Whether at the vintage champagne houses of Reims, presidential headquarters or the looming corridors of the Vatican, ever since the dawn of civilization the most opulent rulers, dynasties and diocese have adorned their palaces with art. More generous than jewellery, and more permanent than fashion, art is the ultimate expression of one’s mind, and London is at the forefront of contemporary art. Ever since the Roman Catholic Church commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, global powerhouses have employed artists to convey their message-in-a-masterpiece. Today the new patrons are more likely to bear the titles of Prada, Cartier or Louis Vuitton than Medici or Pope.
The relationship between fashion designers and artists is not mere fascination but an eternal love affair. It began in the 15th century, when Renaissance godfathers Jacopo Bellini and Antonio Pollaiuolo began designing textiles and embroidery. Of course, in the era of portraiture, fashion was central to artists, with magnificent robes and jewellery depicting power. But the relationship was only truly formalized in the 20th century, when Elsa Schiaparelli adopted trompe l’oeil for her couture creations, and everyone – from Dali with his Lobster Dress to Andy Warhol’s silkscreen prints – began creating unforgettable fashions. Later, Tom Sachs designed the Prada, Hermès and Chanel logos, as did Gotscho for Dior.
"Arts patronage is a private intervention in the cultural domain...” said Alain Dominique Perrin, then Director of Cartier International, today Head of the Richemont Group: "(It is) Communication at its most subtle and most useful, with honour as its reward." The jewellery house was perhaps the first to turn flirtation into marriage by launching the Fondation Cartier in 1984. Its illustrious alumni number the late Agnes Varda, Cesar and David Lynch, with works travelling as part of a touring show – including, famously, the Issey Miyake Exhibition – reaching destinations including Paris, Tokyo, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, New York and London.
It presents the Cartier Award as Associate Sponsor of Frieze, the largest such fair in the UK, which transforms London into a temple to art each October, spawning events such as the Pavilion of Art and Design in Berkeley Square. Arguably the main event at this altar to aestheticism, drawing the most exclusive collectors’ galleries from around the world, is the Moët Hennessy Prize, in which the winning piece is donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum.â€¨â€¨
Establishments such as London’s Royal Academy, Tate Britain and Tate Modern regularly team up with, or run dedicated retrospectives on, the pioneers of Giorgio Armani, Maison Martin Margiela, Versace and Yves Saint Laurent. Somerset House – culture hub and home to the Courtauld Gallery – announced this season’s collections to great applause as the new home to London Fashion Week, just as the Louvre plays host to its Parisian sister. Art is also very much in the DNA of department stores Selfridges and Liberty – the former enveloping an expansive gallery and collaborating with fashion designers to produce installations, with the latter’s iconic Liberty prints using as their basis artists’ work.
Perhaps the 21st century hybrid of fashion and art is to challenge form as we know it, bringing excellence to the interested masses. As demonstrated in Zaha Hadid’s globetrotting art gallery for Chanel. Design artist Rolf Sachs marked 125 years of St Moritz’s most famous toboggan run for legendary Champagne house Krug with the Cresta Sledge in February 2010. Lady Louisa Guinness commissions artists including Anish Kapoor, Sam Taylor Wood and Ed Ruscha to create sculptural jewellery for her specialist gallery that zones in on the type of collaboration international watch and jewellery houses have been working for years. One only needs to look at the wonder and success of Jaeger LeCoultre’s limited edition Atmos Clock. Marc Newson, who was invited to front the project, teamed up with the veteran watch house and Baccarat Crystal, the only company able to make the blue coloured glass, using cobalt mineral in their tradition of working entirely by hand. Newson talks of a “Dream project for a designer… Working with a fantastic level of expertise which is very rare in today's world.”
The inspirational Fondazione Prada’s impact on its home turf is evident in the pioneering exhibitions it bestows on Milan, cemented by the Dan Flavin church installation (a moving epitaph for the artist, completed just two days before his death). And it travels. Half-Congolese, half-Anglo restaurant, nightclub and bar The Double Club reclaimed a Victorian warehouse for eight months, curated by artist Carsten Holler for the Fondazione Prada, in one of the defining cultural moments of London in 2009 – a book and music compilation of the project is expected to be released any day.â€¨â€¨
Founded on shared values of ‘passion and creativity, excellence and exclusivity’ alongside ‘art de vivre,’ Louis Vuitton is one of the brands most overtly linked with art – having invited Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Stephen Sprouse to design their iconic luggage. (Koons and Murakami are among the most prolific artists ‘teaming up,’) Their flagship New Bond Street Maison, which rocked the art and fashion worlds on opening last May, is decorated with works by Damian Hirst, Anish Kapoor and Gilbert and George, etc. It envelops a bookshop selling rare and limited edition tomes on contemporary art, and The Apartment, the by-invitation-only lounge conceived in the spirit of a “luxurious private residence” where guests can admire artworks from a canon numbering Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons and Richard Prince.
They are also spearheading a three-year community project in conjunction with five of London’s leading galleries to foster the talents of young London artists, having previously staged a number of By-Invitation-Only Louis Vuitton Art Talks featuring such names as Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley and Chris Offili. This is in keeping with the spirit of the founder’s son, Georges Vuitton, who collaborated with the great Art Deco artists of the time in driving the brand’s expansion and success. “Luxury and art are both expressions of emotion and passion; they both search the exceptional and give us an alternative view of the world,” Yves Carcelle, Chairman and CEO of Louis Vuitton, comments today.
Of course couturiers and designers themselves regularly draw and paint; that is how fashions are born. In addition to being a near-obsessive art collector, Gianni Versace was also an acclaimed colourist. Jean-Charles de Castelbajac has built a career out of merging fashion with art, or ‘cultural hijacking,’ mounting his first solo gallery show in London last year. International Head of 20th Century Decorative Art and Design at Christie’s, Philippe Garner, talks of “a magical provenance” when art or design is linked with an inspirational name. â€¨â€¨He should know: Christies’ Yves Saint Laurent auction in 2009 broke the world record for the most valuable private collection at auction – taking nearly half a billion dollars for pieces including Eileen Gray’s Dragon Chair. The designer who once proclaimed “I am a failed painter!” would be proud.