Artketing: Chinese Artists reimagine top luxury brands

Painstakingly sewing shards of broken pottery recovered from ancient archeological digs, Li Xiaofeng creates “porcelain clothing” few would ever wear. Until now. Some of these works caught the attention of John Storey, the worldwide director of public relations for Lacoste, when he saw them displayed last November at the hip Beijing hotel The Opposite House. Storey recognized a great marketing opportunity, and commissioned the up-and-coming Chinese artist to create two iconic artworks. For the first, Li applied his technique to a porcelain piece in the shape of a Lacoste polo shirt—complete with crocodile logo. And he devised a design for a limited edition of 20,000 polo shirts bearing a printed image of blue and white porcelain shards.

Collaborations between international brands and artists have been going on at least since the 1930s, when Ferragamo asked the futurist painter Lucio Venna to create its first advertising campaign. In 2008, Christian Dior was one of the first to collaborate with contemporary Chinese artists, inviting 22 of them to respond to the fashion brand’s heritage. The result, shown at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, created a sensation both in fashion and art circles. Inspired by the Lady Dior bag, Li Songsong designed a giant bag sculpture using fluorescent light tubes, while Zhang Dali painted a portrait of John Galliano that included his highly recognizable AK-47 logo. Last year, Ferrari commissioned artist Lu Hao to work on a Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano China Limited Edition, which he decorated with ancient pottery patterns (it sold at auction for $2 million).

But hiring an artist to design a limited-edition series of a company’s products is a more recent development. Gauthier Boche, strategy director at FutureBrand Paris, calls the new trend “artketing,” intertwining branding and art for a limited edition of a product. The best example is probably the collaboration between Louis Vuitton and Takashi Murakami, who has been designing new bags and other accessories since 2003. “Art is an incredible way to reconnect with contemporary emotions, issues, and imagery, and this is why an artist’s view can be crucial for brands, and especially for luxury brands,” says Boche.

Indeed, many companies are keen to connect with Chinese consumers—especially since they’ve proven instrumental in keeping luxury marques afloat during the recession. When Comme des Garçons moved its store to a new venue in Hong Kong late last year, it asked one of China’s most controversial artists, Ai Weiwei, to design a special-edition T shirt. In May, Ferragamo unveiled its collaboration with political pop artist Xue Song to create a limited-edition line of bags, leather goods, and a T shirt decorated with two fierce tigers. “We want to demonstrate we’re interested in selling more than products; we’re interested in the culture and artisanship in general,” says Paul Cadman, Ferragamo’s Asia Pacific regional managing director.

The benefits of such artketing are clear for Chinese artists: it helps widen their appeal, especially among consumers with the financial means to buy expensive works. “In an art system that lacks reliable arbiters, working directly with a brand offers the same kind of widely bankable prestige museum shows do elsewhere,” says Philip Tinari, a well-known art curator in Beijing. Boche believes that luxury brands may be leading the way in artketing, but others will soon follow. Whether art will benefit more broadly remains to be seen.

As first written for NEWSWEEK