Promoting Art Along With The Handbags

Chanel's works of art go beyond the perfect suit. In late February, the company unveiled "Mobile Art" in Hong Kong, an ambitious traveling exhibit of commissioned works by 20 top contemporary artists, housed in a breathtaking white structure designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid. Eager locals and visitors snapped up the timed tickets throughout the six-week run, treating the sometimes challenging show with the kind of reverence typically reserved for major openings at MoMA or the Louvre. Soon others will get to enjoy it, too; last month Chanel dismantled Hadid's 700-square-meter space into 700 pieces for easy transport. The show travels to Tokyo in July and New York in September, then stops in London and Moscow in 2009 before finally reaching Paris in 2010.

With budgets and creative energy most museums can only dream of, luxury brands have become some of the most powerful impresarios of contemporary art on the international stage. To be sure, many luxury companies have long served as patrons of public art programs in the United States and Europe. But as new markets grow in importance, these brands are not only sponsoring other people's shows but actively creating their own, sometimes introducing conceptual works that many museums would consider too daring. The idea is that by linking its name to a cutting-edge collection or innovative new work, a luxury brand gains visibility and status.

Louis Vuitton first hit upon the winning mix of art and fashion when it opened an art gallery in its giant flagship Champs-Elysées store in 2005, complete with a velvet-cocooned elevator designed by the Danish conceptual artist Olafur Eliasson. Following on that success, the company in March opened another exhibition space inside its second biggest store, on Hong Kong's Canton Road. Diesel, a label known for high-end jeans that can retail for more than $1,000 a pair, recently launched "The New Grand Tour" in Beijing, an exhibit of quirky, edgy works created under its sponsorship and displayed in a former gymnasium in an old factory district taken over by artists. "Art and luxury have always moved together," says Bruno Pavlovsky, head of Chanel's fashion unit. "Both focus on the same demand for cultural relevance and both represent a permanent quest for quality, exception, creation and innovation. It is normal that a luxury brand should look for a new vocabulary and aim to innovative by enriching itself through exchange with other creative universes."

These are not, of course, selfless ventures intended simply to enrich the global culture. Chanel's "Mobile Art" contains plenty of blatant product promotion. The company briefed artists to produce works on the theme of its iconic quilted "2.55" bag, named to commemorate its launch in February 1955. "Asking artists from different backgrounds to express themselves through their perception of the Chanel quilted bag is a way to create a fresh vision of the brand, to spark people's imagination," says Pavlovksy.

The visions certainly are diverse. Japan's Tabaimo created a "well" with strange monochromatic shapes projected on the inside walls, a subtle representation of the 2.55 as not just a bag but as an object embodying a dream. A dark room by Leandro Erlich of Argentina features rue Cambon in Paris, where Coco Chanel kept an apartment, reflected prettily in bubbling pools of water. The Russian art group Blue Noses presents a witty video of a fat, naked woman floating off on a red 2.55 to destinations unknown. In a case of squandered talent, the American color photographer Stephen Shore contributes pictures detailing the bag's manufacturing process—a series reminiscent of images for a corporate annual report. France's Sophie Calle, famous for her installations, participated by subcontracting the job; her "piece" primarily involved placing an ad for an artist, represented at the show by a table with stacks of postcards. In the end, Calle chose Japan's Soju Tao, who bought 2.55s off women on the street, then exhibited the bags and everything inside. To view this part of "Mobile Art," visitors had to leave the structure and walk a short block to special areas in the Chanel boutique, past all the merchandise and shelves of $3,000 commemorative Chanel "Mobile Art" 2.55 bags.

China has become a key destination for art happenings, as many expect that it will lead the world in luxury-goods sales within the next decade. "People have been trying all sorts of ideas in China because so many brands are going into the market," says Nick Debnam, a Hong Kong-based partner with the China Consumer Markets group at the international management consultancy KPMG. "There are not that many who can associate themselves with art, but to do that would associate the brand with a higher intellect, higher values." In a new report on luxury, Debnam notes that recent surveys in China indicate that consumers consider connoisseurship and interest in a brand's heritage the main reasons for buying high-end items.

Indeed, in many ways contemporary art mimics top-end fashion in its quest for immediacy and popular appeal. "We try to give our customers inspiration," says Pietro Baccari, Louis Vuitton's senior vice president of marketing and communications. He hopes that as they go in to buy clothes and accessories, some might stop in the gallery—where works are not for sale—simply to enjoy the creative atmosphere. If they like what they see, they may be compelled to take a closer look at the merchandise. "Art and luxury are both expressions of a vision of life," he says. "They are expressions of the moment, the creation of a new reality." Louis Vuitton's first exhibit in Hong Kong showcased the little known but soulful black-and-white fine-art photography by "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" actor Chow Yun-Fat.

Diesel's Beijing show, which previewed in Hong Kong last fall and will likely be shown in Europe soon, stands out for keeping the focus on the art and championing up-and-coming names. "No one ever told me to work the logo into my work," says "Suitman," a 45-year-old Korean-American conceptual artist in the show whose meditations about personal identity created his suit-and-glasses-wearing persona. His headshots of rural Chinese children dressed like him are both crowd-pleasing and intriguing. "Every big fashion house is getting into art," he says. "Overall this is opening up more opportunities for people like me."

Discreet Diesel branding is limited to the entrance of "The New Grand Tour." Unlike Chanel, the Italian label apparently kept its instructions to the artists to a minimum. Its Hong Kong flagship, which opens this month, will include a small but prominent space for cutting-edge art. "As a company we prioritize creativity; we like to push the envelope," says Federico Tan, Diesel's head of marketing for Asia. That's fine by consumers, so long as the company keeps applying those priorities to its jeans as well.