'The cool new way to get one’s culture is not by going to the museum’, claimed Le Monde life-style editor Véronique Lorelle on the eve of the financial crisis, ‘but going shopping.’ The expedition she championed on the eve of the financial crisis, was not a trip to the local corner shop, but a pilgrimage to an emporium like that of Louis Vuitton on the Champs-Elysées—tantamount to ‘entering a dream world’. Here, according to the lv president, customers could enjoy a light sculpture by James Turrell, or experience a giddying moment of gravity-free sensory deprivation in Olafur Eliasson’s all-black elevator. Above all, he emphasized, clients ‘will not quickly forget the brand’.footnote1 Such comments from the Louis Vuitton chief are both unexpected and revealing. Unexpected, because one would have thought that lv already enjoyed the highest of international reputations. Revealing, because it suggests that the luxury industry has been immersed in some sort of branding tussle, in which the company must struggle against its rivals for recognition. If so, what defines this field of battle? And what does art have to do with it?

Though they have long been intertwined, the relationship between art and fashion entered a new phase in the Reagan–Thatcher era. It was the asymmetrical conflation of public and private—public resources progressively subjected to private control—that helped to determine the direction contemporary art would take in subsequent years, accelerating a certain depoliticization of art and reorienting it towards the ideology of the market. Cultural creativity was elided with capitalism’s need for constant innovation. By the 1990s, the ‘rise of the creative class’ was well underway, the coinage adopted by New Labour’s culture secretary, Chris Smith, to celebrate ‘Creative Britain’. The art-world response was an increasingly blatant commodification, enabling its progressive appropriation by commercial interests within the creative ‘industries’. In the new millennium, what forms has this relationship been taking in the flagship stores of Louis Vuitton, Prada and Hermès? And in the context of recent debates on ‘value-setting’ for high-end assets,footnote2 what light can it shed on contemporary forms of capital and culture?

In early 2008, the Paris-based Journal des Arts posed the question: ‘Are we witnessing the emergence of a new form of patronage in the field of contemporary art?’footnote3 The occasion was the appearance of two art projects financed by the ‘heavy-weights of the luxury industry’, Chanel and Hermès: ‘nomad exhibitions’, housed in avant-garde architectural constructs, or roaming capsules, as the Journal des Arts put it. Chanel’s Mobile Art pavilion, conceived by Karl Lagerfeld and designed by Zaha Hadid—‘inspired by the brand’s distinctive layering of exquisite details within an elegant, cohesive whole’—featured an exhibition curated by Fabrice Bousteau, editorial director of Beaux Arts, to which Daniel Buren, Sylvie Fleury, Yoko Ono and Wim Delvoye agreed to contribute works inspired by a Chanel handbag.footnote4 Over at Hermès, the ‘aluminium pod’ of the H Box, the creation of artist-architect Didier Fiuza Faustino, housed video installations curated by Benjamin Weil, director of New York’s Artists Space. Both could be dismantled and reconstructed as nomadic showcases, travelling wherever they saw fit. Prada jumped on the bandwagon the following year with its Prada Transformer, which came to rest in Seoul.

The deluxe fashion houses appeared to catch on to this ‘deterritorialized’ mode of operation simultaneously. It permitted a new kind of flexibility and freedom. But like all ‘creative’ interventions undertaken by commercial enterprises, it needed the imprimatur of the art world to grant it status and respectability. As Hermès artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas said, the H Box ‘was legitimate only if it was recognized by international institutions.’footnote5 The pillars of the art world were happy to oblige. The H Box was showcased at the Pompidou Centre in November 2007 and displayed in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in August 2008, after stops in Luxemburg and Spain. Chanel Mobile Art premiered at the 2007 Venice Biennale and travelled to Hong Kong and Tokyo before landing in Central Park, nyc, in October 2008, amid stormy protests over the bail-out of Wall Street and the fortunes accumulated by the 1 per cent. In these circumstances, Chanel called a sudden halt to the world tour of Mobile Art, citing changed economic circumstances.footnote6

By contrast to these ‘nomadic operations’, there is much more at stake in the case of fashion-house flagship stores, not just financially but also in terms of reputation. Nevertheless, over the past decade, the era of austerity, the industry heavyweights have actually expanded their appetite for statement-making art and architecture ventures. Here one name stands out among the luxury brands. Prada—whose head designer, Miuccia Prada and her husband, ceo Patrizio Bertelli, have been described as ‘modern-day Medicis’ for their patronage of architecture—has embarked on a staggeringly ambitious and audacious flagship-store expansion plan.footnote7 Ambitious not least because of its big name, and the big money needed to finance it. Audacious because the flagship store, while it is a bona fide clothes shop, gives the impression of being ‘some avant-garde installation on the art of shopping’, thereby transforming the simple act of buying clothes into what the trade jargon calls the ‘experience economy’.footnote8 At the start of the new millennium, Prada opened three flagship stores under the ‘Epicenter’ rubric in the space of a few years: New York, Tokyo and Los Angeles. The New York shop reputedly cost $40 million, Tokyo $87 million.footnote9