Art isn't just for decoration. It can also be used as a strategic marketing and branding tool that evokes desire from consumers. As globalization and digital culture redefine luxury and exclusivity, savvy retailers have turned to the art world to enhance customer experiences.

According to "Consumer Perceptions of How Luxury Brand Stores Become Art Institutions," a study published in the Journal of Retailing (2014), luxury stores like Louis Vuitton have become contemporary art institutions, with consumers complicit in the construction of their own (Art) experiences: "Art drives taste; taste drives consumption."

The study describes Louis Vuitton flagship stores in Hong Kong as becoming hybrid institutions embodying elements of both art galleries and museums, within a context of exclusivity emblematic of luxury. "The company's sleekly elegant architecture, interior design, and adroit use of lighting are modelled after those of museums housing world-class exhibits."

The merchandise is artisanal, produced in collaboration with well-known artists such as Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Takashi Murakami. Objects for sale are displayed alongside actual art, rendering both equal in value. Employees function as curators, offering guidance and knowledge in the art, and sales.

ARTNEWS (2015) notes that Louis Vuitton's 13-year "affair" with Takashi Murakami introduced a "model of lucrative codependency between fashion and art that is now de rigueur."  Federica Codignola and Elisa Rancati, researchers at the Università degli Studi di Milano (2016) note:

The art world has in fact always acted as a field of desire, aspiration, and seduction. This is also because the art market itself creates and distributes goods that have more of a symbolic rather than material value. Art goods are esteemed not only for their financial value as investment goods, but also for their intangible, social/artistic aspects. For instance, for the luxury fashion industry the flagship store represents something through which [they can] enhance prestige and exclusivity. In the same way, for artists, dealers, and collectors, the glittering top circuits of the global art market (high-end galleries, museums, auction houses, fairs, etc.) perform the same functions. Such stylish and luxurious commercial environments shape affluent communities which emerge to sustain each other in terms of their logic of style and exclusivity.

Codignola and Rancati observe that customer perceptions of a luxury fashion brand are more positive when it is connected with contemporary art. Moreover, luxury fashion brands which associate with contemporary art and artists, bridge gaps in generations by simultaneously appealing to a wider audience without diminishing the brand's aura.

Art is not just about luxury in retail

Virgil Abloh creator of the fashion line Off-white (and famed for his collaborations with Kanye West) says, "It's about creating true experiences, enhancing the product in a way we haven't seen, and creating ambiance." Art has the power to create emotional connections in bricks and mortar stores that can't be matched online.

Abloh and Murakami make commerce explicit in their collaborative art exhibit now on display at London's Gagosian Gallery (until April 7). The New York Times encapsulates  their show in a review called "First Came the Sneakerheads, Then the Blue-Chip Art Collectors." (Update: Abloh was just named artistic director of Louis Vuitton's menswear.)

Meanwhile in Vancouver, the Murakami retrospective (until May 6) is drawing huge crowds to see The Octopus Eats its Own Leg, meaning, like the octopus, you can survive for a while by feeding on old ideas, but to move forward, you need to constantly recreate old ideas into new creativity.

Peter Simons, president and CEO of Simons, a 175-year-old Canadian family-owned department store, says art is part of their legacy:

 "We've been creating an experiential environment for 70, 80 years. For me it's part of community involvement. Beauty remains one of the truths. In the pursuit of a perfect space, art has to have a role."

All of Simons' stores incorporate art installations and unique architectural elements. They commission works by notable local artists, including internationally renowned Douglas Coupland, (bestselling author of Generation X, designer, and artist.) Simons says being a private company allows liberties to indulge in beauty and truth, "but it's not capricious.Great art somehow has to be communal." 

So, what does this mean for those of us not in retail?

I invite you to explore the works of leading contemporary artists, and what they have to say --even if you don't like their work as first glance. What makes them tick?  Where do they get ideas from? and so forth. The best way to learn is to visit museums that feature contemporary artists, and attend talks given by artists, and curators. If you keep an open mind you will embark on a path of discovery that could inspire creative ideas about your own business.

Published on: Mar 27, 2018