Artistry of Haute Mode

I recently travelled to Hong Kong and Shanghai, China as a guest of Christian Dior to view two exhibitions it was opening. Here, my review for Wish magazine.

Many fashion houses rely on their history as a powerful marketing tool, emphasising notions such as tradition, authenticity and brand recognition to survive in the fluctuating global economy. And yet simultaneously, such houses must remain relevant to the contemporary market. Ultimately, fashion's fortunes are firmly rooted in the immediate epoch, and while a fashion collection has opportunity for evolution and shifts in style, leather goods, for example, typically do not. In his eight-season tenure for the house of French designer Christian Dior, having been appointed creative director in April last year, Raf Simons has employed visual art to help modernise the house.

With the cost of buying some luxury goods frequently rivalling that of an artwork by an established artist, incorporating a visual art element can add of-the-moment context and a sense of cachet associated with art collecting. It can inject a spirit of irreverence or gravitas in objects intended to be functional as well as seasonal.

But unlike LVMH stablemate Louis Vuitton, Simons has eschewed Marc Jacobs' approach of incorporating contemporary artists, such as Takashi Murakami and Yayoi Kusama, into the creative process. Instead he implies that a piece from Christian Dior already carries the weight and importance of a piece of art by reverently surrounding it with artistic presentations and projects.

For his autumn 2013 collection for the house, Simons embroidered bags and peplum tops with early drawings by pop artist Andy Warhol, while large, silver spheres in the style of installation artist Anish Kapoor filled the space. Meanwhile, Impressions Dior, an exhibition examining "the common sensibilities shared by haute couture creativity and the impressionist movement", was staged earlier this year at the Christian Dior Museum in Granville, Normandy, accompanied by a gorgeous book of the same name. But Simons' engagement with the arts is more than a superficial attempt to imbue the house with a sense of artistic authenticity, and in many ways honours the legacy of the house's founder.

Before establishing a fashion house in 1947, Christian Dior opened an art gallery in Paris in 1928 with financial backing from his father, where for three years he sold the work of friends, such as Salvador Dali, Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso, until the Great Depression forced it to close. A prolific illustrator with a strong interest in architecture, Dior was driven by visual art in his later work as a couturier.

In September, I travelled as a guest of the brand to view two exhibitions that were opening at the same time Lady Dior As Seen By, a touring exhibition of more than 100 sculptures and photographs that reinterpret the house's iconic Lady Dior handbag, had landed in Hong Kong. Esprit Dior, a large retrospective tracing nine themes relevant to the house, opened in Shanghai. It presented works by Christian Dior alongside those by successor John Galliano and Simons as well as new pieces by contemporary Chinese artists that evoked the spirit of the house.

The emergence of a middle class in China has created such growth in the luxury goods sector that the world's most storied fashion and accessories houses have rushed to open stores in the country. So it seems timely that Christian Dior should make a considered cultural investment there. Since launching in mainland China in 1994, the brand has opened 28 stores, and more recently re-presented several collections, such as spring/summer 2013 haute couture, in Shanghai after their initial presentation in Paris. In 2010 it set the third of its David Lynch-directed short films, Lady Blue Shanghai, in iconic locations around the city. Of course, long before entering the market, the house's founder was interested in and heavily influenced by China. Though he never visited the country, he incorporated its aesthetic in numerous garments, notably a two-piece pink silk ensemble printed with grey Chinese motifs, which he created for Wallis Simpson in 1955.

In 2008 the brand unveiled a major exhibition, Christian Dior and Chinese Artists, at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing. Here, one-off couture pieces by Galliano, then the house's creative director, were exhibited alongside specially commissioned works by 20 of the country's leading contemporary artists, who were given a brief to comment on what Christian Dior was or stood for. Asking visual artists to interpret a fashion house's aesthetic in their signature medium has become common practice in the fashion industry - Chanel's quilted bag project, Chanel Mobile Art, and Montblanc's Art Bags are two recent examples. However, Dior's targeting of a Chinese audience, via the use of Chinese artists in a Chinese location, was a presage of further growth in the region and parallelled the rise of Chinese contemporary artists in the global art landscape reflected in the emergence of Hong Kong Art Fair as one of the most prominent events on the annual arts calendar.

What makes Chinese contemporary art so interesting is the rapid evolution of the culture its artists depict - a country having opened itself up to the West economically has become, as a result, an unusual hybrid of East and West. It's a notion embraced by New York-based Chinese artist Quentin Shih, both in his photographic series Stranger in the Glass Box, presented in the 2008 exhibition and later in Christian Dior: 60 Years of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, Moscow, and in his 2010 series, Shanghai Dreamers, commissioned by Dior to launch a new boutique in Shanghai.

