Why Graphic Design
is Good for Fashion

When the Belgian fashion designer Martin Margiela created his first collection in 1989, the label he sewed into his pieces was blank. Instead of advertising his company by placing his name on every garment, he left four diagonal white stitches showing on the outside of each piece. Only those in fashion’s inner circle could appreciate the secretive Margiela’s unorthodox and conceptual signature.

Original plain blank Maison Martin Margiela label on the outside and inside (left-to-right).

Fast forward to 2019: the discreet Margiela tag is now widely recognizable. John Galiano, the company’s new creative director, has transformed the once enigmatic label into an overt branding ticket, and with it, Martin Margiela’s revolutionary fashion brand has become established as “Maison Margiela”. Galiano has begun capitalizing on Margiela’s avant-garde approach to logos, which paved the way for other alternative designers and even mainstream brands to consider how to make their own logos a conceptual component of their collections. What they’ve discovered is that exceptional graphic design can easily generate buzz, not to mention monetary rewards.

Maison Margiela FW 2019 'Memory of' label sweatshirt.
Maison Margiela FW 2019 pocket bag.
Vetements 2016 streetwear collection inspired by 1990s reinterpretations of their own logo.
Lorde with Kanye West in Vetements logo hoodie.

Today’s fashionistas do not want static, predictable logos across their T-shirts. They’re looking for labels that do more—both graphically and culturally—than just spell out the designer’s name; brands that are not afraid to dissect their own logos to find a new relevance.  For example, the Paris-based collective Vetements based their 2016 streetwear collection on 1990s-inspired reinterpretations of their own logo. The Vetements’ sans serif capital letters in Helvetica Neue Bold Condensed was literally dissected and translated into all kinds of typographic styles. Two years later, Comme des Garçons collaborated with Supreme on the 2018 Nike Air Force 1 low to simply and provocatively chop the Swoosh in two. It was a simple take on the classic model that became an instant sellout. These deconstructed logos have turned out to be the perfect antidote to sleek, over-polished digital aesthetics.

Comme des Garcons Shirt x Nike-Air-Force 1 Low x Supreme split box logo hoodie.
Air Force 1 Low Supreme x Comme des Garcons.

Martin Margiela’s effect on the fashion industry only becomes more obvious as designers work towards turning their labels into essential visual and physical elements of their collections. This means that innovative typographic designers can have more impact on fashion industry than ever before. If integrated logowear is here to stay, then more brands will be looking to skilled graphic designers capable of transforming conventional logos into captivating graphics. It seems that fashion designers are realizing what graphic designers have always known: good typography goes a long way.


How to Become
Design Literate

Rarely a day goes by when we’re not asked to buy one thing or another. From a conventional refrigerator decked out with the latest technology to an upscale humidifier drenched in vintage nostalgia, there’s no shortage of new and improved products we ought to have. Thanks to a growing number of marketing trends, we as consumers need to learn how to examine the design of products more skillfully so we can separate the wheat from the chaff.

The question is, how does the average consumer become design literate? By learning a few key design principles, we can begin to recognize the differences between good and bad design, and by becoming more discerning, curb our environmental footprint. With newly trained eyes, we can recognize the difference between innovative and obsolete technology, separate the enduring from the merely fashionable designs and spot the ingeniously functional amongst the essentially redundant products. Through the basic design literacy principles outlined below, we can begin to identify products that generate lasting value, instead of lasting waste.

There are five key design principles that can be divided into two categories: Internal and External. The Internal principles are: Contrast, Deconstruction and Integration; the External are: Notoriety and Relevance.

Contrast is about balance. The correct ratio of structure, form, colour, size and material can transform an ordinary product into an extraordinary one. Being aware of how this ratio works can help us choose products that will not only last a lifetime, we will want to last a lifetime—and maybe even pass on to the next generation. Contrast is about balancing extremes to create a dynamic relationship.

Artek stools’ simple form contrasted with the whimsical line drawings of the beloved Mummins conveys instant playfuness and elegance.
The Austrian artist Esther Stoker’s geometric installation with its structured & unstructured contrasts creates captivating spaces time after time.

The next two principles are about reinvention. They encourage us to seek innovative products that over time can become collectibles — many products that are good examples, are often highly sought-after auction items or kept for posterity.

