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Fashion’s New Medicis September 10, 2012 at 9:38 am

Designers’ passions for art can be part of their appeal, particularly if their tastes are reflected in their collections and shared by their customers. It makes perfect sense that Jil Sander should have started buying modern art when her career took off 30 years ago, and that someone known for her clean, cerebral style should be drawn to Arte Povera artists such as Jannis Kounellis and Mario Merz.

The Meret Oppenheim retrospective is the fifth show Sander has sponsored at Palazzo delle Stelline. Others featured artists whose work she collects: Joseph Beuys, Georg Baselitz, Victor Brauner and Kounellis.

 Jil Sander

Tom Ford’s long-standing interest in Eames makes Gucci’s sponsorship of the Design Museum exhibition seem equally apt, and the company’s publicists made the most of the opening reception. The museum closed for a day while a team of carpenters and electricians faced the foyer in white, built a (flatteringly lit) broadcast area where Ford conducted television interviews, and disguised a nearby building site with 30 metres of fake “hedge”. The media coverage benefited the museum as much as Gucci. “It opened up the exhibition to a wider audience,” says director Paul Thompson. “Let’s face it, more people have heard of Gucci than the Eameses.”

Cash and publicity apart, another reason why designers are sought after as sponsors rather than, say, oil companies or DIY chains — is because the art world has lost its old hang-ups about fashion. Once dismissed as trite and transient, fashion is now seen as suitable subject matter for exhibitions at leading institutions. Dozens of designers, including Veronique Branquinho and Martin Margiela, participated in this autumn’s Biennale della Moda in Florence, an event that explores links between fashion and art. This winter’s show at the Hayward Gallery, Addressing The Century: 100 Years Of Art And Fashion, mixes vintage clothing by Rudi Gernreich and Andre Courréges with contemporary pieces by Hussein Chalayan and art by Gilbert and George, and Matt Collishaw. “The barriers between different disciplines have broken down,” says Sadie Coles. “Today’s contemporary art scene is all about artists collaborating with stylists, musicians or writers. Everything’s mixed up.”

Rudi Gernreich

By opening their own galleries some fashion companies have become active participants in the art world. Cartier commissioned the futuristic French architect Jean Nouvel to design the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, a spectacular glass palace in Montparnasse where it stages anti aging cream exhibitions by modern artists and designers such as Matthew Barney, Marc Newson and Ron Arad. “It was just like dealing with any other gallery,” remembers Newson. “The fact that Cartier owned it seemed incidental.”

Miuccia Prada has been even more ambitious at the three-year-old Fondazione Prada, where Germano Celant, curator of contemporary art at the Guggenheim, has assembled shows by heavyweight artists including Louise Bourgeois, Anish Kapoor and David Smith. “We’re not interested in sponsorship, but in becoming involved in promoting the creative process,” she says. “There’s also satisfaction at having done something for the city and for young people in Milan who don’t have many opportunities to see the work of good artists.” When Celant asked Sam Taylor-Wood if she’d be interested in showing there this winter, she jumped at the chance. “I was really impressed by their programme, and when I went to Milan to look at the space it was fantastic,” she recalls. “Opportunities to show in such great spaces only come along every so often, and when they do you grab them.”

Far from being dismissed as cynical exercises in corporate image-building, both the Cartier and Prada galleries are regarded by the art establishment as bona fide institutions. “They’re taken very seriously indeed,” says Matthew Slotover, editor of art magazine Frieze. “The Prada in particular has put on some great shows and produced amazing catalogues. In fact, I’ve never known an institution establish itself so quickly.” Miuccia Prada now juggles her responsibilities as Prada’s chief designer with her other role as gallery owner. A few weekends before the Prada show in Milan this autumn, she took time off to look over the Berlin Biennale with Germano Celant.

Hussein Chalayan

One faction of the fashion industry takes a more traditional view of the relationship between art and fashion. “I’m not against fashion houses supporting art as philanthropists, but I am sceptical when it becomes part of the marketing,” says Luigi Marmotti, chairman of MaxMara and a keen collector of post-1950 art. “Fashion has a commercial sub-text, and art doesn’t. It’s wrong to confuse the boundaries between them.”

Not all designers are into art. Donna Karan’s sculptor husband, Stephan Weiss, recalls taking her to the Picasso Museum in Paris. He watched her race around the galleries, and then heard an ecstatic squeal from an adjacent room. Running in, eager to see which of the artworks had enthralled her, he heard his wife cry: “What a great wall!” ?


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