TWO YEARS AGO, LVMH executive Delphine Arnault orchestrated a collaboration with Yayoi Kusama that, in Arnault’s words, scripted a “new blueprint for the [Louis Vuitton] brand’s cultural play.” There had been collaborations with artists before, but this endeavor charted new terrain. Under the creative directorship of Ferdinando Verderi, the corporate campaign introduced Kusama to a new global multi platform audience, and helped realize Kusama’s long-held wish—to cover the world with dots.
Every aspect of the collaboration honored the 94-year-old artist’s authorship, from the dots on the editioned Louis Vuitton luxury items, the billboards, and every piece of digital content annotated and populated with her signature orbs and circles. An enormous sculpture of the artist herself was placed on the roof of the Maison Louis Vuitton on the Place Vendôme in Paris. A hyperrealistic animatronic Kusama figure stood painting dots in the store’s window. Not coincidentally, the Kusama collaboration came after Arnault’s father, LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault, declared that Louis Vuitton was more than luxury fashion, it was a “cultural brand.” His statement signaled a historic transition in the dynamic between art and fashion.
Dramatic moves into the cultural sphere by global corporations haven’t been happening at LVMH alone. In September, the Pinault family investment company Artémis (holder of luxury brands including Gucci, Balenciaga, and Alexander McQueen) bought a majority stake in Creative Artists Agency. Such congregations of creative industry giants are expanding the criteria for who constitutes the “talent” of the future.
Exchanges between art and fashion have long been seen as transactional in nature, a trade-off between the former’s cultural preeminence and the latter’s broad visibility. But the platforms and audiences for both are evolving into an expansive, accessible, algorithmically shaped viewing sphere that is pulling both art and fashion out of once-rarefied worlds. There has been a flattening effect, where the many talents involved in both arenas now form a shimmering pool of multi-hyphenate creatives.
Meanwhile, the terms “audience” and “consumer” no longer refer exclusively to a select and captive few who venture into museums, galleries, or luxury stores. The growing size of fashion and art audiences in our streaming-driven world imposes new demands on everyone involved. Ambitious visual storytelling strategies have become an essential tool for cultural play and broad reach. IRL experiences are still key, but viewership and engagement are cascading across increasingly fragmented communications media. We now create, operate, and consume in a world of boundaryless fusions. Creative directors and photographers are riding the crest of this new wave.
IT WAS THE LATE VIRGIL ABLOH who created the blueprint for axis-shifting multi-hyphenate creative talent. Abloh held the position of creative director of Louis Vuitton Men from 2019 until his untimely death in 2021. During his influential tenure, he positively disrupted the status quo. Abloh used his already pivotal role in the transformation of streetwear into luxury menswear as leverage within LVMH to construct an architecture for creative futures. He shared processes, platforms, and privileges with those who were coming up after him, and he blurred the lines between designer and artist while confronting the fashion industry with big questions about sustainability and cultural barriers to participation. When his exhibition “Figures of Speech” opened at the MCA in Chicago in 2019, it tapped into something in the culture, upping the museum’s attendance by 24 percent.
It was Karl Lagerfeld who established the turn away from the title of “fashion designer” toward “creative director” within luxury fashion houses, with his influential directorship of Fendi (from 1965) and Chanel (since 1983) until his death in 2019. Beyond just a designer of fashion collections, this impresario drove the brand into new realms of cultural presence. A landmark example of his extraordinary showmanship was the Spring/Summer 2008 Fendi runway he orchestrated on a stretch of the 2,000-year-old Great Wall of China, shortly before the Beijing Olympic Games.
Marc Jacobs’s tenure as creative director at Louis Vuitton (1997–2014) set a high benchmark for artistic collaborations in the luxury fashion arena. Jacobs worked regularly and successfully with artists such as Jeff Koons and Richard Prince; in 2006 he initiated LV’s enduring relationship with Yayoi Kusama. In 2003 Jacobs collaborated with superstar Japanese artist Takashi Murakami on the hugely successful Monogram Multicolorecollection of luxury leather goods, with Murakami’s colorful palette and recurring motifs overlaid on the distinct historic visual language of the Louis Vuitton monogram. Murakami’s 2007 monographic exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles embodied the artist’s “superflat” philosophy, a decidedly postmodernist view that allowed the design of a handbag and the concept for a painting to share the same cultural value. In the center of it all was a Murakami x Louis Vuitton store displaying the Louis Vuitton MOCA Handscollection, created exclusively for the exhibition. The commercial intervention in a museum exhibition ruffled critics’ feathers and set a new standard for blurred boundaries of art and commerce. It also set a precedent for the influential role of the creative director.
Within the landscape of contemporary fashion communications, the role of creative director emerged from that of art director. While the latter worked within magazines and advertising, the former role came to include visual and communication strategies more broadly. The influence of Phil Bicker’s tenure as art director of Vogue Hommes International from 1997–2000 can be felt among today’s creative directors; he commissioned editorial projects from independent photographers outside fashion, including Judith Joy Ross, Larry Sultan, Samuel Fosso, and Joel Meyerowitz. For some of those artists, it was their first commission for a glossy magazine, and Bicker sensitively ensured that their individual visions and unique perspectives had a home in the editorial realm, setting the stage for what would become true creative collaborations across art and fashion. Around the same time, in 1993, Dennis Freedman relaunched W magazine, and a decade later, began their annual “Art Issue,” which opened up conversations about the relationship between fashion and art in a period when art was more fashionable than fashion, to paraphrase Bicker.