Deconstruction breaks objects down: an existing product is fragmented into multiple parts and then reassembled under a redesigned configuration. Even a small degree of deconstruction can make a dated product highly relevant again. But deconstruction shouldn’t be done just for the sake of it. It needs to be natural and functional, not contrived and merely decorative. Knowing how to recognize good deconstruction will help us select a product that’s not only useful, but also desirable for years to come.

The Japanese fashion brand Undercover has thoughtfully deconstructed a trenchcoat, a hoodie and a down jacket into a single, multi-functional and irresistible coat.
An unforgettable and unorthodox Comme des Garçons campaign developed in a collaboration with Stephen Shanabrook was based on the deconstruction principle.

Integration is about incorporating previously unrelated materials, textures, finishes and techniques in order to redefine a stale product. When we apply the principle of integration we imbue undesirable or irrelevant products with freshness. The more unexpected the combination is, the more culturally meaningful the product can become. However, it’s critical to recognize an excessive integration from an unexpected integration: one is tacky and the other is both refined and aesthetically-pleasing.

Comme de Garçons x Nike’s lace-ups drenched in paint splatters exude freshness and originality.
By adding utilitarian stripes, the American clothing brand OFF WHITE has turned a traditional leather jacket into relevant streetwear.

Notoriety is not just about standing out—it’s about having cultural and creative currency. A large number of products are designed to generate mere noise instead of lasting value. Understanding the principle of notoriety means we can identify products that stand out for their sustained design integrity as opposed to superficial buzz that will be forgotten tomorrow.

With its iconic art collections, Illy has been reinventing the meaning of coffee not only in Italy, but across the globe.
For over 60 years the UK-based Vitsoe has been producing simple, timeless furniture that encourages us to use and reuse it, and ultimately to buy less and better and for longer.

Relevance is about distinguishing good marketing from good design. Most marketing makes products seem desirable, whether they are or not; being able to detect items that are genuinely relevant to our aesthetic, practical, and emotional needs can prevent us from falling victim to products that are merely well-marketed, not well-designed.

The Brave Brown Bag’s timeless and sensible design has been sought-after since its launch in 1996.
The uncompromising style and functionality has made Timberland boots must have footwear.

No matter what we’ll be buying next, if we learn a few key design principles and improve our design literacy, we can become more skilful consumers and inhabitants of this planet.


Beyond Gizmos
& Widgets

If you’ve been to a trade show, you may have found the newest widgets and gizmos captivating, but eventually monotonous. Fortunately, examining the latest products is not what all savvy trade show goers come for. It’s the engaging and unorthodox space installations that captivate and generate the bustling traffic and talk-value everyone craves.

The Backcountry Hut Company, IDS 2019
Dutch “eating designer” Marije Vogelzang for Caesarstone, IDS 2019

Typically, only a handful of exhibitors are able to supply visitors with a memorable experience. Trade show organizers are aware of the gap between the monotonous and the memorable and compensate in many innovative ways.

Take the January 2019 Toronto Interior Design Show (IDS) for instance. Rather than the usual fare, the IDS organizers hired the notable Brooklyn-based Firm Architecture and Design to help them redesign the traditional format. The outcome? An exceptional number of captivating public spaces for everyone to unwind; a curated business-to-business exposition featuring innovative products and services; two full trade days (instead of the former one day) to boost businesses and careers; and naturally, the anticipated IDS Conference with a lineup of national and international speakers. And let’s not forget the popular Studio North with its 65 handpicked designers and their latest prototypes.

Haven by Tangible with a getaway for attendees on the trade floor, IDS 2019
Wynnaudio showcasing loudspeakers in an innovative way to create the best sound experience, IDS 2019

The 2019 IDS ‘Discovering the Power of Design’ has legitimately accomplished a sweeping step toward becoming a trade show of influence. Now, with added anticipation, what could be the IDS next big thing? One might be Kyle Bergman, the Founder and Director of the New York based The Architecture & Design Film Festival. He attended this show looking for opportunities to introduce the Festival to Toronto. As for the IDS organizers, they could consider a collaborative film screening with the TIFF Lightbox on culturally and socially relevant local, national and international designers. Perhaps a 4-day event that could attract new IDS attendees and give extra reasons for everyone else to come again? Above all, trade shows are as much about new products as they are about timeless ideas and the stories they inspire.

