The collaborations between brands and artists have existed in the market for a long time, spanning not even decades, but almost a century, though they were predominantly seen in the realm of luxury. One recalls the famous Lobster dress, created by Salvador Dalí and Elsa Schiaparelli in the 1930s and Yves Saint Laurent’s modernist dress inspired by Piet Mondrian’s artworks in 1965. Since then international luxury conglomerates have made a habit of collaborating with artists on limited editions of different products ranging from perfume bottles, bags and suitcases to full-blown fashion collections.
It is interesting to see how nowadays, especially during the lockdown, this trend has become prominent in the milieu of emerging artists and small as well as medium-sized independent brands, who become more and more inventive in their marketing strategies. One sadly notes that it is often the smaller and less protected market players who have to jump many hoops to survive, let alone thrive. However, scarcity can lead to brilliant outcomes and shifts in the traditional modus operandi of art, fashion, beauty and lifestyle markets.
THE TREND SHIFT
Up until the COVID crisis the examples of artists collaborating with luxury brands, owned by international conglomerates, were plenty, and each fashion season was bound to bring several more. Only for autumn/winter 2019, the author was able to distil eleven outstanding collaborations not only of the traditional ‘LVMH meets A Famous Artist’ kind, but more niche ones such as Iris van Herpen and Anthony Howe or Pyer Moss and Derrick Adams. French sociologist Jean-Noël Kapferer remarks that such ‘artification’ of luxury products is as much a marketing move aimed to grow the brands’ awareness and expand their audience, but also a transformation of non-art into art. Bags, perfumes, dresses and watches transgress the realm of pure commerce and obtain symbolic value, as well as become relevant for the future generations by acquiring a semi-iconic status (Kapferer on luxury: how luxury brands can grow yet remain rare, 2015). However, as fashion weeks and production speeds came to an abrupt halt in spring 2020, it is yet to see whether the conventional fashion machinery will be brought back to its vertiginous speed in the post-COVID era.
The collaborations’ tool has at some point become prominent in more niche segments of the fashion market, just as the market itself, according to different researchers, began prioritising low-volume niche brands and paying less attention to high-volume mainstream ones. While conventional luxury brands owned by established international conglomerates can only partially be categorised as high-volume as their distribution demands high exclusivity, many ‘wannabe’-luxury brands started producing large volumes of ‘premium mediocre goods’ (a brilliant definition coined by fashion journalist Eugene Rabkin). Such abundance of widespread offers gives certain consumers a desire to move to greener pastures, shop at smaller brands and have access to truly exclusive offers, limited in quantity, created with unique designs and often providing an entry point to the art market.
In conversations with owners of small and medium independent brands as well as to emerging artists, several motivational patterns for collaboration began to emerge. The first and most obvious is a desire to expand awareness about a brand or artistic practice. The initiator can be a commercial brand offering a collaborative project, an intermediary agency acting in the interests of a client or an artist pitching a collaboration. Partnerships are likely to be successful when the brand and the artist share similar values or have a resemblance in their public image. However, potential partners tend to gravitate towards counterparts with substantial social capital, brand awareness and market visibility to enhance their brand and cross-pollinate target audiences. Such is the case of Piglet, the British brand of linen bedding and pyjamas, whose marketing budget is mostly allocated to digital and social media. Its founder Jessica Mason needed a strong PR push and approached the artist Alexa Coe with the suggestion to create a series of drawings, which were subsequently embroidered on the pockets of two types of pyjama sets. A similar strategy was chosen by Molly Goddard and Joel Jefferey from Desmond & Dempsey, another brand of cotton and linen loungewear, and the chosen artist was Venetia Berry, suggested by a PR agency working with the brand. All the parties confessed that the collaborations were rather well-received due to the similarity of the brands and artists’ core values and creative styles.
The second motivation underpinning the first, more practical and commercial aim, and registering as very prominent is an opportunity for both the artist and the brand to broaden their horizons and to create something new. The novelty may be in the introduction of a new product or the adoption of a new technique or medium by the artist. Such reasons motivate Ana Kerin, who is both sculptor and ceramicist as well as the owner of KANA London, a ceramics boutique and series of pottery workshops in Hackney. Kerin likes wearing two hats and collaborates both with brands as an artist and with artists as a commissioner. She says collaborations open her mind and give her ideas that might have never come if not for a brand counterpart arriving with a brief for a limited edition. This was the case of her project with Lisa Mehydene, owner of edit.58, a homewares boutique. Mehydene saw Kerin’s rustic plates and pinch pots at a private dinner and fell in love with the authenticity of the pieces. Same goes for the cases where Kerin approaches artists with ideas of creating limited editions of her products. One of the most successful collaborations to date was with Alexa Coe who is on the rise these days and collaborates extensively, respecting, however, her own style and her personal brand’s values.
HOW TO PROCEED?
Collaborative projects can seem like a no-brainer at first, but to be successful they have to be carefully planned. Brand values match is a must, but setting clear targets and deadlines as well as creating actionable marketing plans is necessary. This may work out naturally for some, more often for brand owners who are used to dealing with planning and setting KPIs. Rigorous planning and targets’ setting can be daunting for others, often artists, who may feel that their creative process is being over-controlled and micromanaged. This is where intermediary agencies and independent consultants can be useful as they will help respect the interests of both parties, control the process and protect the DNAs of the brands and artistic practices. However, in the current mutating market, the flexibility and initiative of emerging artists and independent brands matter more every day. Without the bureaucratic and production restrictions often faced by corporations, new alliances can thrive. They make a difference by setting examples of best practices, sustainably supporting the artists directly and becoming first encounters with the art market for consumers.
Anastasia Lander is a marketing and communications professional with 18 years of diverse experience in working with brands ranging from M.A.C. Cosmetics and Dior to Unilever portfolio. Lander holds a Master’s degree in Art Business with Distinction from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London where she is also Member of the Governing Body. She is the founder of Lander Comms, where she creates communication strategies for brands and artists. Lander is Executive Director of the not-for-profit Young Masters Art Prize, a member of the Association of Women in the Arts (AWITA) and Bloom UK, a professional network for women in communications.