Blurring the lines between fashion and culture

As Andy Warhol mused, “Someday, all department stores will become museums, and all museums will become department stores.” It seems that “someday” has arrived. As museums increasingly improve their gift shops by learning from established retailers, the reverse is also increasingly true. Uniqlo’s LifeWear interactive exhibition at London’s Somerset House Arts Centre in late 2019 is a recent example of a retailer getting in on the museum space.

Museum exhibitions focusing on branded products, however, date back at least 100 years. Scandinavian designer Georg Jensen’s Holloware collection fronted an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago as far back as 1921.

Fast forward to the 21st century and there is further recognition that museums are no longer stuffy places for dead, historic and musty old things but dynamic spaces for potential customers to learn and interact. A number of museums such as Canberra’s Questacon have long excelled at interactive experiences and learning mechanics. In short, museums and galleries are becoming a marketing channel, with concomitant social media immersions and tie-ins.

Accordingly, in the past few years, there has been a global uptick in fashion exhibitions at galleries and museums. In February 2019, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London opened the largest exhibition ever staged in the UK about the house of Dior. Prior to doors opening, the exhibition had sold 37,000 tickets and three weeks into its six-month run, all pre-bookable tickets sold out. Four years prior, the V&A’s Alexander McQueen exhibition attracted 480,000 visitors, its most popular exhibition ever at the time. In 2018, New York’s Met Museum staged a “Heavenly Bodies” exhibition, exploring Catholicism’s influence on fashion, which attracted nearly 1.7 million people.

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In Australia in the past few years, the National Gallery in Canberra has hosted a large and highly successful Cartier exhibition, Victoria’s Bendigo Gallery in 2019 played host to a Balenciaga exhibition. Meanwhile one of the must-see exhibitions at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria was Jean-Paul Gaultier.

Back at the larger end of the scale, the (free) Uniqlo LifeWear exhibition spent five days in September last year at Somerset House in London after successful tours of New York and Paris. Aimed at underlining innovation, quality, value and sustainability, the exhibition featured Instagrammable experiences – including a mirrored, lamp-lit room called the “50 Colours of Socks”, a suspended art installation compiled from LifeWear, and a tunnel constructed of Uniqlo AIRism fabric. Experimental zones showcased the science behind its technologies, such as a “HeatTech” room which featured granular images of fabrics on a giant screen, and demonstrations of other technologies such as 2 BlockTech and Ultra-Light Down.

Earlier in 2019, Estée Lauder hosted its first “Power of Night” event at the Visual Arts Centre in Singapore. Activities intended to educate guests on how modern life affects the skin and the relationship between sleep and skincare included interactive quizzes to discover individual skin needs (with corresponding product samples) and educational beauty stations in a fitout recreating a plush living room and bedroom.

It could be argued these examples are just a form of immersive pop-up stores, but it’s the arts centre and museum environments that give them cultural currency, credence and heft.

Strike a pose

Fashion houses only relatively recently began archiving their productions. Yves Saint Laurent is thought to be the first to keep prototypes from its fashion shows along with the accessories, sketches and official documents for each piece; prior to this, garments worn were given to models or sold to clients. YSL’s foundation now safeguards 7000 haute couture garments and 30,000 accessories, which can be viewed in its museum – its former working studio and couture house – in Paris. Its most recent exhibition attracted 900 visitors per day, the maximum capacity for the 400sqm space.

The houses of Chanel and Dior aren’t thought to have ramped up their archiving activity until the 1980s. Alexander McQueen’s London flagship incorporates an exhibition space, with its top floor dedicated to showcasing past and current designs, photography and hosting a series of talks.

The art of retail

Rather than focusing on themselves, some retailers host the work of others via in-store galleries and museums. After all, one of the biggest trends in retail in the past couple of years has been all about offering customers experiences, a reason to look up from their devices and immerse themselves in a brand by visiting physical stores.

In Japan, department store Seibu ran an art museum in its Ikebukuro store in Tokyo between 1975 and 1989. Isetan features art museums in both its Shinjuku and Kyoto locations. Interestingly, due to a historic lack of public museums in Japan, department stores began taking on a similar role in the community, according to Kerrie MacPherson’s 1998 tome Asian Department Stores. Associated with the Japanese values of obligations for being the beneficiary of profits, the department stores became places of culture and began holding exhibitions, running galleries and providing art museums, reinforcing their positions as high-status retailers.

Meanwhile Harrods has just opened “Art at Harrods” by Halcyon Gallery, showcasing artworks by masters, including Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso and living artists including Bob Dylan, Dale Chihuly, Lorenzo Quinn and Paul Cummins. The current exhibition at time of writing, Russell Young’s “Icons”, features silkscreen paintings of pop culture fixtures ranging from Elvis Presley to Audrey Hepburn, supported by exhibits on the street of the Brompton Road store.

It makes one wonder about the possibility of preserving Australia’s retail history  – the likes of Gowings, Grace Brothers and others – before they are lost to posterity. The Museum of Art and Science at Sydney’s Powerhouse is making a start, with a current exhibition, running until June 2020, called “What’s in Store?” which chronicles aspects of Australia’s retail history from the years 1880 to 1930.

And for Australian retailers and brands – both the venerable and the emerging – opportunities are there to work with museums and arts centres to make themselves the subject of immersive experiences: a Bonds, Berlei, Billabong, Country Road, Hard Yakka , King Gee or RM Williams interactive exhibition, anyone?

Norrelle has 20 years’ experience in retail, category, channel and customer, working in and with global retailers, manufacturers and consulting houses. Contact Norrelle on 0411735190 or email norrellegoldring@hotmail.com

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