The 2019 IDS took place at the Metro Convention Centre South Building in Toronto from January 17 to 20, 2019.


Are Collabs

The collaborative symbol ‘x’ that at one time promised a thrill of anticipation, has lately been leaving us feeling something we never thought possible: jaded. Even for collab-loving design advocates like us, that exciting little symbol has been worn away of late. Now instead of implying something fresh, relevant and of cultural value, they have started to imply – dare we say it? – yet another average product disguised by the pretense of a ‘brand x art’ or ‘brand x brand’ collaboration.

Arts & Labour’s very existence (a blog born to champion the fusion of art and brand through meaningful collaboration) is a testament to the fact that collabs once stood for something worth getting excited about. But we can’t help but wonder, is that day over?

Palace x Adidas Originals
Virgil Abloh x Nike Air Force 1

Lately, we’ve been asking ourselves whether collaborations have become a means to an end for too many brands, simply an excuse to make noise about otherwise ordinary products. The kind of art collaborations that used to make us feel excited about a brand’s vision and that looked beyond the average to invent imaginative products are now few and far between. We should note that there are still companies creating unorthodox products worthy of getting fired up about, with or without collaborations in mind, thank goodness. Most likely though, they were doing exactly that long before art and brand collaborations started to gain their now fast-fading appeal.

Champion x Bape
Supreme x NIke

So, are art x brand collaborations becoming obsolete? After much soul searching and thought, we’ve come to a firm conclusion: NO. When one digs a little deeper, one discovers that it’s actually the creative intent behind them that has started to lack the vital imagination and originality that collaborations once inherently represented. Without creative vision and artistic intent, it’s little wonder that the resulting products fall flat. For example, the multitude of recent street-wear collaborations from various brands with their little-differentiated sweats, sneakers, T-shirts or hoodies has been impossible to get enthusiastic about. On top of that, these limited editions are rather unlimited and visible everywhere, both online and on the street.

Adidas x Raf Simons x Stan Smith
River Island x Blood Brother

In order to succeed, brands must dig deeper—and not necessarily into their pockets, but simply into more meaningful creative processes that can ultimately result in uncovering what everyone is after: an irresistible newness. As Rei Kawakubo of the Japanese avant-garde fashion label Comme des Garçons explained: “The idea is, no references. Today there are so many trends, yet everything looks the same. It’s our job to question convention. If we don’t take risks, then who will?”

Many years ago, as a student at the current Ontario College of Art & Design University in Toronto, a design adage I took to heart was that our portfolios were only as strong as our weakest piece. (It deeply resonated with me then as it does now.) Similarly, the weak collabs we’re seeing today are bringing all collaborations as a whole down. One poorly conceived art x brand project may come and go, but with it, so will the audience over time. For brand champions, this should serve as a wakeup call.

So, what’s next? We’d argue that the current art x brand collaboration overspill is an immense opportunity for brands small and large to go deeper and to make sure their creative hearts are in the right place. Are your goals to create something truly original and contribute to society, not degrade it? If so, then time, thought and shrewd creativity must be invested so that convention may be ousted. Only then will brands begin once again to develop limited-edition products that genuinely stand out as they’re meant to.


Time to Trade Booths
for Space Installations

In the age of social media, it’s become a thing of the past for brands to use trade shows to unveil new products. Gone are the days when attendees and exhibitors alike would go to a trade show expecting to get a first glimpse at the newest an industry has to offer. But if all that’s needed these days is a strategically planned Instagram, Facebook and Twitter post, are trade shows still relevant? Are trade shows needed at all?

Tokujin Yoshioka x LG light up Milano design week 2017

We’d suggest that they still are, but that the point of a trade show has evolved. Attending one is no longer about staying abreast of the latest product launches or the “booth hopping” approach of the past. Today, it’s more about savouring the whole fair experience. An amalgam of checking out a handful of breathtaking space installations, rubbing elbows with like-minded patrons, listening to one or two international celebrity speakers and sampling a few high-profile food vendors. It’s safe to say, trade show organizers have had to rethink their strategies to ensure their fairs stay well attended.

