'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

Prada’s New York and Los Angeles stores were designed by Rem Koolhaas and his oma offices, while the Tokyo Epicenter was the work of Herzog & de Meuron, who explained that the building’s glazed rhomboid grid would offer customers ‘an almost cinematic perspective on Prada products, the city and themselves’. Prada has used the Tokyo store to stage what they call ‘international touring exhibitions’ such as 2004’s Waist Down. Designed by oma, this so-called exhibition aimed, to quote Miuccia Prada, to exalt ‘skirts in general through the creativity of Prada skirts’.footnote10 Indeed, in this respect high fashion is unlike other commodities: a petrochemical or pharmaceutical product, for example, cannot be displayed in an art museum without being directly mediated by an artist, while exclusive clothes by celebrity designers can readily be transferred to form an art-museum exhibit. This seemingly effortless ‘crossover’ between art and fashion has the advantage of giving high fashion legitimacy, as far as its entrée into the world of art is concerned. Treating couture as art thus cements a marriage of convenience, endowing clothes with high-art status and bringing catwalk glamour to cash-starved museums. Indeed, a Japanese critic praised the Waist Down show for not taking ‘the typical approach that would bring fashion items into an art museum, an avenue that cannot possibly be seen as forward-looking in an age where art itself is venturing out of art museums.’ The fact that this exhibition actually took place in a fashion shop showed the way things were likely to go in the future.footnote11 Is the practice of exhibiting fashion items in a shop somehow more forward-looking, more atypical than displaying them in an art museum? Any Japanese consumer familiar with the architects of the Prada store would probably know that Tate Modern was their handiwork, too.

The display of objects couched in the smart language of contemporary conceptual art, under the imprimatur of Herzog & de Meuron and Rem Koolhaas, was clearly intended to elevate Prada skirts to the level of contemporary art and architecture. By the time the skirts reached Shanghai in May 2005, the Waist Down show, marketed as an art exhibit—its ‘evolution’ at each store ‘interpretative and site-specific’—had generated ‘enormous buzz’, according to Newsweek. The magazine even claimed that the show was ‘a clever way into a communist country with little fashion press’, a view no doubt shared by Prada’s Bertelli, for whom the occasion would provide ‘the opportunity to interact not only with fashion people, but with curators, media, business people and politicians’—perhaps Prada’s most revealing statement about what the driving force behind the company’s patronage of art and architecture has been.footnote12