With so many collaborations being released on a daily basis, we decided to dive head first into the phenomenon to discover what is at the heart of the collaboration trend.

On the world-map of today’s creative brands, we increasingly find collaborations with art — contemporary or otherwise — where "x" marks the spot:

Don Perignon x Jeff Koons Perrier x Andy Warhol Supreme x Damien Hirst Raf Simons x Sterling Ruby COMME des GARÇONS x Ai Weiwei Lacoste x Zaha Hadid Opening Ceremony x René Magritte adidas x Jeremy Scott “Keith Haring”

And so the formula of [Brand by Artist] is written, etched onto skateboards and sneakers, from H&M to Hermés, on Perignon to Perrier, strutting down catwalks and stacking grocery aisles at a prolific rate. While art’s value continues to rise in its own market (this past November, a Christie’s auction brought in a record-breaking $850 million for 75 lots of contemporary art), today it is stepping onto a new stage. Popular culture figures like Jay Z, who refers to himself as a “modern day Picasso,” help to usher in the trend by articulating the creative zeitgeist to possess, see and experience fine art: “I wanna row of Christie’s with my missy, live at the MoMA/Bacons and turkey bacons, smell the aroma.” (A piece of Jay’s “Bacon,” Francis Bacon’s 1961 painting Seated Figure sold for $45 million at the aforementioned auction).

With artists’ names being dropped as often as (and often with) sneaker drops, we cannot dismiss the phenomenon as an ephemeral hyper-trend, nor label it another Warholian revolution. For while we may hem and haw if we are convinced by the effects of these artsy collaborations in mainstream markets — do they upgrade a brand? Do they undermine art? — the fact remains that these liaisons, dangerous or otherwise, are not only influencing the retail world, but art history itself. Damien Hirst’s iconic butterfly artwork, fluttering from museum conversations and onto Converse sneakers, may signify art’s natural and unavoidable evolution in contemporary culture.

On a superficial level, it is easy to appreciate why any brand would want to join forces with an artist – an icon known for creating visually stimulating, unique objects. Strategic branding is, after all, heavily reliant upon producing aesthetic magnetism and a distinctive, effective “image.” Yet if they were only after launching top-tier style, brands could continue to team up with cutting edge fashion houses, brushing the dirt off the shoulders of a… what’s that jacket? H&M x Margiela. That art is being called upon as branding’s new muse, signifies a drive to create something more complex than that which can be achieved through fashion.

It is logical that this nouveau artistic collaborative wave hits hard today, an epoch when magic is no longer required to see almost anything and everything thanks to the world’s new beloved fairy godmother: #socialmedia. With the advent of digital platforms comes the collective impulse to display not only a style, but perhaps more importantly, lifestyle. Look at any creative company’s Instagram and we find not only pictures of its gadgets and gizmos, but a cultivated existence around them — tastes and sensibilities, filtered through specific lenses: urban landscapes, graffiti, perfectly frothed lattes, Pharrell’s hat, Kanye’s pout, and various other facades of society that visually amalgamate to project a brand’s metaphysical culture in time and space.

It is no wonder then why brands are increasingly seduced by art; it is not only a visual cultural product but also a producer of culture itself. Therefore, alignment with it can potentially procure not only an image, but also the imaginary – power, history, philosophy, a moment, a mojo – and all the conceptual sophistication that art entails. Of course, granted its notorious high costs in its own fancy marketplace, a product’s financial value can also increase when associated with art. This last point is especially true of partnerships where the artist’s hand is actually present, like on a hand-painted canvas parka by Raf Simons x Sterling Ruby from their Fall 2014 collaboration. Such an item, which raises the question is it art or fashion?, also manages to raise its cost — egging us on to answer that it’s likely closer to art, by virtue of its $30,000 price tag.

That high fashion and high art occupy the same space is old news (here, we think happily about Schiaparelli’s dress with a Dali lobster crawling on its front). The new news is that high streetwear, sneakers, tech, and even beverage brands are putting on their berets to paint a pretty picture with artists. While it’s clear how a brand’s look and reputation may appear “upgraded” post-collaboration, we might wonder now about the original art itself. What happens when art jumps off of its museum pedestal, lands down onto Jay Z’s stage, and then Ubers over to the Gap pop-up store at the Frieze Art Fair? The answer, may not be so pretty. While a mainstream brand may be jumping for joy over its beautiful business muse, art is left with its historic tale between its legs, looking back at a rack of Basquiat-doodled Uniqlo T-shirts, wondering where its future, quite literally, will hang next.

These liaisons, dangerous or otherwise, are not only influencing the retail world, but art history itself.