For example, attracting brands that not only want to show their products, but tell a relevant story to attendees, or even better, sponsor one, has become one of the critical strategies trade show organizers have been considering. Encouraging brands to show up with unorthodox booth designs worthy of social media attention, or inviting them to collaborate with artist collectives to help them design exceptional spaces where attendees can get fully inspired and rewarded have become the new holy grail. For trade show organizers, the idea of people leaving the show with nothing but memorable spectacles and unique experiences to share with their followers is now one of the biggest accomplishments that can be imagined.

Prototype Research_Series 02 Garment Dyed Dyneema by Stoneisland, 2017
Decode/Recode by Luca Nichetto & Ben Gorham for Salviati, 2017

Furthering the evolution of the trade show is the belief among those in the know that attendees are more likely remember a noteworthy space than a brand’s latest gadget. Norm Lehman of Syke Inc, a consulting firm for small businesses, suggested while looking at Swedish car maker Volvo’s booth during the latest Interior Design Show in Toronto, “Instead of showing off one of their shiny cars, why not sponsor the public area sitting next to their booth? Why not become part of something larger, a space with an experience that will stand out and be remembered?”

It’s not lost on brands or organizers that trade shows offer many expanding possibilities that need to be tapped into in order to get the best possible return on investment. Partnering with like-minded brands or creative professionals to design spaces worthy of collective awareness is just one of the many alternatives we’re starting to see. After all, trade shows have never been simply about launching new products, but new ideas, perspectives and experiences.


Christian Dior:
Crafting the First 10 Years

The current Christian Dior exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) can be seen as appealing for many reasons. Obviously, showcasing a collection of haute-couture gowns and dresses from Dior’s first ten years (1947 to 1957) has a pull of its own. Yet, there’s much more to it.

Christian Dior and his mannequin in the late 1940s. Rue des archives/credit
Christian Dior’s most famous silhouettes in Vogue

Alongside the 40 sophisticated dresses showcasing Dior’s New Look, the exhibition also presents the trades that enabled Dior produce a collection of such striking elegance and refinement. Whether it’s the stunningly dyed or woven textiles, detailed embroidery, dazzling ribbons or glowing sequins, each manufacturer brought their own well-esteemed creativity and expertise to the table. Dior’s high regard for their artistry and skill was most definitely a prerequisite to establishing mutually fruitful, trusting and lasting collaborations. Christian Dior had probably developed this appreciation in earlier years as a small art gallery owner while working with artists like Pablo Picasso and creating a reputation not only for the artists, but also himself.

Christian Dior’s designs from the ROM collection (Photos courtesy of the ROM)

In fact, it’s likely that as much as it was an honour to work with Dior, it was also his privilege to work with manufacturers and artisans of such high calibre. Many of them had established their names and produced extraordinary work long before Dior. Naturally, along with his reputation, it was also their own that was on the line with every new collection. As a result, producing exceptional, high-quality work was the essence of the project for everyone involved—collection-to-collection and season-to-season.

Yet, Dior’s contribution to the fashion industry goes well beyond revolutionizing the shapeless, masculine, post-war way of dressing which many women protested against even then. It’s his contribution to the revival of the “non-essential” trades, once so eminent in the pre-war France yet hardly surviving after, that’s often overlooked.

The exhibition offers a refreshing insight into an era when garment trades were respected and recognized as a significant part of the haute-couture collections. Nowadays, the spotlight has been shifted predominantly to models, stylists and photographers instead. Regrettably, the contributing trades get barely any attention today. Perhaps placing value on these artisans, just like Dior’s immaculate and pristine dresses and gowns, has become dated or simply economically unviable. Or perhaps showcasing a mutually trusting and respectful relationship with contributing trades has gone out-of-fashion?

Christian Dior is on display at the ROM till March 18, 2018. For a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation for a recent Dior couture show, we suggest watching “Dior and I” (Netflix) either before or after your visit to see the artisans in action.


Making Common
Spaces Uncommon

Whether you’re a writer, scientist, designer, architect or construction worker, all of us like to speculate about the future. We like to imagine the future as not only mysterious, but also as an extraordinary event.

