOs sought to legitimize their wealth and brands by seizing the most public cultural platforms. Merely accumulating artworks seemed not enough: in 1998, Pinault would acquire a majority share of Christie’s auction house through his holding company, Artemis; this was soon followed by Arnault, who announced LVMH’s acquisition of its competitor, Phillips, the following year. 

Fashion Runway at Museum.
Tory Burch NYFW SS20 at the Brooklyn Museum, 2019, runway view. Courtesy: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images 

In a time when fashion itself is relatively tolerated as a critical concern for artists, on an institutional level its industry still figures as a compromising agent that art ‘conspires with’, to paraphrase an old tirade by Adorno. It remains seen by many artists as a ‘lesser’ opportunity to present a new video artwork in an exhibition space located on the top floor of a luxury handbag boutique in Venice, even if said boutique funded said artwork and did so generously. Luckily, for such artists, the work lives on and will keep travelling to other, ‘purer’ institutions – any humble beginnings on the shop floor do not prevent it from entering the collections of, say, Tate Modern or the Centre Pompidou. In this way, it’s hard to gauge exactly where art’s anxiety of fashion lies – with big money or fashion itself? Surely, the former should be nothing new: since the very dawn of the so-called museum age, the institutional landscape has been thoroughly shaped by the one percent. A century ago, the fortunate beneficiaries of the US Gilded Age erected private museums across the country that, following the zeitgeist, resembled aristocratic dwellings of an idyllic past. In a bid to legitimize their new burgeoning fortunes and prove their refined tastes, young capitalists such as Henry Clay Frick, Henry Huntington, Andrew Mellon and John Pierpont Morgan used art to climb a variety of social ladders and erected museums to monumentalize their feats. Much like today, this happened amid extreme and widespread poverty: in 1913, at the end of the Gilded Age, a mere handful of monopolistic families (0.01 percent of the population) held a haunting nine percent of all US wealth. In 2021, the same comparable population surpassed this number, checking out of the pandemic year at a cushy ten percent.

Fashion show runway.
Fashion For Relief catwalk show, 2019, runway view. Courtesy: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

The crucial difference between now and then lies in the fact that the palpable publicity value of private museums no longer benefits the names of aristocratic families or their new-money imitators but feeds directly back into the active consumer brands of their owners. More than, say, steel or oil (wealth so unsexy that it is happy just being invited to the party), fashion shares art’s commitment to the myth of refinement and the eternal, which for the former translates directly into product marketing. Many a sociologist has pointed out how fashion’s cultural patronage of cutting-edge art is a new way to generate higher levels of associated luxury, approximating fine art with the similarly timeless and snobbish aura of the luxury brand, now diversified into a wide range of semi-affordable products, such as perfumes, handbags and ready-to-wear. Cold cultural capital links these flagship spaces across exhibition and retail, evoking one of many cynical puns by art’s master commercialist, Andy Warhol: ‘All department stores will become museums, and all museums will become department stores.’ Today’s museum cultures, while trading in many of the same taste economies centred on the aesthetic commodity, show us that this is not quite the case, yet – most importantly, because it doesn’t have to be. 


This article first appeared in frieze issue 237 with the headline ‘In the Name of the Museum’


Main image: Molly Goddard Fashion in Motion show at The V&A, 2017. Courtesy: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Jeppe Ugelvig is a curator and critic based in New York. His first book, Fashion Work, was published by Damiani in May 2020.  

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