In the initial series, Shih juxtaposed industrial settings from the gritty north of China with glass-encased models wearing Christian Dior haute couture. The works highlighted the grotesqueness of both worlds as the affluent Western culture continues its push into the Chinese landscape, radically shifting its culture in the process. This is further highlighted in Shanghai Dreamers in which orderly rows of clone-like Chinese in traditional 1970s and 80s communist uniforms frame Western-faced models in Dior haute couture. The result of a complex production and assembly technique, with the models standing out among the crowd, it is a notion at odds with Chinese society of the past.

For the Lady Dior As Seen By exhibition in Hong Kong, Shih's photograph, Chinese Woman with a Lady Dior Handbag, was redisplayed. Evidently, the artist has become a regular collaborator for the house, and it's a relationship he feels comfortable with.

"They give me lots of freedom, as if it's my personal work," he says. "I also benefit from the way they promote my work." Does he see it as fine art or fashion photography? "It's both," he says. "The interesting aspect of some fashion photography is that it's staged and very creative, which is very close to fine art photography. In this body of work, it's not only about Dior but also my personal understanding of fashion and the relationship between it and Chinese society."

The exhibition was mounted in a custom-designed marquee in the shape of the iconic handbag on a pier in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour. While it embraced a host of interesting, provocative works - including those by Nan Goldin, Olympia Scarry and Peter Lindbergh-the exhibition served predominantly as a marketing tool to help promote the unveiling of two new spectacular Peter Marino-designed stores in the city, adding gravitas to the brand in the local market. To experience a brand in a one-of-a-kind space is to indebt a customer and create a relationship that stems beyond the shopfloor.

The company's main focus in that opening week, however, was Esprit Dior, a show it had intended to stage at the National Museum of China, in Beijing, a year earlier but postponed for reasons undisclosed. It was worth the wait for it to finally arrive at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Shanghai's People's Park. Here, themed rooms such as "From Pink to Red", "Versailles", "Garden" and "Paris" gave curator Florence Muller a thematic framework for the display of nearly 100 original items from the house's archive. They included items by Dior, Galliano and Simons accessorised with custom headpieces by milliner Stephen Jones, alongside interactive screens, photographs by long-time Dior collaborator Patrick Demarchelier and artworks by contemporary Chinese artists engaged by the house.

Shanghai's Museum of Contemporary Art is a large venue, but with custom-built rooms connected like rabbit warrens it felt somewhat cramped by the size of the comprehensive exhibition. Multimedia rooms that allowed visitors to view digital images of celebrities wearing Dior, for example, occupied valuable space that might have been better used to spread out the physical garments and items on display.

All that said, the combination of archival and contemporary works alongside such components provided a necessary context for local visitors who grew up in China when foreign brands were banned. With this in mind, it stands to reason that the exhibition should be staged differently from, say, a retrospective at Les Arts Decoratifs in Paris. It was replete with Mandarin subtitles and audio tours, and viewers will no doubt relish the opportunity to view original French haute couture garments in the flesh.

Muller explains: "Christian Dior was interested in that moment of French history that really brought together all art forms - architecture, decorative arts, fashion, design - and Versailles was the centre of Europe. It's something that he tried to do, too ... bring together all of these forms, and that's what this exhibition does as well."

Ultimately, the exhibition is a statement about the brand's status as a luxury titan. Rather than waiting for the approbation of a museum retrospective of the kind warranted by a more singular contemporary designer, such as the Azzedine Alaia exhibition currently on show in Paris, Christian Dior has presented its history as it wishes to be represented, cleverly controlling the association of the brand with carefully curated contemporary art. Chinese sculptor and installation artist Liu Jianhua was one of eight local artists, including Zhang Huan and Lin Tianmiao, invited to create a piece for Esprit Dior.

Liu had first worked with the brand in Beijing in 2008, and his work stands out as the strongest in the exhibition. Liu suspended 3000 gold porcelain replicas of the brand's J'Adore perfume bottle, the multi-tiered cascade of sparkling sculptures framing a display of gold dresses by the house's founder and successors, in the same way as fashion brands use packaging and entry-level items such as perfume to entice new clients.

Liu's work for the exhibition, however, is not simply a comment on commercialisation but rather an opportunity for mutual education. "Brands [such as Christian Dior] need to popularise in China, to improve [their] cultural worth, and they can use contemporary art as a tool," he explains via a translator at the opening of the exhibition. "[At the same time], contemporary art needs the brand because it can help it to become more popular with the general public."

Liu identified with the brand because of its founder's background in the visual arts. While he holds great respect for this history, he sees the current relationship between designer fashion and the general Chinese public as superficial. Art, he says, can be a bridge between the two worlds as they become more and more linked via commerce.

"For so many years we didn't have fashion and now people enjoy the brands but they don't understand the cultural element of them - the history - so I want to make some contribution to popularise the cultural element of the brands, to tell their unique story to the Chinese people," he says.