IDS18 ad-series featuring Rollout’s graphics
Rollout x Robert Sangster Colourinky for IDS 2017

Future Fantastic is the theme of the upcoming Interior Design Show (IDS) in Toronto. It will be celebrating its 20th anniversary, a milestone not only for the organizers, but also its supporters. One of them is Jonathan Nodrick, the creative director and owner of Toronto-based multi-disciplinary design studio Rollout, previously a frequent IDS exhibitor, and now a fully-converted and enthusiastic sponsor. Exploring the future, whether through unorthodox wallpaper coverings or space installations, is something Jonathan has become passionate about. It is one of the reasons he signed up Rollout to design the common spaces for the show. “When the IDS crew asked us to design one of the five common areas for their upcoming Toronto show, I simply replied, why not all five?”, explains Jonathan.

Jonathan Nodrick, the CEO & Creative Director of Rollout Inc.
Shattered Light, Rollout x Brent Comber

Intending to make the common truly uncommon – yet exceptionally communal – Jonathan has extended the challenge to his creative allies across North America, inviting them to collaborate with him and his Toronto studio on this wild venture.

Resolving the typical dilemma of working within a small budget but with super-high expectations, creative collaboration was the most sensible road to take. By engaging with other like-minded professionals, artists, scientists, designers and educators, Jonathan was able to hand-pick his unorthodox team members. Or rather, he succeeded in envisioning a possibility that everyone wanted to be part of. Yet, developing ideas with such a variety of métiers can be a challenge of its own. What’s more, working with teams dispersed across the continent makes working as a team that much more demanding.

From Rollout’s 5 common spaces for IDS18, plus & minus
From Rollout’s 5 common spaces for IDS18, alone & together

Fast forward to the final week before the opening night party. Each team has now developed their design direction stemming from the creative brief developed by Rollout’s Toronto studio. Each team has presented their detailed drawings to Jonathan and ultimately to the IDS crew for their final sign off. Each team has handed their final renderings over to Toronto where all required production and fabrication has started to materialize.

Without giving away the concepts for each of the spectacular designs, one can line up for a drink or toasted panini at the Metro Convention Centre in Toronto from January 18 to 21 and explore one or two of the (un)common spaces and the parallels each represents: One & Many, Inside & Outside, Loud & Quiet, Alone & Together or Here & There. Also, make sure to secure one of the limited-edition graphic posters designed in collaboration with one of the Rollout’s collaborating artists available at each of the five (un)common spaces.

The 20th Interior Design Show is on from January 18 to 21, 2018 at the Metro Convention Centre in Toronto.


Longing for
an Instagram-Worthy

When it comes to artist x brand collaborations, fashion brands seem to be in a league of their own. There are the fashion collabs with artists that garner cultural significance along with our attention, and then there are the rest. Even though a handful of beauty and beverage brands have been making waves with artist collaborations, it seems that brands in arenas like housewares, appliances and electronics generally have been unable to impress us the way fashion brands do.

Evian x Christian Lacroix
Shu Uemura x Yaz Bukey
Smeg refrigerators
Smeg x Dolce Gabana refrigerators

To be more precise, if one wanted to put one’s 5-year-old and still irresistible Supreme x Comme des Garcons shirt in a comparably irresistible dresser, or to chill a bottle of the endearing Paul Smith x Evian collaboration in an equally endearing refrigerator there wouldn’t be many options. That is, with one glaring exception: Evian bottles lucky enough to be owned by those with a Dolce & Gabana FAB28 refrigerator, part of a mesmerizing capsule collection with the Italian home appliances brand SMEG. However, part of the appliance’s talk-value is its eye-watering price tag of 100,000 euros*.

John Baldessari’s BMW M6 GTLM art car #19
Mac cosmetics ­­­­x Kabuki

Perhaps, there lies the point. Artist x brand collaborations outside of fashion and beauty often come with price tags that are utterly out of this world. The BMW art car, for example, just like the Dolce & Gabana x SMEG collaboration, is a limited edition of five thousand, but with a price that’s never been disclosed. The strategy behind these projects are often more about brand elevation than mass sales.

Most brands, however, don’t engage in collaborations of any kind, be it art or design. That’s to say, we will all keep cooking with perfectly-fine looking microwaves, but they most likely will never compel us to post photographs and fawn over them on social media. At Arts & Labour, we can’t help but ask … why not?

