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Retail as Art: A New Era of Consumer Spaces

Arts & Culture | April 6, 2015

Situated in the middle of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, one of the nation’s premier shopping districts, Uniqlo’s three-story, 89,000 square foot megastore boasts colossal glass windows and a distinct rainbow color scheme throughout, rendering it is as much a spectacle as a functional retail space. It is no coincidence that this flagship store shares aesthetic characteristics with the Museum of Modern Art down the street; its entire second floor is devoted to its “SPRZ NY”  project, a collaboration between MoMA and Uniqlo to bring works of iconic contemporary artists, including Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Jackson Pollock, to the realm of retail. In true MoMA fashion, store walls are lined with display cases containing cotton t-shirts featuring designs like Andy Warhol’s soup cans as $20 purchasable alternatives to the original canvas artwork worth upwards of $10 million.

The commercial hybridizing of art and fashion has deep historical roots. In fact, several of the famed artists featured in the SPRZ NY line have already been the subjects of fashion collaborations for decades, largely as a result of the evolution of Pop Art in the 1960s and artists’ attempts to lessen the distinction between “high” and “low” culture through art and fashion. As far back as 1974, Andy Warhol made designer Yves Saint Laurent the subject of some of his classic Pop Art paintings. In recent years, Keith Haring has acted as inspiration for a multitude of fashion ventures, such as Tommy Hilfiger and Nicholas Kirkwood specialty footwear projects.

But therein lies the problem with these traditional artist-designer collaborations; they are rooted in high fashion, yield astronomical price tags, and remain out of reach to the common consumer. This is where fast fashion brands (i.e. companies that quickly produce new styles in mass quantities) like Uniqlo have swooped in to fill a gap in the market, with the establishment of a new niche of modernist-inspired clothing accessible to the masses. While the typical American consumer with standard purchasing power may not be shelling out upwards of $700 to purchase a pair of Keith Haring-inspired Nicholas Kirkwood heels, a $6 Haring-inspired bandana from Uniqlo is something intrigued consumers may claim as their own. Says Uniqlo Vice President of Public Relations Eileen McMaster, “We want to make art accessible to the broader public,” thus promoting Uniqlo’s “design for all” philosophy.

But artist-inspired clothing lines constitute just one part of fast fashion retailers’ recent efforts to boost commerce. The ambitious venture to combine retail and artistic spaces reflects a new retail trend towards entertaining consumers through means beyond what’s typically found in retail settings.

This should come as little surprise; in a consumer climate dominated by the convenience of online shopping, brick-and-mortar shops (i.e. physical retail stores) have gradually been losing their appeal—annual  decreases in general foot traffic have reached numbers as high as 28.2 percent in recent years, according to ShopperTrak data. Thus, retailers have turned towards new, holistic methods of accomplishing one goal: keeping consumers within retail stores for as long as possible to promote sales.

At Uniqlo on Fifth Avenue, the sophisticated museum-like ambiance serves as the primary attention-grabber. One may stroll through the actual MoMA around the corner and then find him or herself examining the same pieces of artwork in the Uniqlo store, only this time printed on t-shirts and available to take home.

However, Uniqlo’s tactics to keep consumers within the store span beyond simulating an artistic excursion. For some time now, a number of prominent retail chains have resorted to innovative measures under pressure to increase foot traffic; luxury retailer John Varvatos turns its New York Bowery Street location into a VIP bar at night for top customers, while Lululemon Athletica regularly offers yoga classes in its stores. In response to this trend, Uniqlo chose to appeal to its largely college-aged demographic;  a full-service Starbucks has been combined with a large lounge area, containing sofas, tables, and an iPad station, to effectively create a multifaceted museum-coffeehouse social space. In this way, Uniqlo has managed to target several common human pleasures, including shopping, dining, and museum excursions, and blur the lines that traditionally exist between them to create a highly stimulative and gratifying consumer environment within a single retail store (as opposed to finding these elements scattered around a mall).

Other fast fashion retailers have moved beyond the confines of brick-and-mortar stores to showcase their artist collaborations. At the Frieze Art Fair in New York, which features some of the most imaginative contemporary art of today, The Gap acts as an active patron by hosting its “Gap Lounge”. This space functions not only as a lively social gathering area for attendees, with its strikingly modern blue and white architecture acting as an awe-inspiring visual spectacle, but also as a pop-up store for the company featuring, of course, artist-influenced t-shirts with designs by contemporaries including Alex Katz, Peter Lindbergh, and Yoko Ono as part of their “Visionaire” line.

However, it is important to bear in mind who exactly is perpetuating this phenomenon: fast fashion retail giants, each generating billions of dollars in revenue per year. While there are certainly advantages to their marketplace power, such as the overall economic benefits derived from the increased foot traffic and commerce, it is also important to bear in mind the ramifications of their commodification and corporate influence.

On one hand, these new retail spaces and inspired clothing lines expose an entire new generation of consumers to a world of art with which they may otherwise have had limited contact. With a target demographic that largely comprises college-aged consumers, brands like Uniqlo and The Gap can help revive, or at least shed a new light on, these popular artistic styles as a byproduct of their underlying goal to profit. Such a resurgence is akin to the way a game like Guitar Hero can bring classic rock styles back into popularity in a musical sense, as these innovative stores can in turn bring 20th century contemporary art back to the public eye in an artistic one.

While it would appear easy for skeptics to argue that works of Warhol or Pollock lose their meaning once printed through means of mass production onto these shirts, the inherent beauty of Pop Art is that it has always meant to appeal to mass audiences. For this reason, people like art blogger Derick Edgren argue that any concern about compromising the “value” of the works of many of these contemporary artists for shallow appreciation is largely unfounded, because “Pop Art is accessible, not original… pop art is an appropriation of itself… Uniqlo’s appeal is its universality and stark accessibility.” Thus, Uniqlo succeeds in removing Pop Art of any aristocratic connotations that may have formed in retrospect of its success.

But then it is hard to ignore the fact that this resurgence of contemporary art is corporately manufactured. Uniqlo and The Gap as prominent corporate entities maintain absolute control over whom they decide to spotlight; while reproducing the artwork of famed artists like Warhol and Haring works well, because the designs have value in their preexisting cultural familiarity, this means that less familiar contemporary artists will pose a bigger challenge to successfully market. As a result, despite their proclaimed “global meets local” ethos, and its intentions to support artists of the New York community, Uniqlo (and any other major retailer, for that matter) remains somewhat limited in the scope of the types of artwork it can promote, if it plans to sell merchandise on a massive scale.

Basic economics dictates that without innovation, firms will die out in the long run. In spite of being a Japanese retailer, Uniqlo innovated through its market insight; recognizing ripe opportunity with MoMA attendance approaching record highs of over three million visitors in 2013, they acted. With thousands of brick-and-mortar closures in 2014 due to the supremacy of online consumerism, and hundreds more expected this year according to retail consultancy Telsey Advisory Group, brands that expect to thrive will be forced to consider what extra value, whether that be in the form of art or other entertainment, they can offer to inspire consumers to recognize the exhilaration that the future of shopping affords.

Art by Nina Hofkosh-Hubert.