Art store trip

Many premium fashion retailers are raising their game in the high street with pointedly ’artsy’ design and fit-outs that blur the distinction between stores and galleries. John Stones goes shopping to get his fix of art and collectors’ items

With the famous exception of Gerald Ratner, retailers rarely wish to give the impression they are selling tat. Most put considerable effort into creating a sense of quality. But high-end retailers are increasingly upping the ante by offering ’curated’ retail events, which combine the experience of visiting an art gallery with spending your husband’s bonus.

In a recent issue of Vogue, Victoria Beckham, the high priestess of consumerism, selected her favourite works of art. Among them was Prada 1, a portentously objective image of a rack of luxury shoes by German art photographer Andreas Gursky. This she praised for its ’really interesting look at the meeting of art and high consumer culture’.

Offering a similarly intriguing liaison between the world of the art gallery and luxury retailing are a clutch of recent fashion stores, including the flagship Mayfair stores of Louis Vuitton and Mulberry, Acne Studios in London’s Dover Street, Selfridges’ Shoe Galleries and the clothing stores of Folk, the most recent of which opened in Munich.

The term ’collection’ has long been current in the world of fashion. But now, at stores such as Acne Studio, it can refer as much to the art works on show as the clothes for sale.

Casually dotted around Acne’s Georgian terraced house (subtly converted by Gort Scott to pass for a gallery or a collector’s private home) are works of art by Jean Cocteau and Jeremiah Goodman, as well as sculpture by Helmut Lang. According to the brand’s founder and creative director, Jonny Johansson, the idea is that the store should be a ’house of creativity’.

Around the corner, Mulberry’s flagship store also conspicuously boasts the features of a modern art gallery. ’Mulberry has a tradition of working with sculptors and photographers and also of commissioning some quite extreme installations, such as sparkly leopards,’ explains Hannah Carter Owers, associate director of Universal Design Studio, which designed the store. ’The space had to be strong enough to withstand all of this stuff. It’s a gallery-like space for Mulberry to pull around and change – it’s theirs to play with.’

Brands are viewing flagship stores as places to communicate ideas about what they find interesting

The fit-out contractors used on the project were art gallery specialists. An artwork consisting of small plaques was commissioned for the store from Jonathan Ellery, partly because his use of brass suited the store’s colour scheme.

’The installation is embedded in the poured concrete floor – something special that people wouldn’t perhaps notice on their first visit but would cause delight when they did. It is not a big statement, but quiet and passive – some of the plaques are even hidden away,’ says Carter Owers.

’Brands have had to up their game in a competitive market, but also the nature of shopping has changed,’ she explains. ’If someone wants to simply buy something, they can go online to do it. Brands are viewing flagship stores as places to communicate ideas about what they find interesting.’

The stores of fashion brand Folk have a hand-crafted aesthetic which reflects the values of the clothes. They feature large, carved marble heads and are the result of a friendship between the brand’s founder and creative director, Cathal McAteer, and sculptor Paul Vanstone, a former assistant to Anish Kapoor.

’Over time, the heads have become a more integrated feature of the store,’ says Matt Cottis of IYA Studio, which designed the shops. ’Different people view them in very different ways. Some sit on them, others simply admire them, but feedback is always positive.’

This personal element comes to the fore in the Christian Louboutin section in Selfridges’ recently opened Shoe Galleries. Designed by Household, its concept was inspired by Louboutin’s own Paris apartment, which houses his extensive and eclectic artworks collection and personal artefacts. The designers went back and forth from Paris, selecting and suggesting items for inclusion, including framed family photographs.

’The idea is that the man is as interesting as his shoe,’ explains Michelle Du-Prât, insights director at Household. ’The apartment allows the customer to feel closer to him, offers a more intimate relationship with a visionary and celebrity.’

The proliferation of affordable luxury on the high street has set the bar higher for store design. Says Du-Prât, ’Offering access to somebody or a lifestyle beyond the product is something you couldn’t [previously] get on the high street.’

The most extreme instance is Louis Vuitton’s New Bond Street store, Maison. While the metallic glitz of the facade and interior chains devised by the store’s architect, Peter Marino, wow the visitor, so does the impressive roll-call of contemporary art on show inside the store. It includes works by Gilbert and George, Jean Tinguely, Takashi Murakami, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, Bertrand Lavier, Hans Hartung and Richard Prince, a personal friend of Louis Vuitton creative director Marc Jacobs. Some works were commissioned for the store, others sourced from the personal collections of Louis Vuitton’s top brass.

At Maison’s opening, Yves Carcelle, chairman and chief executive of Louis Vuitton, suggested, ’Luxury and art are both expressions of emotion and passion; they both search the exceptional and give us an alternative view of the world. People come to Louis Vuitton stores not only for shopping, but also to experience a certain “way of life”.’

If retail is aping the world of the art gallery, so the art world has adopted some of the commercial acumen of retail: notably Damien Hirst, who has so masterfully and cynically played with art as a commodity. Perhaps the dividing line is not clear as many have previously thought.

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