The opportunities for developing unprecedented art collaborations with brands outside of fashion, beauty and beverages are so immense that leaving them untapped seems like a wasted opportunity. Not only for the loss of brilliant business momentum that collaborations have been proven to give, but equally for consumers who’re more than ready to eschew the mundane for the extraordinary.

We like to think it’s only a matter of time before brands from different industries see the marketing light, take a page from the fashion world and consider collaborating with artists for all our sakes. Someday, they’ll see that they can go beyond helping us manage our kitchens, our laundry or our offices functionally, and start transforming our day-to-day experiences.

Wouldn’t that be something.

*Dolce & Gabana and Smeg have subsequently developed a follow up collaboration of small appliances that has not yet gone into production. No word so far on how much they will retail for or when they will launch, though we’d wager there will be a waitlist.


Attracting the Masses
by Targeting the Few

For a number of savvy brands, developing collaborations with artists has become a vital way to ensure consumers see their products with fresh eyes. Art collaborations are often seen as a way of building relationships with audiences that may be hard to connect with. Yet for that to happen, brands of all kinds need to start seeing their target audiences no longer as consumers, but as their partners. Anna Sinofzik, the editor and co-author of Taken by Surprise: Cutting Edge Collaborations Between Designers, Artists and Brands, makes the following argument about the impact of art collaborations when done right: “Target audiences become brand ambassadors, customers become collaborators and consumption becomes an experience.”

Enmasse x Canada Goose
Travis Fimmel wears Canada Goose

Not surprisingly, such multi-faceted relationships can only blossom under specific circumstances. As audiences pick out their brands of choice, and likewise, brands pick out their audiences, both must engage in each other’s vision with the mutual respect required to develop authentic and desirable products that are relevant and beneficial to both. (We can’t help but think of the New York-based street brand Supreme, whose products are a win-win thanks to their collaborations solely with artists revered by its devotees.)

While art collaborations are about building broader and deeper kinds of relationships with customers, the same can be said about partnerships with artists. Ultimately, brands must cultivate trust with their collaborators—the designers, artists, photographers, creative directors, stylists, writers and all other essential creative professionals—so they may contribute to the common goal of any artist/brand collaboration: to create unique products that generate positive talk-value, benefit both the artist and brand and positively contribute to society.

Vetements x Canada Goose
Concept x Comme des Garçons

Deliberately or not, most brands are prone to classify their audiences a bit too broadly, assuming they have to appeal to the masses to achieve explosive growth. While expanding a target audience has the potential to increase profits, it also runs the risk of diluting or weakening the products, and with them, the bottom line. But we believe there’s a way to avoid this catch 22 of brand stewardship and accomplish the growth every business owner dreams of – by doing just the opposite.

Canada Goose. The company started as a family-run business in the late 1950’s manufacturing heavy-duty utilitarian winter outwear for the Canadian Rangers and those working in and around the Arctic Circle. Forty years later, Canada Goose emerged onto the global fashion scene and became renowned for its high-end duck down-filled parkas, recognizable for their Coyote fur-lined hoods and distinctive “Made in Canada” logo patches displayed proudly on every sleeve.

It took the founder’s grandson Dani Reiss, an aspiring writer, to step in and slightly re-write the brand’s original narrative. The parkas were already liked for their functional, utilitarian and northern characteristics among those on arctic expeditions and in Nordic communities. Promoting the parkas to film crews working in cold environments was an out-of-the-box, yet natural idea. Canada Goose became known in those tight-knit, trend-setting circles as the “the” coat to have on set. Dani, however, wanted the parkas in the front of the cameras as well as behind them.

Fast forward to the early 2000’s. The Scandinavian fashion scene had now been taken by storm by Canada Goose, while Hollywood and other international celebrities had begun to follow the lead of the crews behind the cameras. Canada Goose parkas were now being seen on and off screen, and on the streets north and south. Worn by Daniel Craig in the James Bond movie “Spectre” and by Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea” the parkas were now, officially, a global sensation. To add fuel to the fire, Canada Goose began to engage in numerous art and brand collaborations. Whether joining forces on highly-stylized collections with the prestigious, French avant-garde fashion house Vetements, or working in collaboration with the digital artist Eepmon, Canada Goose was becoming the parka of choice, or perhaps more importantly, of status.

