The line between luxury and art is blurring across the world, but it’s doing so especially quickly in China.
With extremely high net worth and a taste for the finer things in life, art collectors are seen as the Holy Grail of customer demographics for luxury brands. As the ultimate luxury item, art has long been a way for labels that produce handbags, jewelry, and clothes to transcend their commercialism though sponsorship and collaborations, reaching prospective customers on a higher level than can be achieved in a retail setting. Thanks to its role as a critical global market for both art and luxury goods, China has become a key location where brands are using museums, galleries, and their own products to reach this affluent audience.
There are many marketing benefits for luxury brands that tap into the influence of the elite art world in China. When holding or sponsoring exhibitions, brands can reach museums’ and galleries’ VIP Chinese networks, who are invited to exclusive openings and exposed to the brand through the organizations’ mailing accounts and social media.
Many luxury brand-sponsored China exhibitions at prestigious museums and galleries merge art, branding, and the products themselves. In the case of branded exhibitions, the luxury products are placed alongside art in an equal setting as in Gucci’s recent “No Longer / Not Yet” exhibition at the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai, or the items become art themselves—such as when Dior had prominent Chinese artists design their own interpretation of the classic Lady Dior handbag for its “Lady Dior as Seen By” exhibition. Other examples include Bottega Veneta’s “Art of Collaboration” exhibition that began on opened at UCCA in Beijing on June 8, Dior’s Shanghai exhibition in 2014 and Beijing exhibition in 2015 featuring the Miss Dior fragrance reinterpreted by 17 female artists, and BMW’s Beijing exhibition last month.
In addition to these branded collaborative exhibitions, luxury companies are also heavily involved in philanthropy in China’s art world, sponsoring a growing number of Chinese contemporary art exhibitions both in China and globally. Earlier this year, conglomerate LVMH hosted an exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris that marked the first time in a decade that an exhibition devoted to contemporary Chinese art had appeared in the city. Called “Bentu: Chinese artists at a time of turbulence and transformation,” the exhibition co-curated by UCCA ran from January 27 to May 2 and brought together the work of 12 mainland Chinese artists of different generations focusing on massive changes happening in Chinese society.
But brands need to make sure that their efforts in the art world are seen as genuine, says UCCA Director Phil Tinari. He notes that luxury and art collaborations “work best when there is a true connection between the exhibition and the brand’s history, values, and marketing strategy in China. If these things are aligned, it becomes possible to find very interesting ways of working together that, rather than dilute the exhibition content, allow us to share it with a larger audience than we might simply working on our own.” For example, Tiffany & Co. is sponsoring UCCA’s current “Rauschenberg in China” exhibition, which ties in well after the brand historically collaborated with Rauschenberg in the 1950s.
In addition to luxury brands, large banks are also getting involved in the Chinese art world to reach ultra-rich potential clients for wealth management services. UBS serves as the lead partner for Art Basel (taking over from Deutsche Bank as the lead sponsor in 2013) and now has a direct line to the Chinese art collector scene through Art Basel Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Bank of America Merrill Lynch has been supporting numerous Chinese art restoration projects including a collection of ancient Qinglongzhen ceramics at the Shanghai Museum and a Sui dynasty marble Buddhist figure at the British Museum.
The alignment between art and luxury in China takes place not only in traditional exhibition venues, but in commercial spaces as well. Luxury art malls such as K11 in Shanghai and Parkview Green in Beijing frequently feature new pieces and exhibitions to attract foot traffic. These retail exhibitions aren’t just showing works by small unknown names—the first ever Monet exhibition to take place in mainland China was not at a museum, but at K11 Art Mall in Shanghai in 2014. Shopping centers outside China are also taking an interest in Chinese art as wealthy Chinese travelers fan the globe—around the time of Chinese New Year this year, French department store Le Bon Marché featured a major installation by Ai Weiwei.
