Many claim that the British high street hasn’t shaken off its hangover from the Eighties. Fashion may have advanced from shoulder pads to hipsters, but by and large shop interiors have played it safe for almost a decade. No one has broken the mould, to the extent that no project was deemed worthy of a prize for innovation in the retail category by the judges of last year’s Design Week Awards.
But with an initiative by fashion chain Jigsaw to exhibit and sell art and ceramics alongside clothing things could be looking up. Could it be that the high street is sticking its neck out and moving into the arena traditionally occupied by independent fashion boutiques?
Jigsaw’s programme began in February with an exhibition by artist Michael Craig Martin in the Bond Street flagship store. This summer, the chain established links with the Royal College of Art to promote work of selected first-year MA students in its 29 stores across the country. Andrew Martin, head of visual merchandising at Jigsaw, explains: “We wanted to find new ways to use our window space.” As well as making the store more contemporary and reaching a wider audience. “The response has been very positive. We have sold several pieces,” adds Martin. “For RCA students, displaying work in a retail environment rather than a gallery is a great challenge and gives students much greater exposure” explains Professor Glynn Williams, head of its school of fine art, as well as being an ideal way of testing mass market reactions to their work
For designer Carlo Brandelli, there shouldn’t be boundaries between art and clothing. Responsible for designing ultra-chic menswear store Squire on London’s Clifford Street two years ago, Brandelli saw a “poignant connection” between both mediums, and put clothing alongside pop art from the likes of Allen Jones. Surprisingly, the canvasses sold better than the fashion, a fact which caused a furore among the neighbouring art galleries of Cork Street. “They were really annoyed that people were responding to art in the shop, and that we were breaking down the elitist associations which often go with art.” For him, “walls and bare spaces have always been overlooked, filled instead with promotional material and fittings,” he says. “No one considered using them as part of the store.” He is sceptical of the wave of stores now devoting sections to art, claiming it is a format that will not work everywhere. “Many shops are fusing everything and doing it badly. You must be sensitive to the area and environment you are operating in and find a balance between being commercially sensible and wacky,” he cautions.
Like Squire, London store Egg is an independent shop which has sold clothes and art together since it opened in 1994. It was a natural synthesis to put the two together, explains Egg exhibition organiser Grant Boston. He is glad that large stores are bringing art into their selling spaces as not enough is brought out of galleries into a more public arena, but is wary of people being “caught up with the ‘lifestyle’ idea. It’s worrying if this is just a fashion thing,” he says.
Whether it’s a fashion thing or not, high street retailers are certainly hunting for new talent. When Debi Retallick of textile design duo Kin went for an interview at Monsoon as a visual merchandiser, after a look at her portfolio, Monsoon commissioned her to design 150 pieces of hanging art for its stores worldwide. “We were given an open brief to do what we wanted,” explains partner and husband Jono. “As the high street favours character over mass-produced stuff, more artists are being commissioned to come up with their own ideas rather than responding to a brief.” Kin predicts that as retailers search for ideas that challenge the conventional idea of shopping, “art supermarkets are not far away”. And the high street is the most powerful vehicle to bring art to the public.
Art also formed the basis of a plan to position Selfridges as more contemporary, says marketing director Nick Cross, who began thinking in earnest about the idea at the beginning of this year. Eager to avoid the “hands-off relationship you have as a sponsor”, Cross realised the answer lay in promoting artists through the store. While shops windows were an obvious avenue through which to showcase new talent – young architectural practice D2 being one team chosen to do a display – Cross wanted to do more than “just put art in the windows”. Hence, there are video screens showing graphics, short films and catwalk shows.
And for the first time, Selfridges has commissioned an artist directly, partly because of a collaboration with the Serpentine Gallery which began last year. Artist Anya Gallaccio was commissioned to design Dandelion, a limited edition print on silk organza, sold through the store. This coincided with an exhibition on the Serpentine Gallery lawn entitled Keep off the Grass in which artists, Gallaccio among them, created works in front of the Serpentine Gallery which was closed for refurbishment. In the autumn, an exhibition of work by Eduardo Paolozzi will coincide with the re-opening of the newly renovated gallery.
Says Cross: “It’s easy for retail designers to be formulaic, as they have to work quickly and often on a large number of stores. But customers respond to something that is different.” Designing retail spaces to incorporate artistic talent is one solution – as long as it does not become a formula in itself. It may not be long before you can go to M&S to buy a pair of socks, whizz round its gallery and come back with a watercolour under your arm.
In May this year, Hugo Boss’ flagship store on London’s Regent Street asked US artist Laurie Anderson to decorate its shop front. Anderson’s installation Zero to Counter covered the shop with graffiti and devised a haunting soundtrack which was blasted on to the street. The spectacle came about not, as you might suspect, as Boss was launching a new collection, but because Anderson was runner-up in last year’s Hugo Boss Prize at the New York Guggenheim.
A five-year sponsorship programme between the Guggenheim Museum and the fashion chain began in 1994, after Boss picked up on a US survey which claimed that the majority of visitors to New York attended art rather than sporting events. Having spent 12 years sponsoring motor racing, golf and tennis, and with the latest “golf” collection to be released in next February, Boss has admittedly positioned itself as “masculine and sporty”. However, identifying lifestyle in the Nineties as focusing on “understatement, a private life and individual independence”, and with a women’s range appearing in autumn 1998, the label has to appeal to a wider audience.
As part of the collaboration, Boss funds around three major exhibitions planned by the museum per year, as well as the biennual Hugo Boss prize for international artistic contribution. Following the Boss-sponsored Ellsworth Kelly exhibition at The Tate in London, another retrospective, of American artist Robert Rauschenberg, at the Guggenheim in New York, will receive Boss funding. And naturally, the German company will be present at the opening of the Guggenheim in Bilbao in the autumn.
Sponsorship of exhibitions in large museums such as the Guggenheim has traditionally been the domain of large conglomerates trying to promote themselves with a less corporate image and target an elite; publisher Pearson is behind the Georges Seurat exhibition currently at The National Gallery, while following the huge success of the Paul CÃ©zanne exhibition at The Tate last year, accountant Ernst &Young will again give its backing there next year to the Pierre Bonnard collection. According to a spokesman from the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts, it is most unusual that a fashion retailer shows such commitment to sponsorship. “In general, fashion retailers sponsor quirky, one-off shows. For example, Mulberry sponsored the Cutting Edge exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Hugo Boss is operating on the kind of scale which is traditionally associated with City companies.”
Not surprisingly, Boss was involved in the formation last year of AKS (Kulturstiftung Haus Europa), the German equivalent of ABSA. So why so much involvement? Unlike Selfridges,
Hugo Boss is vehement that it would never commission an artist to design a Boss T-shirt, for example; and the Guggenheim is wholly responsible for curating artists.
It appears that as well as appealing to a wider audience, the company is happy with the perks which come its way; Frank Gehry, architect of the Bilbao Guggenheim, gave a talk at the Boss HQ in Metzingen, Germany. Film-maker and artist Matthew Barney is to show one of his films to staff and Anderson is going back for more interactive window dressing, this time at the German HQ. All staff receive an “artpass” allowing free entry into exhibitions worldwide and participate in art workshops. As sponsorship of the arts reaches record levels, perhaps Boss will become a role model for other fashion retailers.