The Art of Selling Luxury

Prada’s latest foray into the Chinese market successfully marries art and brand development

Along the east coast of Shanghai’s Pudong district, adjacent to the city’s futuristic skyline, sits the industrial colossus that is the recently renovated Minsheng Art Wharf. Atelier Deshaus’s design for the former 80,000-tonne grain silo has turned this raw architectural beast into an experimental urban landscape, prompting Italian luxury brand Prada to choose Minsheng as the venue for its 2020 Spring/Summer menswear show on 6 June – the first time it has ever been held outside of the company’s home city of Milan – causing the global fashion circus to reconvene in the Chinese metropolis.

‘Optimist Rhythm’, Prada Menswear Spring/Summer 2020. Courtesy: Prada

Entitled ‘Optimist Rhythm’, the retro-futurist collection mashed double-breasted blazers with khaki shorts and contrasting accessories to create an aura of playful intellectualism. The linear runway, which used to be the silo-hall’s central axis, was outlined with blue neon lighting designed by AMO.

The show marked a new highpoint in Prada’s love affair with China, following the release of the brand’s latest global advertising campaign by Chinese digital artist Cao Fei at the end of May. Rather than offering up stereotypical images of an internet sensation, Prada opted to commission a sociological analysis of contemporary pop culture through the lens of art. Cao’s images of 20-year-old C-pop star Cai Xukun (a.k.a. Kun), the company’s new brand ambassador, broke the internet in China.

Cao Fei, Code Human, 2019. Courtesy: Prada

‘I think no one else would be as crazy as Miuccia Prada, inviting a Chinese artist to photograph a Chinese super idol,’ Cao commented. Technology and pop culture have always been at the heart of the artist’s practice. Arguably her best-known work is the virtual 3D-modelling project RMB City (2008–11) while her recent short film, Asia One (2018), is a digital love story shot in the fully automated logistics centre of Chinese e-tailer JD.com. In her art-fashion-pop collaboration with Prada, Cao raises a series of ethical questions, embedded in the campaign video, during which Kun discovers a clone of himself in the ‘Post-Anthropocene’ section of a Future Human Museum. When we are able to create the perfect idol through technology, Cao asks, is idolizing people still relevant?

Usually, artist collaborations with commercial brands result in conformity – the need for a commercial message limiting creativity. With this campaign, however, Prada has opened up the field, enabling Cao to draw on the luxury brand’s extensive resources to expand the artistic conversation and engage with a potential audience of more than a billion. Yet, as well as receiving artworld approbation, the campaign has undoubtedly been an enormous commercial success, with Kun fans lining up outside Prada stores across China to purchase items worn by their idol.

‘What Was I?’, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: Prada; photograph: Alessandro Wang

Following the launch of the Fondazione Prada in 1995, which is dedicated to art and culture, the brand has spearheaded a number of highly respected projects, ranging from the restoration of the Palazzo Corner della Regina in Venice to the commissioning of the Rem Koolhaas-designed Fondazione Prada in Milan and, most recently, the meticulous renovation of the Prada Rong Zhai in Shanghai: an early-20th-century architectural gem that once belonged to a wealthy Chinese family but had fallen into disrepair.

Like the Fondazione Prada in Milan, Rong Zhai is not only an event space for the brand in China but is open to the public as an art venue. Since its launch in 2017, Germano Celant, Artistic Director of Fondazione Prada, has curated a series of exhibitions at Rong Zhai, including ‘Storytelling’, a solo presentation by Chinese painter Liu Ye, and ‘Roma 1950–65’, a group show of postwar Italian artists, featuring works by Alberto Burri, among others. In March, Rong Zhai unveiled its latest exhibition, ‘What Was I?’, conceived by Goshka Macuga. The show took visitors on a kaleidoscopic journey through a putative future in which humankind has perished, due to technological overdevelopment, and explored a human self-identification crisis via the monologues of a man-like android who claims to be the repository of all human knowledge.

Goshka Macuga, To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll, 2016, android, plastic coat, shoes in foam, cardboard and linen. Courtesy: Fondazione Prada; photograph: Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti 

As China’s demand for art and luxury goods increases, many high-end brands are attempting to tap into this burgeoning market. Yet the painstaking restoration of Rong Zhai is rooted in something more: the Prada family’s genuine respect and passion for art, architecture and culture. This has transformed the brand’s relationship with the public into something that transcends pure consumerism and is, instead, enmeshed with the city’s culture and history. In other words: Prada is not just selling clothes; it is building a culturally and artistically influential global institution. Miuccia Prada, who came of age during the sociocultural revolution of the 1960s, has been quoted as saying that she ‘wanted to change the world’. Through her foundation, she is showing what the possibilities can look like when you not only have economic power but the intellectual desire to do something good for society.

Main image: Minsheng Art Wharf, 2019. Courtesy: Prada

Bohan Qiu is a Hong Kong-based fashion worker and writer who enjoys all things related to style, art, photography, politics and sociology.

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