Category Archives: Fashion

Art and luxury: a necessary relationship?

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Last week I attended a conference organized by my school on the relationship between luxury and art. The people around the table included Jennifer Flay, director of the FIAC art fair, and Lorenz Bäumer, a Place Vendôme high-jewelry designer who collaborated with Chanel for nearly 20 years. I found the discussion fascinating as it touched upon how our need to connect with art is used by brands as a marketing strategy. It is a debate that could go on and on but I just wanted to sum up the few points that were raised and elaborate a bit on them. And of course I would love to hear your opinion on the matter!

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Let’s start by a few definitions to see what separates luxury from art.

Luxury is an industry that creates objects that we use and wear with profitability goals in mind, hence for example the importance of it-bags in brand strategies.

Art by comparison questions and upsets. Art pieces are unique and have a meaning that is different to every one of us depending on our personal history. It can also be controversial. Lorenz Bäumer gave the example of Paul McCarthy’s Tree which was set up on Place Vendôme in October 2014. It sparked outrage and was damaged by protestors. After the terrorist attacks of January 2015, he felt people became more lenient towards art as they realized that freedom of speech should be protected. Broadly speaking, art has become more necessary than ever as an emotional relief when people find it harder to believe in formerly trustworthy values like politics and work.

What luxury and art do have in common is excellence and aesthetic, as well as bringing out a sense of comfort. The separation between them can be thin. There is this concept in Japan of “Living National Treasures”, craftsmen whose work is recognized as art for its level of excellence. And let’s not forget that designers are creatives too. Jennifer Flay talked about how fashion exhibitions were no different to her than art exhibitions. Indeed, I find it hard myself not to consider some haute-couture gowns as works of art. Not to mention that fashion can have a critical dimension. Yves Saint Laurent gave power to women with his Smoking; the tuxedo was controversial as women wearing pants were not allowed entrance in “good” restaurants and hotels in the 1970s. Later on, Jean Paul Gaultier challenged traditional gender roles with his collections. And there is a thin line between “designer” and “artist”. What do you make of designers who create costumes for art performances? I have in mind Riccardo Tisci who collaborated with the Paris Opera Ballet a couple of years ago.

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How do collaborations benefit luxury and art?

Collaborations between luxury and art can take many forms: sponsorships, commissions, creation of museums and performances to name a few. Not to mention that art can simply be a source of inspiration, as Yves Saint Laurent could testify with his Mondrian dresses.

One speaker pointed out that designers never call themselves “artists”: they are aware that they work on products, not works of art. Generally speaking, they have a great respect for art and collaborations often stem from the designers’ own passion. Marc Jacobs for example is known to be an avid collector and Louis Vuitton fashion flourished with partnerships during his time there. Collaborations could then be a means for luxury to get closer to a goal of emotional and aesthetical heights that only art can claim.

If we dig a little deeper, we can also see artistic collaborations as part of brands’ strategies to not lose their credibility. With globalization, partnerships with cheaper brands like H&M and the rise of social media, luxury has become widespread and no longer a precious rarity, thus losing its aura. Artistic partnerships allow brands to regain a touch of exclusivity. They create publicity for both parties and give access to different customers. Not that this is enough. Louis Vuitton is now considered too popular among luxury customers in the huge market that is China. Some of them go as far as to call it “a brand for secretaries”. Will initiatives such as the newly-opened Fondation Vuitton play a part in changing the brand’s image?

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That said, art benefits from luxury as well. The industry has been a long-time sponsor of artistic events and businessmen like François Pinault are known for supporting the arts.

As such, art is a marketing argument that mass brands have started to take advantage of as well. For example, H&M recently featured a Jeff Koons Balloon Dog on a bag. Absolut Vodka is active in the art world. Such collaborations give the illusion that the brand is more high-end than it is. This is the next step after partnerships with luxury brands and designers, in which Karl Lagerfeld played a big part with H&M and Coca-Cola. If art becomes more widespread among mass retailers, luxury brands might better refocus and advertize on what they do best: high-quality and exclusive products. Think Hermès.

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ALAÏA at Palais Galliera

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Today is the last day to catch the Palais Galliera’s ALAÏA, the fashion exhibition of the moment in Paris. 70 pieces of the Tunisian-born designer are on show, retracing his work since the establishment of his brand in 1979.

C’est le dernier jour aujourd’hui pour vous rendre au Palais Galliera et voir ALAÏA, l’exposition mode du moment à Paris. 70 modèles content le parcours du couturier parisien d’origine tunisienne Azzédine Alaïa depuis la création de sa marque en 1979.

