Art and luxury have intersected time and again in China as brands work to find new ways to engage aspiring collectors and art enthusiasts, especially those within the country’s budding market of Gen-Y consumers. Agencies and brands are increasingly using influential artists and their work to make inroads to connect directly to this audience through branding and commercial products. Coming to Shanghai’s Yuz Museum late this month is an artist who is adept at connecting these markets thanks to his growing following of youth in the United States: Brian Donnelly, widely known as KAWS. The renowned graffiti and pop artist is showcasing his work for his first survey exhibition in Asia, and if it’s anything like his current show at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, it will be bringing in a wave of curious Chinese millennials.
KAWS is showing signs of how his popularity in the West (the artist known for his toys and streetwear collaborations has more than 600,000 followers on Instagram) could translate to China. His influence is already blossoming in both the mainland and in Hong Kong. As recent as January, Sotheby’s “Boundless: Contemporary Art” auction in Hong Kong saw the sales of several of his pieces, which spanned from paintings to sculptures, beat estimates. It was in 2015 that KAWS first officially hit the mainland, taking a Hong Kong installation called “CLEAN SLATE” to debut in Shanghai’s Huangpu District through a partnership with Lane Crawford.
At the Yuz Museum exhibit, KAWS: “WHERE THE END STARTS,” which takes place from March 28 to August 13, KAWS is displaying a vast range of his key works spanning the last two decades, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, toys, and “advertisement interventions” that feature his iconic style that plays off of cartoon-like imagery recognizable in Western consumer culture.
But aside from artwork and exhibitions, KAWS has been making a name for himself through brand collaborations that are buoyed by the growing interest among Chinese youth with streetwear culture and its imagery. His Uniqlo collaboration last year, which came out thanks to his longtime friend and co-collaborator, Uniqlo creative director and streetwear icon NIGO, sold out instantly online and in stores in the United States and China and eventually had to be re-released. The artist has also worked with Nike, and soon plans to launch special edition Air Jordan’s with glow-in-the-dark soles, which will retail on the high-end side, at around US$350. While there isn’t yet news on Chinese consumers’ reception to the upcoming release, it wouldn’t be the first time for a sneaker collaboration to captivate China’s affluent sneakerheads.
But while these brands target the fashion-savvy aspiring middle class shoppers, KAWS has also been establishing a firm footing in the luxury industry with a series of partnerships. He worked with Hennessy in 2011, and around the same time as the Uniqlo collab last year, the artist did a capsule collection of leather handbags in partnership with New York x Columbia brand Nancy Gonzalez, which started at around US$3,000 and immediately sold out.
While this type of high-end creative concert did not take place on the mainland, there is no doubt potential brewing, as art museums in China have already been making efforts to connect the dots between luxury and art to attract a new wave of millennial consumers. A more recent example of this type of partnership took place late last year at K11 Art Mall in Shanghai, which hosted an art exhibition featuring Vivienne Westwood’s collections and contributions to environmental causes. The show also saw the luxury fashion designer creating limited-edition handbags for the department store’s trendy Chinese-designer boutique exclusively for the event.
Cross-pollination between the art and luxury industries is moving to redefine a luxury corridor in order to grow audiences and reach aspiring Chinese consumers who want to find a way to opt into the contemporary artist culture through buying into its product-based and commercial sphere. KAWS is already providing an avenue in which to do this—his Fort Worth exhibition closed with a blockbuster attendance of 400,000 visitors, drawing “a healthy crowd of millennials.” As luxury continues to change, consumers will likely see more of this type of collaboration, even with larger luxury companies (Louis Vuitton and Supreme, anyone?) moving in this direction.