Freedman has always held the view that supporting artists working in new contexts such as fashion creates new ideas. As Barneys New York creative director from 2011 to 2017, he invited artists to create installations in the luxury department store’s windows. These special projects were the swan songs of the legendary emporium, which closed its doors in 2019. Freedman cocurated one of his final window installations in 2017 with the Easton Foundation and the Louise Bourgeois estate, pairing her soft sculptures with Rei Kawakubo’s unique sculptural garments. The window became a gallery for enjoyment and consideration, a dynamic point of congregation for unexpected encounters with exceptional creative minds.
THE COLLABORATIVE CAMPAIGNS that Freedman and Bicker helped pioneer exist today with the added dimension of visual strategies, and now require invention and sophistication for an increasingly visually literate multi-platform audience. For the 2020 Prada Flowers Resort campaign, creative director Ferdinando Verderi developed a multistep project with fashion photographer Drew Vickers and venerated street photographer Keizō Kitajima. Prada printed their photographs, added the brand’s logo, and distributed the sheets to flower stores as bouquet wrapping paper throughout Asia, America, and Europe. The intervention played into Prada’s focus on its heritage as an “everyday uniform” of luxury fashion. Pared-down still life images of the Prada-wrapped flowers with the season’s accessories and observational-style street portraits of the campaign’s models holding the Prada bouquets rolled out as a conventional magazine, billboard, and online collection campaign. But the real boost came from the flow of real-life encounters with the Prada-wrapped flowers that appeared on social media. The approach borrowed from the limited-release “drop” model, a marketing strategy that has its roots in Japanese streetwear culture.
In this age of Instagram-oriented campaigns, an artist’s authorship—and its attendant cultural capital—is invariably at the fore. For a recent Instagram commission from Miu Miu, experimental photographer Lucas Blalock created still lifes using the brand’s accessories in his signature colorful disorienting style that merges analog and digital techniques. Blalock’s pictures were an Instagram project for the Fall/Winter 2022 Miu Miu collection, commissioned by Be Good Studios’ founder Lina Kutsovskaya, a creative director moving between high-production, celebrity-endorsed, luxury brand campaigns and artist’s studios. Kutsovskaya was also a close creative collaborator with Abloh during his 2018–21 tenure at Louis Vuitton Men.
Blalock’s commission exemplifies how fashion can be folded into an established artistic practice, sidestepping now dated concerns that the artist might be seen as selling out, or diluting their artistic license. The products and visual language of Miu Miu enter Blalock’s preexisting image world as materials, his artistry uncompromised by this intersection, and are given a new context and reach by the collaboration.
Tyler Mitchell is one of the very few young image-makers in the past 10 years to have rapidly ascended into the pantheon of “top” fashion and portrait photographers, a cluster no bigger than the number of Justices on the United States Supreme Court. He’s an accomplished visual storyteller and key chronicler of Black creativity and celebrity who makes little distinction between his so-called commercial or personal work. His recent Fall/Winter 2023 Salvatore Ferragamo campaign heralded the arrival of the brand’s new creative director and designer, Maximilian Davis, and Davis’s first collection. Mitchell shot the campaign with backdrops from paintings by Botticelli and Piero della Francesca, seemingly pictured within working spaces in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Tuscan home of the Ferragamo brand. Every gesture and compositional detail in Mitchell’s grand photographs carry the intentional symbolic weightiness of a Renaissance painting, with Mitchell and his camera shown in some of the campaign images, asserting the photographer’s presence.
Artists now essentially operate as their own brands when they enter the fashion context. There is no luxury fashion brand that doesn’t collaborate with artists. Some examples from recent runways: for the Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2019 show, creative director Demna [Gvasalia] collaborated with post-internet artist Jon Rafman to make a tunnel of LED screens sequencing digitally rendered mash-ups and signals that conveyed the emotional and conceptual register of the collection. Raf Simons meticulously transfigured the gestures and palettes of Sterling Ruby’s paintings into haute couture fabrics and forms for his first Dior Women collection in 2012; the duo has now been collaborating for 20 years. The Spring/Summer 2023 runway of Spanish luxury house Loewe, under the artist-centric creative directorship of Jonathan Anderson, featured a confetti cube sculpture by Lara Favaretto that began to unpack and form new configurations as the models walked down the runway. Artist Mickalene Thomas created runway-ready photo collages (embroidered by the Chanakya School of Craft in Mumbai) honoring Josephine Baker and a dozen more influential women of color who inspired the Dior Spring/Summer 2023 collection. Pharrell Williams’s debut Louis Vuitton Men Spring/Summer 2024 collection included suits and denim separates embroidered with portraits painted by Henry Taylor. This was part of the score for a historic runway show that unfolded across the Pont Neuf in Paris this past June, in front of 2,000 Paris Fashion Week guests and an estimated one billion viewers online.
HOW WILL THESE COLLABORATIONS EVOLVE as we enter an age of subscription services and live streaming media? The jury is still out. Last year marked the debut of “live shopping” courtesy of Rihanna’s subscription-based lingerie label, Savage x Fenty. A live performance by the rap duo City Girls clad in the brand’s latest collection was streamed on the Savage x Fenty website, where viewers could purchase fashions the talent were wearing in real time. Given luxury fashion’s perceived core values of rarity and exclusivity, it’s perhaps no surprise that the industry has been slow to adopt media innovations within e-commerce, especially as they try to distance themselves from the unsustainable machinations of fast fashion.
But one thing is clear: fashion has a profound capacity to articulate who we are, where we come from, and what we desire from the future. This year marks an existential moment in the transfiguration of the fashion and image-making industries. Both rest in a dynamic of pendulum swings, involving mediascape evolutions and ever-changing creative and corporate leadership. This dynamism is both a blessing and a curse. What is certain is that the fertile ground of cocreation between art and fashion is where new possibilities and cultural ideas will continue to emerge.
This article appeared under the title “Haute Culture” in the Winter 2023 issue, pp. 76-84.