Meanwhile, luxury art hotels have been rapidly popping up across China so quickly that fine art is almost a requirement for a new property to gain the attention of the ultra-elite—in addition to Swire Hotels’ quickly expanding art hotel portfolio that includes Beijing’s EAST Hotel and Opposite House and Chengdu’s Temple House, Hotel Éclat Beijing has works by Dali and Warhol, as well as contemporary Chinese artists Chen Wenling, Gao Xiaowu, and Zeng Fanzhi. Zeng Fanzhi also created artwork for the new luxury art hotel brand NUO, which is owned by state-owned enterprise Beijing Tourism Group and opened its first location in June last year in Beijing, with plans to take its brand global. The artwork was previously estimated by hotel representatives to be worth around US$50 million, while the artist has not revealed an actual value. Meanwhile, the Swatch Art Peace Hotel on Shanghai’s Bund, which is owned by the watch conglomerate, features both retail space and an artist residency program.
One area in which the art and luxury worlds have been slower at merging in China is the case of artist collaborations with fashion brands. Although it’s not uncommon for artists to team up with brands to design special-edition handbags or clothing—for example, Louis Vuitton has enlisted many artists to design items throughout the years such as Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami—Chinese artists have been less active than other nationalities in this regard.
This may be changing, however, as auction houses are increasingly selling more luxury goods in the China market. In April this year, Louis Vuitton teamed up with legendary contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing to create a trunk that will be auctioned off at Sotheby’s in Beijing later this year. The trunk, which took two years to make, features the traditional Louis Vuitton monogram pattern along with Xu Bing’s signature hybrid English-Chinese script to form text inspired by a poem by the modern Chinese poet Zhai Yongming, and inside are traditional Chinese ink brushes.
The idea that luxury can be a form of “art” in itself is gaining traction, if recent Hong Kong auction results are any indication. While watches and jewelry have long been auction staples, luxury leather goods are now becoming a growing force in the global auction scene, with China serving as the epicenter for the action. Last week, a diamond-encrusted Birkin handbag made of Himalaya Niloticus crocodile skin set the record for the most expensive handbag ever sold at auction when it commanded a price of US$300,168. The bag’s final price was more than that of a scroll which previously belonged to the Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi, which sold for approximately HK$1 million (about US$128,000). This overtook the previous record for a handbag which was set just last year with the purchase of a fuchsia diamond-studded Birkin for $222,000—also sold at Christie’s Hong Kong.
These sales mark the massive success of Christie’s new Hong Kong handbag live auctions that it started in 2014 after the auction house hired former Heritage Auctions luxury division head Matt Rubinger, prompting a $60 million lawsuit filed by Heritage against Christie’s for stealing trade secrets.
While the prices of top handbags are just a tiny fraction of what blue-chip art sells for, they are easier to sell and help to attract entry-level Chinese collectors to the auction scene. The sale of Birkin bags in Hong Kong at auction and online brings in profit for auction houses without high exhibition expenses. In addition, Rubinger recently told Business of Fashion that “you can’t always pick up the phone and call a client you haven’t spoken to in 15 years and offer them a $30 million painting, but you can with handbags,” and “the purse collector is one of the best demographics there is” for reaching art buyers.
The auctions also don’t hurt the image of the luxury brands being sold, helping to solidify their status as investment pieces that will appreciate in value. While this is true mainly of Hermès for now, other brands including Chanel and Bottega Veneta have been sold at Christie’s auctions. This is especially beneficial for Christie’s owner François Pinault, who also owns luxury conglomerate and Bottega Veneta parent company Kering and will have a big advantage if more Kering brands such as Gucci and Balenciaga are sold through Christie’s in the future.
As the luxury world becomes increasingly assertive that at least some of its products could be considered true works of art, there is concern among curators about commercialization and their growing reach into the art world. In the future, China is likely to be at the front lines of this debate as the spending habits of its rich determine if both artists and brands benefit from these collaborations in the long run.