Opinion | The Met Gala, or When Fashion Consumes Art

The confluence of art and fashion at the Met Gala and elsewhere has far-reaching ramifications. Each field has begun to see itself anew. Art, having never achieved such mass relevance, wonders whether it might descend from its ivory tower and become genuinely popular. Fashion, unused to such high-culture cred, wonders if it might win new seriousness and cachet in the public eye. Inspired by these potentials, each side turns more ardently to the promise implicit in the other.

This cross-pollination has a long history. At the dawn of the 20th century, Paul Poiret, “the king of fashion,” enlisted artists to create his textile patterns, fashion illustrations and business stationery. Elsa Schiaparelli collaborated with Salvador Dalí on several iconic designs, including the “shoe hat” and “lobster dress” of 1937. Christian Dior ran an art gallery before becoming a fashion designer and later named his dresses “Matisse,” “Braque,” “Dalí” and “Picasso.”

But in recent years the reciprocity between of art and fashion has become big business. Fashion houses now look to transcend their narrow identification with clothing and accessories. Louis Vuitton, according to Bernard Arnault, the C.E.O. and chairman of the fashion and luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, which owns the brand, is “much more than a fashion brand. It’s a cultural brand with a global audience.” By emphasizing its links to art — and, by implication, art’s rarity and exclusivity — Louis Vuitton symbolically undercuts the reality that its business imperative (to sell more goods) effectively decreases the rarity and exclusivity of its products. The company made $20 billion in sales last year, doubling its revenue from four years prior. But as a “cultural brand,” Louis Vuitton dissolves the crass reality of products and sales in the mythic allure of storytelling and image.

Art institutions have come to regard themselves as cultural brands too. For many, the pandemic was clarifying. In the early days of Covid, the Met, for instance, saw its social media engagement increase by 95 percent on Instagram, 64 percent on Twitter and 17 percent on Facebook. Today the museum boasts over 11 million followers, many of whom may never see its art in person or post photos from its world-famous galleries.

For art businesses, becoming a cultural brand offers ambiguous rewards. Galleries, auction houses and art fairs, once reliant on a small coterie of moneyed collectors, now attract millions of online followers. But they’re unlikely to convert many social media users into buyers, given the high price of art. While followers may share content about an exhibition or a sale, cultivating desirability and consensus around the artworks, their impact on the bottom line is indirect at best.

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