When H&M announced its first artist collaboration in 2014 with the renowned Jeff Koons, coiffed eyebrows across the art world were raised — ironically, by the same gallerinas who were lured into the retailer’s doors when it partnered with fashion houses like Lanvin and COMME des GARÇONS’ Rei Kawakubo to create cost-effective lines. But art would be different. Adapting high-end garments to be ready-to-wear could not follow the same logic as high art becoming, what… ready-to-see? For H&M x Koons, the attempt to transport art’s psychological baggage onto a special product resulted, quite literally, as baggage itself: a leather bag with a printed image of the artist’s Toy Balloon Dog (Yellow) sculpture on its front. To which we, on behalf of art history, are obliged to ask: what is that messenger bag truly the messenger of?

According to the store’s website, it is affordable art: “If you can’t afford a $58 million dog sculpture, why not have the next best thing?” But is this bag really the next best thing? Likely not, and how unfortunate, granted that Koons and H&M actually had potential to procure something meaningful. Despite the fact that Koons’ egregious auction prices make his work inaccessible for almost anyone to buy, his repertoire relies on a level of accessibility, usually public display, for everyone to see — “The people’s artist.” And the company itself follows a similar “for the people” mission to make that which is high-end become newly available. On the partnership Koons explained, “The chance to showcase one of my most popular works to a new generation of people was inspiring.” But showing a preexisting artwork to the public as opposed to making new art, are two different gestures. The choice to reproduce an already known image instead of to create something specific for the brand tainted this collaboration for both parties involved. That is not to say that reproduced art cannot provide for successful results. But mixing the right artwork with the right brand and on the right piece is a delicate juggling act.

Opening Ceremony x René Magritte magnificently struck this balance with the French artist’s surrealist paintings reprinted on sweaters, dresses, Vans, and even Manolo Blahnik’s classic BB heel. Yet in this example, the selection of paintings — such as Magritte’s Hegel’s Holiday, which features an umbrella under a glass of water above a warm pink ground — manages to extend the very heritage of surrealism itself, which revolves around irrational juxtaposed images and the body: when worn, the umbrella’s wings sprawl across the shoulders, and the water glass visually balances on the chest. The impact is just as trippy and intriguing as the artwork itself, and the collection successfully resonates both with Opening Ceremony’s own penchant for whimsicality, as well as with Magritte’s artistic movement.

Yet in the case of H&M, no such harmony was struck — and not necessarily because a preexisting artwork was used, but because the very image of that artwork comes into conceptual conflict with the brand. Specifically, because the subject matter of Koons’ original 12-foot chromium stainless steel, color-coated artwork is a mass-produced thing: a toy balloon dog. Yet by virtue of its blown-up scale, materials and composition, his sculpture visibly distinguishes itself from the commodity upon which it is based, palpably claiming: I am Art. So then how terribly ironic it is, how critically amusing, that an art whose very essence is to declare itself as anything but a mass-produced object, would end up printed and sold upon one! From an art theoretical viewpoint, H&M, intending to manipulate a “limited edition” good to become obtainable “art” into the collective consciousness, instead yields an object that overtly announces itself as the opposite, art’s nemesis: pure commodity.

Perhaps Koons was in on the joke all along. Perhaps not. Either way, it is clear that the challenge to make a powerful [Brand x Artist] collaboration is as follows: how can a brand elevate and enhance itself and its products through art, without art being commodified and the artist undermined in the process?

Historically, this is not the first time art found itself threatened due to the advent of modern consumerism. In the 19th century, as a result of the political cataclysms of the French Revolution and the subsequent Franco-Prussian war of 1870, France’s social fabric experienced two significant alterations which greatly affected art history; firstly, the creation of a new republican parliamentary democracy under the third republic, and secondly, the unbridled bouts of urbanization, progressive economies, and new mechanics consequential of Europe’s industrial revolution. Due to advancing technologies that allowed for infinite reproductions, art was being copied and commodified to satiate the collective’s taste for consumption. In response, artists and art enthusiasts such as dandies, aesthetes and intellectuals panicked, picked up and packed up. An urgency to conserve art ensued, which kindled various artistic movements (Aestheticism and Decadence, among others), art salons and most importantly, the emergence of public galleries.

Enter, the museum: a saving grace to allow for art to remain art, framed and famed, far from reproducing forces (like those in the lower level gift shop). It is also the space where objects — from religious relics to toilets — can become newly named “art” by virtue of their curation. This is because historically, when museums opened after imperial conquests, pillages of non-European cultures, and revolutions, the curator had allowed for all types of “beautiful” objects with heretofore religious or political contexts — a Byzantine cross, the Venus de Milo, the great Sphinx of Tanis — to become de-functionalized upon their entrance into the museum. Then, when Marcel Duchamp in 1917, took a urinal, signed it, and placed it on display, rather than performing the aforementioned iconoclastic gesture by de-sanctifying something holy to become art, he performed an iconophilic one by elevating an everyday mass-manufactured thing to be artwork as well. In both instances, the strategic approach of the curator and his museum determine an object’s fate as art. A urinal outside of a museum is only a thing into which one urinates, not an art that one confronts and contemplates.

