The next stage: performance.
I thought it interesting to hear yesterday that Mr Porter – the luxury menswear arm of online retailer Net-a-Porter – had partnered with London’s Almedia Theatre to outfit the cast of its new musical theatre production of American Psycho. Vanessa Friedman of the Financial Times penned an opinion piece last week about the marketing of no marketing that the fashion industry has adopted with its recent approach to film (recalling Prada’s ventures with Roman Polanski and Wes Anderson) in which fashion, if present at all, is treated as an afterthought. “The brand has been almost completely abstracted from the content, becoming an enabler of culture rather than using culture to enable production promotion.”
Of course, it all harks back to the age of the silent film, in which clothing played an important role in the storytelling, and it parallels fashion’s concurrent return to the stage. Straightforward product collaborations between artists and designers are, thankfully, waning. Not that these projects didn’t ever produce anything artistically or stylistically meaningful – I have spoken at length about the cultural significance of the marriage between Louis Vuitton and Takashi Murakami – but certainly there’s very little news value in an artist’s print on a t-shirt these days. Far more interesting are designers teaming with ballet, opera and theatre companies to create costumes. Unlike a retail capsule, these aren’t clothes you can buy, and while a modest fee might be involved, a big-name designer like Riccardo Tisci benefits purely creatively from such a venture.
Like designers working with artists, a designer working with theatre directors is nothing new. When we look at collaboration historically, early-20th-century Ballet Russes has become an iconic symbol of the way in which dancers, painters and designers worked together, influencing the broader artistic world that surrounded them, like that of French couturier Paul Poiret. In the century since, it has become commonplace for designers to work with ballet companies, with the New York City Ballet, under the guidance of Sarah Jessica Parker, enlisting the likes of Olivier Theyskens, Prabal Gurung and Iris van Herpen to create one-off pieces as a way of enticing a new audience earlier this year. Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci recently worked with performance artist Marina Abramovic and choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet to create costumes for a ballet based on Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, while locally, Sydney Dance Company artistic director Rafael Bonachela has engaged Australian designers Josh Goot, Dion Lee and Toni Maticevski. We might purport that for a designer, working with a moving body, as opposed to a static mannequin, is alluring, not least for the challenge of exhibiting their artistic skills beyond retail-ready designs.
But far more than this, working with a dance, music or theatre company offers a designer or brand an opportunity to demonstrate cultural cache not typically associated with commercial fashion. To be sold in stores, even incredibly cool ones, is one thing, it’s certainly valuable promotion to pair your name with an arts company, instilling it with greater creative significance. Theatre in terms of acting is an interesting proposition given that the characters are already established – there’s less room for artistic play. But in a way, this perfectly suits Mr Porter, a multi-brand retailer that doesn’t boast its own namesake line of product, and certainly Bret Easton-Ellis’ sartorially iconic character of Patrick Bateman – made famous by Christian Bale in the 2000 film, with his Valentino suit and Oliver Peoples glasses – increased the value of designer currency. Along with the murder and gore, fashion is a central figure in the storyline, the 1980s Wall Street power suits and his intensive daily grooming routine just as important as the dialogue.
As well as outfitting the cast of the theatre production, which includes Doctor Who’s Matt Smith, Mr Porter has dedicated its weekly editorial output, The Journal, to American Psycho-related content, including an interview with Easton-Ellis, grooming suggestions to match Bateman’s, and an edit of product in line with that of the lead character – all for sale, of course. As a relatively minor partnership, it nonetheless provides the retailer with extensive marketing opportunities, and with a Francis Bacon-inspired campaign featuring the cast, Mr Porter is embracing all of them, which certainly can’t hurt ticket sales for the production considering the magnitude of the retailer’s global audience. This kind of contemporary arts patronage is one that defines the luxury fashion industry today. Like 21st century Medicis, fashion houses and retailers are able to promote their brands via genuine news announcements and sponsorship, which unlike straightforward product placement or advertising, is an intelligent approach in line with the sophistication of the contemporary shopper.