When the term “middleman” is used, it often evokes thoughts of a third-party person or entity whose purpose it is to either broker a marriage between two squabbling parties, or in a happier scenario, arrange a partnership that will be mutually beneficial for everyone involved.
As much as we like to believe that high-profile collaborations in the world of fashion happen like a pre-pubescent crush where one brand sends another brand a tiny, folded note with the question, “do you like me?” and check boxes for “yes” and “no,” the truth of the matter is, there is often a middleman who initiates the romance and is every bit cupid as they are connector.
Levied with the responsibility to both protect and monetize legendary estates for the likes of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Mapplethorpe, Ai Weiwei and several other prominent artists, New York’s Artestar – who has affiliate offices in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Brazil, Benelux, Argentina, Israel, Australia, South Korea and Japan – is a name you should be familiar with.
Responsible for some of the most noteworthy collaborations between the aforementioned artists and hype brands like COMME des GARCONS, Supreme and Raf Simons – the latter which recently dazzled crowds in Florence at Pitti Uomo – we reached out to Artetar President, David Stark, to see exactly how the process works when it comes to licensing artwork to brands for fashion purposes.
How would you summarize what Artestar does and why do you feel it’s important a company like it exists?
Artestar works with creative professionals – artists, designers, brands, etc. and identifies opportunities to bring creative partnerships to life. We look at the cultural landscape and think about how art can be incorporated in multifaceted ways from product and marketing to publications and exhibitions. We view it holistically. I personally like the challenge and results that can be achieved by being creative and business minded at the same time.
We recently had the privilege to work with Raf Simons and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation on a runway collection that launched in June. Raf made the point to say that there would be many people seeing Mapplethorpe in the context of fashion who are not the museum going audience and who may never step foot in a museum. Apart from introducing a new audience and new generation to the artist’s work, I think that it’s a great way to be democratic and subversive at the same time.
As far as the value of our company, for our clients we provide brand strategy, new revenue streams, trademark protection, increased/new fans, and other benefits. For our customers – predominantly brands and product manufacturers – we provide high-caliber art assets and the knowhow to make great products and run programs which drive sales and generate buzz and bucks.
Did the company always have plans to marry artist estates with fashion, or is that something more new given the level of enthusiasm for “limited capsules?”
We’ve been developing artist collaborations in fashion and other product categories long before it was a trend. I started working with Keith Haring in 1989. Keith understood that being part of the vernacular was a way to communicate on a grand scale. Fashion works on a similar level. One of Keith’s many gifts was that his art could compete with the best advertising of its day and he got a lot of attention drawing in chalk on the advertising panels in the subway. His store, the Pop Shop, which sold T-shirts, posters, magnets and transistor radios, was an art piece. However, it was also a special place that transcended the art world. It brought together art collectors, neighborhood kids, tourists… He valued the role of artist as communicator and he was a proponent in the democratization of art. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that his practice as an artist is the paradigm for everything we do at Artestar.
What’s the biggest misconception in the world of fashion collaborations?
I’m not really sure what the misconception is but perhaps people feel that “Art” with a capital “A” and “Fashion” with a capital “F” are effete, elevated and meant for people in the know. Those types of collaborations do exist but they are not very interesting.
In a situation where a large and reputable artist estate is being used in a collection by a prominent brand/designer, who truly has the power and veto rights? Surely one entity has more influence over the other, correct?
All our contracts provide that our clients (artist/designer) have the final say. That said, we seek out and identify people that we can work with and truly collaborate. We take stock in the fact that our customers know their market and I try to be agnostic when it comes to the product. In most cases, we are not the consumer so we need to establish a certain level of trust in our commercial partners.
You represent estates and likenesses for artists who are both living and who have passed away. In the case of those that are still alive, does the process differ than to that of those who don’t tangibly have a voice?
When a brand works directly with a living artist they can commission new work, while working with an artist who is no longer with us has limitations since we’re working with a static, finite body of work.
Can you recall in detail the collaboration you facilitated with Supreme?
