Louis Vuitton’s Asian flagship store—or “maison,” as they call it—lights up Canton Road, Hong Kong’s premiere shopping street, with its brilliant 800-square-meter LED screen, created by Japanese designer, Kumiko Inui. The Hong Kong store, which opened its doors in March 2008 as the first of LV’s “Espace” gallery spaces in Asia, boasts a total of 1,749 square meters, with four floors of retail space—including their signature “Bag Bar,” two private VIP rooms, and the largest Vuitton jewelry and watch salon in the world. It is within this proverbial lap of luxury that Espace Louis Vuitton provides a wide selection of art books and exhibitions featuring international artists such as Zhou Jun, the Campana Brothers, Man Fung Yi, and Hiroyuki Masuyama for customers and passersby alike—both of which abound on this stretch of Kowloon.
I fell under the label of “wandering passerby” when I visited the store this July. Curious to learn more about the gallery space, I met with Vita Wong, vice president of LV’s cultural development for Asia Pacific, to discuss the international luxury brand’s relationship with the arts. “The spirit of traveling is in all our products,” Wong remarked. “We are passionate about art and travel, and we want to share this with the public.” The first Espace opened in 2006 on the top floor of the Maison Champs-Elysées in Paris, and its artistic direction is guided by themes of travel, fashion, art and heritage. Asked whether the Hong Kong Espace had such a thematic approach, Wong explained: “We do not have a particular theme nor do we focus on art from a specific region. We have a very open policy, focusing on creativity and innovation.” However, Wong noted that, given Hong Kong’s status as a hub of fashion and art in Asia, the inclusion of local artists and designers in the program was certainly important.
To date, the Espace has mounted 17 exhibitions. Earlier this year, “The Art of Dress” group exhibition showcased the works of three female artists—Movana Chen and Man Fung Yi from Hong Kong and Chinese artist Yin Xiuzhen. Currently on view is a solo exhibition of French-American painter, Jules de Balincourt, which will be followed by a group exhibition of “Korean artists,”possibly featuring comissioned installation pieces, though Wong couldn’t confirm further at this stage.
Located on the second floor mezzanine, above the Canton Road entrance, it is not always certain that visitors will notice the exhibitions; they may bypass the option, and decide to simply keep shopping. “The Espace, though noncommercial, is located in a high retail traffic environment, and we hope the exhibition gallery and adjoining bookstore provide visitors with a moment of quietness in the midst of their shopping experience,” commented Wong.
The art bookstore section of the space, which Wong describes as a “lifestyle corner,” showcases glossy art publications, many in hardcover—including some large-format or rare limited-edition texts that regular bookstores would find difficult to stock—in addition to children’s books, contemporary art catalogues, and even etiquette manuals.
These books and the art space hover above what, for most in the store, is part of a regular shopping day. The idea that the “regular shopping day” can also include moments of quiet reflection standing before artworks, or a chance to leaf through photography books, for example, is evidently part of Louis Vuitton’s mission of adding to the conversation between art and luxury, one that continues to find fertile ground in Asia. Louis Vuitton’s cultural presence in the region has been steadily growing. Since opening the first Espace, in the Paris flagship store, in 2006, gallery spaces have succesively been opened in new or existing LV stores in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taipei and Singapore. Moreover, this July, Louis Vuitton opened what has become its largest retail store in the region, the Shanghai Maison. Rather than signalling a new direction, however, the megastore celebrates 20 years of the luxury brand’s operations in mainland China—albeit without an Espace gallery, yet.
Compared with many other art galleries, organizations and museums elsewhere in the world, it seems that the union of art gallery and Louis Vuitton retail outlet is unconventionally commercial, but the pairing is highly emblematic of Hong Kong’s mix of retail and cultural space. Though rare on Canton Road, art galleries have settled in quite gracefully at the Pedder Building—a historic commercial building in the Central district, which also houses notable designer shops, clothing stores and a cigar lounge, for instance. Another new arrival is American fashion giant Abercrombie & Fitch, which opens its Hong Kong flagship in the historic building this weekend. While they may not have plans to add an art space to their four floors of retail, A&F will find themselves neighbors to the likes of blue chip international galleries and local veterans such as Gagosian, Hanart TZ, Ben Brown and Pearl Lam, all located a few flights up.
This scenario of art-viewing and shopping as two parts of a larger cultural experience is becoming more commonplace in Hong Kong. One may well ask, then, whether exhibition goers are customers or vice versa. Perhaps this question is more pressing for marketing departments using art and other cultural activities within sophisticated, long-term advertising strategies. Then again, arts organizations and museums are also turning to traditional marketing terms and tactics to attract new audiences to compete with consumer focused entertainment venues and services.
A city such as Hong Kong facilitates and encourages such hybridity. In concrete terms, the investment promotion agency InvestHK, for instance, has a team dedicated to attracting galleries to the fragrant harbor. Next year will also see the first Hong Kong art fair wholly run by new owners MCH Swiss Exhibition Ltd., those behind Art Basel, who purchased Art HK in 2011. If these developments are any indication, Hong Kong will continue to carve out its spot in the international art market, drawing the attention of investors, entrepreneurs and cultural tourists. It is not entirely clear what may materialize as a result of such mergers between art and commerce: it could be a “creative city,” as described by urban theorist Richard Florida—with culture at the street level, including (in Florida’s account) cafes, galleries, street events and so on. Alternatively, it may become an art destination for cultural tourists, a model aspired to by cities such as Dubai, fostering international cultural events and big-budget art and education projects. However, there is another possibility, that this city becomes something more unique, defined on Hong Kong’s terms. Whatever the eventual label, the presence of the Espace Louis Vuitton in the city serves as a foundational marker, one that attests to Hong Kong’s rapid changes and to its position as a catalytic point in the region.