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Housing the Museum of Fashion in Paris, the Palais Galliera reopened its doors in September 2013 for the ALAÏA exhibition after 3 years of extensive renovations. I was expecting a lot from the place after hearing so many positive reviews, and alas I was disappointed. I’m not sure the Palais itself is at fault though; it has more to do with the exhibition’s design. The layout in the first room, which happens to be large and dark, prevents any kind of intimacy and emotion with the visitor. Also, the comments on each piece are detailed and interesting but they are displayed on the floor. When it’s crowded (and that seems to always be the case), it’s hard to read and take the time to look at the clothes at the same time so in the end it makes for a frustrating experience.

Abritant le Musée de la Mode, le Palais Galliera a rouvert ses portes pour l’occasion en septembre 2013 suite à 3 ans de travaux. J’attendais beaucoup de ce lieu après avoir entendu tant de critiques élogieuses… et ce fut la déception. La faute sans doute à la mise en scène de l’exposition. Elle commence dans une grande salle sombre où l’agencement des robes empêche toute intimité et émotion. En plus, les explications pour chaque pièce sont détaillées et intéressantes mais posées à même le sol. Difficile quand il y a du monde de les lire et de prendre le temps de regarder les vêtements, alors à la fin on ne retient pas grand-chose.

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As I said, this was not love at first sight. The gowns in this wide empty space were disappointing. Where was the sexiness and power I thought every Alaïa-designed item embodied? In fact, I wished I could see these dresses hugging sensual curves like Naomi’s, the designer’s muse, not hanging aimlessly in a cold room. Come to think of it, this might be the point in Alaïa’s style: the woman makes the clothes, and not the other way around. As he said, “I make clothes, the women make fashion…”

Vous l’aurez compris, je n’ai pas eu le coup de foudre pour ces robes Alaïa dans ce grand espace sombre. Présentées seules, elles sont comme vidées de leur sens et on regrette de ne pas les voir portées. On se plait à imaginer les tissus enveloppant des courbes sensuelles. Celles de la féline muse Naomi Campbell par exemple. Mais peut-être est-ce justement là une qualité du style Alaïa : mettre en valeur la femme sans que l’habit ne prenne le dessus. Il dit d’ailleurs « Je fais des vêtements, elle font la mode… »

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Let’s dig deeper: what is the Alaïa style? Tight gowns, so figure-hugging they look like a second skin. Black to bring out the quality of the design, dresses with hoods, leopard, grommets… Comparisons with Madeleine Vionnet for her bias cut. Muses such as Tina Turner, Grace Jones and Rihanna.

Mais qu’est-ce que le style Alaïa justement ? Des robes près du corps, moulantes au point où on jurerait qu’elles ont été créées sur celle qui les portent comme une seconde peau. On voit des thèmes récurrents : le noir pour mettre en valeur la coupe, les robes à capuche, l’imprimé panthère, les œillets… La comparaison avec Madeleine Vionnet pour sa coupe en biais. Des muses : Tina Turner, Grace Jones et plus proche de nous Rihanna.

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The exhibition mentions several times that Alaïa is special in the sense that he does not organize shows like other brands, or at least not at the same time. Coming out of the Palais, it’s hard to understand why he can afford to do this, remain relatively secretive, and still be popular in the fashion world – and that is where the Musée de la Mode fails. The items on display show an old glory from the 1980s and 1990s with a je ne sais quoi of vulgarity about them.

L’exposition met bien en avant le statut particulier d’Alaïa dans le sens où il ne respecte pas le calendrier traditionnel de la mode avec ses défilés. C’est là justement que le Palais Galliera échoue à nous faire comprendre en quoi ces collections sont si exceptionnelles et pourquoi le couturier peut se permettre ce comportement, jouer la confidentialité, tout en étant vénéré des personnalités de ce milieu. On retient des pièces exposées un style d’une gloire passée, plutôt années 1980-90, parfois avec un je ne sais quoi de vulgaire.

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You have to walk 5 minutes away to the Musée d’Art Moderne (free access) to truly grasp what Alaïa is all about. The few looks on display in the Matisse Room render a power that is difficult to measure with, highlighted by the softness of the painter’s sensuality. The corseted gown with the large skirt had the same effect on visitors as a piece of art, making them pause and wonder. This reminded me of the beautiful Madame Grès exhibition with the pleats of the dresses echoing the surrounding sculptures in the Musée Bourdelle. This show too was organized by the Musée de la Mode. Maybe they have to take their collections out of the Palais Galliera and confront them with other works of art to light the spark…

Il faut se rendre au Musée d’Art Moderne (accès gratuit) à quelques minutes de là pour se rendre compte de la puissance des vêtements Alaïa. D’autres pièces du couturier sont exposées dans la Salle Matisse et sont mises en valeur avec une harmonie surprenante face à la sensualité du peintre. On découvre une veste imitant la carapace d’un alligator et une robe corsetée à jupe ample, véritable œuvre d’art. Cela rappelle la superbe exposition de Madame Grès dont les plissés des robes intemporelles se mariaient aux sculptures du Musée Bourdelle. A croire que pour nous émouvoir, le Palais Galliera doit montrer ses collections hors les murs…

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