Many of the artists that we work with were active in the 1980s. When the next generation of so-called street artists embraced the artists from this decade, there was resurgence in streetwear and that aesthetic. I had worked with Supreme in the early days. We worked on a small Haring program in the 1990s. After that, we were approached by Supreme to develop a larger program incorporating the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was really towards the beginning of the whole street art fashion collaboration phenomenon and proliferation.
Supreme has the reputation for being anti-establishment. What did you take away from that experience? Anything about their process that speaks to why they are so well-respected?
They understand their consumer. They think a lot about their collaborations. They don’t just slap an image on a T-shirt. They are very strategic.
Can you recall in detail the collaboration with COMME des GARCONS?
It was a funny meeting and not terribly noteworthy. I received a phone call from Adrian Joffe, president of COMME des GARCONS & Dover Street Market. He was down the street from my office and came up to meet me with designs in hand. Let’s just say he came prepared and it was really straightforward. We picked out some Keith Haring imagery on the spot, and the brand ended up using the artwork on cashmere sweaters and tees.
Finally, what about the collab between Robert Mapplethorpe and Raf?
I’ve worked with the Mapplethorpe Foundation for many years. They have been reticent and reserved when it comes to licensing. We’re close friends and they have been sitting on the sidelines watching our business activities and being behind the scenes fans of our work. This year with two major exhibitions opening in Los Angeles, we met and determined that it was timely to work on some high-profile initiatives. We specifically looked to partner with a premium luxury brand and Raf Simons was at the top of our list.
A phone call to Raf’s office was met with a nearly immediate callback from Raf on his cell phone. He was gushing with excitement saying that it was a dream come true and that he never anticipated a call with an opportunity to do something with Robert Mapplethorpe. Within a couple of weeks, Raf was sitting at the Mapplethorpe Foundation researching images in the foundation’s archive.
It doesn’t always happen that way, but we put a lot of thought into our prospecting and partnerships.
You mentioned in an earlier email “that Raf Simons was the only person that could really do a Mapplethorpe collection justice.” Why do you feel this is the case?
We wanted to do something with Mapplethorpe’s work that was unexpected. We didn’t want a designer to do something conventional. From Raf’s past collections where he has incorporated photographic imagery, we knew that he would do something extraordinary with Mapplethorpe’s photography.
Raf was extremely respectful of Mapplethorpe’s body of work and at the onset we trusted that he would be translating it in a way that was special and exciting. He developed his own constraints concluding that the photographs would not be cropped, that the quality of image would not be compromised by printing techniques, and that none of the proportions of the photography would be altered.
Without the so-called “middleman,” do you think many of these hype fashion collaborations would be able to take place?
Sure, there are many kinds of collaborations. There are no barriers to entry, just two willing participants, and in the hypercompetitive world of fashion, especially fast fashion, everyone is an artist and everyone is a brand. One of my professors in business school once said, “You will have many opportunities in life, most of them will be bad.” I tend to think that there’s a lot of truth in that. I believe that working with purpose and perspective, working hard and putting brains behind your business yields better results. I didn’t come from the licensing business, I came from the arts. When I look at licensing, the bulk of it is schlock. When I look at our business, I’m really proud of the projects that we’ve done and in the quality of our partnerships.
Do you think most fashion collaborations happen on an organic level, or are they forced ventures?
I think the first step is marketing. If there is no awareness, then there is no way forward. Some people come to us, which is maybe what you would term “organic.” However, most of the business we initiate on our own. I’ve been doing this business for over 25 years so my Rolodex is pretty deep (how’s that for an anachronistic reference?). Most artists of a certain stature know me or Artestar and we’ve worked with hundreds of companies. Even if we haven’t worked directly with a particular company, they are generally receptive to hear our thoughts about collaborating. I’m not aware of any forced ventures. As far as I’m aware, this is still a free country. Anything forced would be a mistake. Consumers are smart. These projects take a lot of time and effort. To do something that was forced would be an exercise in futility and a waste of time and money. The collaboration has to make sense, it has to be a good fit, and the product needs to be great in order for it to be commercially successful.
Is there any collaboration that you can speak about that didn’t happen that you think would have moved that needle a lot in the sartorial space?
There is not a specific collaboration that didn’t happen that I can think of but, I see an opportunity to work with a brand or develop a brand that has art at its core rather than as a marketing campaign. That would be really cool.