As art today faces a similar contemporary culture shock as it did in the 19th century, brands should learn from its history by turning to the curatorial once more. Let us be mindful that today “curating” has become an overused and hackneyed term. In actuality, one cannot curate a pizza nor one’s Facebook timeline in the full and proper sense of the word. In the museological platform from which it originated, curation entails the placement and mediation of objects across 
a space. It is the conceptualization and management of aesthetics, usually art, based on the curator’s predetermined ideas for the effects that will arise at the moment of retinal reception.

So if a curator is able to strategize objects to be art, as well as to protect art from being commodified, then should brands not be following a curatorial approach when attempting to use it? In other words, may we be so bold as to suggest that the best way for a brand to work with art is not through collaboration but rather through curation?

This is not to propose that we put Nike sneakers in the MoMA and see if their value increases (they would…). Rather, we should consider putting the MoMA into the Nike retail space by choosing artworks or commissioning art to be made that correspond to the brand and its products. In an experiential environment with art, products will naturally be elevated by virtue of the fact that they are surrounded by the aura of art, but also because well-chosen art will make those objects part of the artistic process of seeing, looking, contemplating and appreciating. In turn, the artworks present will remain free from any undermining mechanical forces, displayed instead true in their unique states.

UNDERCOVER’s newest store in Hong Kong perfectly exemplifies how a brand can use art to meaningfully curate their space, elevate their goods, and maintain the artwork’s prestige. Serving as the backdrop to the store is a 16th century painting by Flemish Renaissance painter Joachim Patinir, Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx. Although a Renaissance work may seem a bizarrely anachronistic transplant around brands like Paul Harnden, White Mountaineering, ACRONYM and Porter Classic, its very presence epitomizes the essence of the art renaissance taking place today. While the painting references Virgil and Dante, thereby adding a hint of intellectual clout to the space, its presence has been hyper-strategized, or curated, and does not appear in the least bit pretentious nor out of place. The artwork has been made relevant to the brand, in two ways. Aesthetically, the bold image offers a striking and dramatic palette of rich colors and tight geometric composition that plays off the muted hues and architectural store design. Secondly, the themes within it resonate with those of UNDERCOVER. Its creative director Jun Takahashi explains that the brand is inspired by the very opposing forces found within the painting, such as good and evil, heaven and hell.

The other work of art, a shimmering installation made of 20,000 lightbulbs, both technically, but also conceptually, illuminates the inventory. Firstly, it takes as its subject a mass-manufactured object: the lightbulb. But unlike Koons who created something after the idea of an everyday thing in order to differentiate itself from it, this installation actively uses that object to create anew. Within a retail location, this art installation boldly acknowledges mass-production, but then exquisitely defies it by displaying the way by which that object can be reconfigured into a sphere of art. And is this not precisely what the goal of [Brand x Artist] is? Ah, the lightbulb really does signify a good idea.

Another strong example of a well-curated approach to [Brand x Artist] is KITH’s New York SoHo store. Like UNDERCOVER, KITH collaborated with artists not to make their products, but to make art around them. In a similar mode by which the lightbulb installation operates, Daniel Arsham’s hanging ceiling installation, composed of a slew of all-white Air Jordan 1 sneaker molds, stunningly greets visitors for an experiential shopping experience. Lucas Monroe, the store’s manager explains, “I work in a space that blows people away the minute they walk in here. Everyone looks up and takes pictures, as if they were in a museum.” On the art installations in the store he notes, “Everything that is in here makes sense. We don’t have molds of dogs hanging from the ceiling. It’s an Air Jordan 1, one of the most iconic shoes of all time.” The artwork in situ is visually captivating: Airs float in the air above us, forming a white cloud in a concave hall reminiscent of the Louvre’s Greek wing. Furthermore, the piece resonates with the brand’s own cultish disposition for street culture and sneaker drops. Lastly, Arsham’s work professes the sneaker as a cultural icon, capable of operating like a work of art itself. The result is that every other shoe in that store stands up a little bit taller, proud of its prospective status, and shining under the artistic light ready to make an imprint — or rather, footprint — in contemporary culture.

As brands like UNDERCOVER and KITH continue to artfully strategize their goods through a curatorial approach with both historic and new works, they verify new capabilities to upgrade their spaces and all that resides within them. If intelligently curated, both products and art are able to coexist in a beautiful, symbiotic relationship. If this trend takes flight and persists onwards – if art continues to be placed not onto products, but around them – then our next question may no longer concern the future of art but, instead, the fate of the museum. For if art is both a product of our culture as well as a producer of it, then contemporary works may no longer need to rely upon the museum for its validation – a space which may become less relevant to the economically powered retail world we live in. As we lace up our Air Jordan 1s and grab our missy to head to MoMA to see a shiny piece of Koons, we might wonder instead if we should stop by the latest store opening: rumor has it that there is a retrospective on [Brand x Artist] that is not to be missed.

Words by Anya Firestone

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