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February 9th, 2015

When avant-garde designer Rick Owens celebrated the 20th anniversary of his eponymous label this fall, he did so on a grand and unusual scale, installing a towering replica of his torso, 25 feet tall and painted stark white, one arm raising a fiery torch, above the entrance to Selfridges in London. Created by frequent Owens collaborator Douglas Jennings and set against the department store’s columned facade, the sculpture, part of an art-meets- fashion collaboration called The World of Rick Owens, was a striking if slightly unsettling sight. Besides the designer’s likeness, Owens’s “world” also included elaborate visual installations in store windows, a capsule collection and a curated space featuring furniture and design pieces offering insight into the designer’s wonderfully weird mind. All told, it was one of the boldest displays yet of the merging of art and fashion outside of a museum space. And it was at the fore of a growing phenomenon, spurred by an effort to lure customers, generate buzz and compete against edgy online retailers nipping at traditional retail’s heels: the department store as art gallery.

"As luxury and retail is an extremely competitive space, it’s important for brands to continuously innovate in order to keep their relevancy,” says Dalia Strum, a digital strategist and instructor at The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “Online shopping is on the rise and brick and mortar locations need to provide a value-add for potential consumers. These installations have proven to continuously draw attention and traffic due to their quick turnover.”

Merging fashion and art in the department store isn’t an entirely new phenomenon; retailers such as Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys in New York have historically collaborated with artists on their window displays during the holidays, says Georgie Stout, founding partner and creative director of New York-based design consultancy 2x4. Selfridges is treading lightly into the New Year with its January street window takeover termed “Bright Old Things,” which spotlights an eclectic mix of well-known and under-the-radar artists, from an architect-turned-topiarist, to a punk musician/artist, and a furniture designer, all ranging in age from 40 to 80+.

Luxe retailer Bergdorf Goodman, meanwhile, has taken to elevating fashion as art in its legendary Fifth Avenue store windows all year long, starting this past May with a celebration of the Costume Institute’s Charles James exhibit. Bergdorf’s enlisted contemporary designers such as Ralph Rucci, Mary Katrantzou and Rodarte to put their own spin on James’ structured creations; those one-of-a-kind pieces, surrounded by historical references to the couturier’s work, could be purchased directly from the windows. In September, Bergdorf’s partnered with Sotheby’s to preview the auction house’s Contemporary Art Sale and created gallery-esque windows featuring works by the likes of Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol and Dan Flavin, serving as a backdrop to showcase the store’s fall fashion. Even Bergdorf’s recent holiday windows highlight art in all its forms, from architecture, to sculpture, painting and dance.

“Department stores have been transforming themselves from a merchandise-driven environment to an experiential setting of lifestyle goods, epicurean offerings and even services,” says Tom Julian, one of the directors of New York-based The Doneger Group, a retail and merchandising consulting firm. “Art can allow a traditional retailer to become more historical, more cultural, an edgy retailer can be more directional, and an emerging retailer can be seen as an innovator, all thanks to the art theme.”

Those experiences are progressively making the leap beyond the window display and inside – or, in the case of Selfridges’ Rick Owens exhibit – outside, the department store environment. In May, London’s Harrod’s department store presented the “Pradasphere,” an in-store exhibit taking up a wide expanse of store real estate on the fourth floor, tracing the Italian design house’s inspirations ranging from art, architecture and film. Iconic looks from the past 100 years were housed in glass cases, and a Prada-inspired café was created in which to ponder the brand’s intellectual approach to fashion. “Creating social spaces inside of retail, where the public can engage with a brand at a more intellectual level, and connect artists and other collaborators work to the fashion brand as well,” says Stout. Continue reading…

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