All of a sudden, the parka’s lofty price tag was no longer seen as barrier, but as a mark of craftsmanship and class. By narrowing its focus on a small but influential group, Canada Goose ultimately became desirable by the widespread many.

“Want to expand your business? You should narrow your focus,” are the wise words of Al Ries, author of the business classic “Positioning”. Perhaps it’s time more brands begin taking note and in turn, taking this proven wisdom to heart.


Big Ideas
from Shallow Pockets

Did you know that the art of Yayoi Kusama (whose work has become affectionately referred to around our office as “dotty”), is coming to a museum near you? Widely known for her international collaboration with the French luxury brand Louis Vuitton (and curated by LV’s former creative director Marc Jacobs), the pioneering, Japanese, multi-disciplinary artist Yayoi Kusama’s personal work is now drawing similar outsized attention. Her solo show, now beginning to stride its way through four major museums across the U.S. and Canada, has so far been a sold-out affair. Lineups consisting mostly of uber-enthusiastic, selfie-taking Millennials have made it very clear – this is a show to see and be seen at.

Infinity mirrored room: All the eternal love I have for the pumpkins, 2016
Infinity room: Phalli’s field, 1965

Perhaps it was her whimsical collaboration with Louis Vuitton in 2012 that brought Kusama to the forefront of our collective consciousness. Whether one is a fashion or art enthusiast seems irrelevant. Kusama, who was pretty much unknown outside of Japan before 2012, is now close to becoming a household name in culture-hungry circles across the western hemisphere. Without a doubt, Kusama’s work captivates. Whether it’s a pumpkin dot handbag or a pumpkin dot room, her work embodies a sense of bounding playfulness and joy. It’s an effect that’s hard to replicate – intimate, jubilant and deeply immersive, all at the same time. Which makes it not at all surprising that huge crowds have been drawn to cue up at the doors of Kusama’s six infinity mirror room exhibitions to experience it themselves.

Infinity mirrored room: All the eternal love I have for the pumkins, 2016
The obliteration room, 2002—present

Yet, after exiting the exuberantly whimsical rooms and entering the Kusama-themed museum shop, one cannot help but notice a distinct dip in originality and newness. Unlike Kusama’s invigorating work, the gift shop merchandise feels stale, predictable and repetitive. Perhaps it’s understandable for museums facing budget restraints to succumb to time-worn merchandising tactics. However, not seeing the sales-generating potential of offering products that are equally as dynamic as the art they pay homage to seems like a blind spot.

Kusama’s gigantic pumpkin at the Naoshima ferry
‘We love Naoshima t-shirt school project, 2012

Perhaps a helpful lesson in creating more intriguing and desirable merchandise can be learned from Naoshima, an island town by the Japanese Seto Sea. It’s a place that happens to be highly familiar with Kusama’s work. In fact, one of the main reasons Naoshima has become a tourist destination itself is the town’s fascination with Kusama’s art; none other than one of her sizeable red pumpkins greets its visitors as soon as they step off the ferry. Kusama’s pumpkin has not only become a symbol of the town, it’s also become a source of endless inspiration to the local kids. When I visited Naoshima a few years back, the local ferry gift shop had a collection of t-shirts and drawings on display, all interpreting Kusama’s dotty pumpkins. All the items were drawn by local kids and had become an attraction of their own. It was striking how such a low budget project could have such a great and reverberating impact.

Never underestimate the power of unconventional art collaborations, even on the smallest scales. Like this one, they can easily become the talk of a town – school, kids, parents and tourists alike. Nothing stands between a museum and a local school to collaborate and create something truly exceptional and relevant, and in this case, to promote the vision of an artist of such immense significance as Kusama. One simply has to remember, it’s not deep pockets but imagination and courage that are required to make beautiful things happen.

Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity mirrors will be at the Seattle Art Museum till September 10, 2017. It will then continue at The Broad in Los Angeles from October 2017 to January 2018, then at the Art Gallery of Ontario, from March to May 2018, and finally at the Cleveland Museum of Art from July to October 2018.