Luxury brands and contemporary art is merging in China

In 2016, the Fondation Louis Vuitton put on the group show ‘Bentu: Chinese artists in a time of turbulence and transformation’ in the LVMH Group’s private museum in Paris, bringing together 12 contemporary Chinese artists to explore the reality of life in today’s China.

‘Bentu’, meaning ‘native soil’ in Mandarin, was a landmark show, not only due to its significance as a major exposition of Chinese contemporary art in Europe (the first for a decade in France) but also as a statement of intent from LVMH and its Group Chairman Bernard Arnault, demonstrating a key awareness and understanding of the importance of the Chinese market, particularly the motivations, concerns and influence of Chinese millennials, to the world’s largest luxury group.

The show’s subject was prescient: in the few years since the show, Chinese consumers have been responsible for more than half of the global growth in luxury spending, providing a third of the total spend worldwide, with the majority of this contribution (around 80%) coming from the Millennial, post-1980’s and 1990’s generation.

The spending power of this dynamic, digitally native, young community is now the dominant force in luxury retail and has led to Bernard Arnault’s wealth skyrocketing (Forbes now put him as the second richest person in the world, behind Amazon’s Jeff Bezos).

The ‘Bentu’ show, while not making direct connections between the group’s brands and Chinese art, nevertheless set the mood for what was to come: recent years have seen a slew of blockbuster art-meets-luxury collaborations in China, where brands have either sponsored innovative exhibitions at prestigious museums and/or have produced seasonal campaigns in collaboration with Chinese contemporary artists.

These multi-faceted, digitally-enabled collaborations have gone a long way in helping some brands distinguish themselves in the deeply competitive luxury market in China, by creating an emotive connection with independently minded, experience hungry Chinese Millennial consumers. This combination of art and luxury in China has led to a loosening up of the traditional, reserved and elitist positions of both industries, catalysing a new movement towards access and inclusion which has proven to be a powerful driver in the global luxury market.

“Recent luxury brand-sponsored blockbuster art in China have brought together art, intellectual ideas and visually stimulating environments with the latest digital technology, creating a deeply felt experience of brand purpose in their enthralled audiences.”

What is notable today is the diversified, digital-first and inclusive nature of recent fashion branded exhibitions and cultural programs in China.

By directly referencing the high-brow and perhaps elitist 2010 retrospective of contemporary artist Marina Abramović at MOMA, where photography and mobile phones were banned, Gucci’s ‘The Artist Is Present’ show, held last year in Shanghai, subverted the commonly perceived aloofness of the art world by directly encouraging photography, ‘selfie-taking’ and social content sharing, providing custom backdrops and digital stickers for WeChat.

With ‘Volez, Voguez, Voyagez’ Louis Vuitton took visitors on a digitally-enabled journey through the history of the house and its association with luxury travel, marketing the show heavily through social media as a widely accessible cultural event in Shanghai.

Chanel’s ‘Mademoiselle Privé exhibition’ from Summer 2019 presented a celebration of Chanel’s passion for Chinese decorative design and art, with the visitor experience supported by mobile technology providing ticket booking facilities, an on-site guide and special QR codes to unlock hidden content and augmented reality ‘Chanel Masks’.

Whereas fine art shows sponsored by fashion brands were historically targeted at the rich or ‘typical’ museum-going audience, this new mass-appeal, ‘selfie-friendly’, and digitally-enabled luxury brand-sponsored shows are designed to have the broadest appeal, be fully inclusive and encourage an emotive understanding between the exhibition visitor and the brand.

“In China contemporary art is becoming a prominent creative driver of brand identification due to its emotive connection with China’s Millennial consumers who are seeking out brands that they can identify with and experience on a variety of levels.”

Luxury brands have a long tradition of associating with contemporary artists to drive interest in their products and in recent years international brands have had great success partnering with Chinese contemporary artists to connect with Chinese consumers on a personal and creative level.

The multi-media artist Cao Fei, whose work was featured at the Fondation Louis Vuitton’s ‘Bentu’ presentation, has worked extensively with luxury brands: in 2017 Cao Fei followed in the footsteps of Jeff Koons to design an ‘Art Car’ for BMW, employing augmented reality through the spectators’ phones to enable them to ‘draw’ spiritual beams of light around and inside of the brand’s premium M6 GT3, a powerful interactive statement targeting a market which has recently seen huge growth in the sales of luxury vehicles.

For Fall/Winter 2019, Cao Fei worked with Prada on ‘Code Human’, a multi-disciplinary study of the nature of influence in the age of digital culture, featuring Chinese popstar Kun. The futuristic campaign, which included a short film, was taken as a statement on the nature of identity construction which resonated with both fans of the brand and of Kun: the video went viral on Weibo and has been credited as being a key part of Prada’s long-standing program of innovative projects in the Chinese market.

“Art is now one of a number of powerful marketing drivers for luxury brands in China, resonating with a community of consumers who want to connect with brands on multiple levels.”

Chinese Millennials are the most powerful consumers of luxury in the world. They have grown up with unprecedented access to luxury brands and to detailed information about their products, history and values thanks to the ubiquity of the social media platforms, mobile technology and the culture of peer to peer and influencer recommendations in China. Due in part to this level of access, they have come to expect a higher level of engagement with the brands they chose to identify with, which has necessitated that luxury brands loosen up their traditionally tightly controlled codes of exclusivity towards a more accessible, sincere and experience led connection with their customers.

The collaborative efforts of luxury brands, art institutions and artists are just one of many recent drivers of this ‘loosening up’ which is reshaping the global luxury and consumer market. The extent of this change was provided by Antoine Arnault, Bernard Arnault’s eldest son: speaking at the 2017 New York Times Luxury Conference, the head of image at LVMH and Berlutti CEO, decreed that winning in the luxury industry depends on ‘transparency in communicating’ and that there is nothing to hide from consumers.

While not all brands should feel compelled to explore artistic collaborations, it is important they understand the level of interaction that Chinese consumers have come to expect from brands and that these motivations and values are no doubt shared by similar consumer demographics around the world. Brands that understand the emotive drivers of Chinese Millennials and have the confidence to put their brand purpose at the front, back and centre of their offering, to truly engage with consumers and provide them with unique and genuinely compelling experiences, will be well placed to succeed both in China and throughout the world.

Sophie Cheng is general manager of FutureBrand China.

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