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Do Artist Collaborations Make Sense for Mass Retailers?

It started with Schiaparelli and Dali. Now, there's Gap.

Is fashion art? That's a loaded question, probably best answered in a PhD dissertation. A less difficult argument is that art and fashion are inextricable. Fine artists and fashion designers have been collaborating for decades. In the 1930s, Elsa Schiaparelli enlisted the talents of Salvador Dalí. (A lobster drawn by the artist was appliquéd onto one of the designer's white gowns.) In the 1960s, Yves Saint Laurent created a shift dress inspired by Piet Mondrian's color-blocked line drawings. In the early aughts, Marc Jacobs famously collaborated with Stephen Sprouse on leather goods for Louis Vuitton. And in 2011, Raf Simons embellished some of his final designs for Jil Sander with the work of Pablo Picasso.

There are literally hundreds of examples like these, a great deal of them memorable. But despite the vast number of artist-design partnerships, most are exclusive to a very small percentage of the general public. They are meant for those who appreciate -- and can afford -- high fashion. And who in turn can probably afford, or at least appreciate, high art.

However, that notion is changing. "[These collaborations] have become more sophisticated on both sides. Artists now seek them out a lot more actively," says Ari Bloom, a business consultant who has represented both artists and brands in collaborations. In 2012, Coach asked artist James Nares to paint his signature sweeping brushstrokes onto a collection of canvas bags. They were about $800, which is expensive but not outrageous. And in 2013, J.Crew asked Brooklyn illustrator Hugo Guinness -- who has also collaborated with Coach -- to design a series of t-shirts ($49.50) and sweaters ($398).

Now, mass retailers are announcing partnerships that aim to bring art to the masses, elevating the brand along the way. Uniqlo recently teamed up with New York's Museum of Modern Art to create t-shirts featuring the works of Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Jackson Pollock. At MoMA, you can currently buy a paint-splattered Pollock t-shirt, or a tote covered in Warhol's Campbell's Soup cans, for $19.90 apiece. At Miami's Art Basel in December 2013, Gap creative director Rebekka Bay launched a t-shirt line with the creatives at Visionaire. It featured works by the likes of Yoko Ono and photographer Sølve Sundsbø. And just this past week, Gap announced a partnership with the Frieze Art Fair, which opens in New York on May 9. The retailer will host two pop-ups, called Gap White Space at Frieze, where it will sell more of the aforementioned t-shirts, including one printed with the work of Richard Phillips. 

The rival retailers have taken opposite approaches to their dalliances with the art world. Uniqlo's MoMA partnership has an "art for everyone" air, while Gap's presence at Frieze seems like a way to elevate the brand, which is still finding its footing in today's fast-fashion landscape.

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But here's the real question: Is dabbling in art worth it for either of them?Designer and celebrity collaborations are the ones that create the real press moments these days. While it's very difficult to discern whether or not most fast-fashion collaborations boost the bottom line -- big retailers rarely reveal sales figures for such projects -- the marketing impact is easier to infer.  Gap's Richard Phillips t-shirt might be the only chance the general public has to own something designed by Richard Phillips, but there will certainly be longer lines when Alexander Wang's H&M collection drops in November, despite the fact that most of the women (and men) populating it already own an Alexander Wang piece. 

Some argue that mass brand and artists collabs are just as valuable. Mike Palermo, creative director of Junk Food -- the Los Angeles-based t-shirt line best known for its vintage band tees -- has licensed work by a diverse range of artists, from Stanley Mouse (best known for the posters he designed for the Grateful Dead) to Haring and Basquiat. "To bring to the forefront an amazing artist -- one that some people know, but others might not know -- is an opportunity," Palermo says. "It allows art to become more viral."

Of course, it all has a lot to do with whether or not the piece looks good. And whether it's right for the brand and its audience. Junk Food's Basquiat t-shirts, for instance, are sold at Urban Outfitters. A black t-shirt with Basquiat's famous crown aligns aesthetically with the other stuff the retailer has on offer. If it didn't, no one would want to buy it, no matter how Basquiat's paintings sell at auction. 

"Elevating your brand through an association serves both parties very well," says Bloom. "As long it's the right association. That's when things are magic."