ONLY RECENTLY, FASHION houses were happy building temples to themselves in the form of so-called “flagships” – multi-storey boutiques designed by blue-chip architects and located on a swanky street in a world city such as London or Hong Kong. But for some brands, that's simply not enough.
Nowadays, for Italian and French maisons with a storied legacy, establishing a museum seems to be the way to go. Just look at Florence, the capital of the Italian Renaissance, where two of its most illustrious home-grown brands, Salvatore Ferragamo and Gucci, boast museums in the city's centre, each housed in a stunning palazzo that's been expensively restored.
What makes these institutions different from more recent arrivals, such as the Foundation Louis Vuitton in Paris or the soon-to-be-opened Prada Foundation in Milan, is that they don't focus on the much-ballyhooed trend of contemporary-art collections but instead revisit their own history, while also organising temporary exhibitions on topics that often have little to do with the brands behind them.
In spite of their obvious links to the houses that built them, these museums hire curators and scholars who often come from the hallowed world of academia and who don't see these entities as just another exercise in luxury branding. Stefania Ricci, director of the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, was an art historian and worked in the costume department of Florence's Palazzo Pitti before being hired by the Florentine house to helm its museum when it opened in 1995.
“I think that my academic and scientific approach really helped in my job,” says Ricci, “because the world of fashion is always fluctuating and oftentimes even people who curate exhibitions and write for museums look at it from a journalistic point of view, not from an academic one. They approach it as if it were the latest trend, but when you organise an exhibition you have to look at the history of a garment, its social context and the history of whoever wore the garment. It involves a lot of deep research, and my background in art history really helped me with fashion. It's like working for an archive of historical documents.”
Those documents are not the typical medieval manuscripts or fading frescoes adorning Florentine churches and convents, but shoes, bags and couture creations that help bring back to life the history of a brand. Besides the Gucci Museo and the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo in Florence, other institutions devoted to designers are the Museo Fortuny in Venice, which celebrates the work of Spanish couturier Mariano Fortuny, known for his lavish textiles; the Musée Christian Dior in Granville, which is not owned by the couture house and is located in the childhood home of the French designer; and the Museo Cristóbal Balenciaga, located in Spain's Basque country and dedicated to the Paris-based Spanish couturier.
While these institutions don't have the resources of museums funded – and founded – by wealthy luxury brands, they have all become pilgrimage sites for fashion lovers who want to understand better the men behind the legends, paying homage to sites such as these or more exotic ones like the Jardin Majorelle near Marrakesh in Morocco, which was owned by Yves Saint Laurent – his ashes were scattered on the grounds – and is open to the public.
For larger institutions such as the Gucci and the Ferragamo museums, however, it's important to inspire visitors not just with their own permanent collections of archival pieces that belonged to the likes of Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor, but also with exhibitions that attract visitors and are not too tied to the corporate players behind them. “Exhibitions about Ferragamo are obvious for us,” explains Ricci. “We love doing them, but at the same time it's very limited, because although he was a genius, we already did almost 200 exhibitions about his career. So it can't be repetitive, because we're not talking about a demigod but still a man, albeit one who accomplished a lot.
“So this museum is not just for people who are passionate about fashion but also for those who've been here before and want to see something else. Exhibitions help refresh our thinking; fashion is very dynamic, always changing, and although museums are seen as very static places, they have to be dynamic.
“When we did a show about Marilyn [Monroe] it was a bit complicated, because she's a more difficult character than Audrey Hepburn, whom the fashion world loves. Marilyn is a pop-culture icon, very intriguing, a symbol of America of the times. She was a client of Ferragamo, so that's the link, but then we explored other things about her.”
Investing in a museum is obviously a huge undertaking on the part of a fashion label, but it clearly pays off, adding an aura of exclusivity and cultural cachet to a luxury corporation. Andy Warhol certainly would have approved. Back in the '60s the king of Pop Art, famous for his taste for luxury, said of Italian jeweller Bulgari's Rome boutique on via Condotti, “I always visit Bulgari, because it is the most important museum of contemporary art.”
Little did he know that one day luxury brands would make forays into the world of high culture by sponsoring exhibitions all over the globe and even building museums where it's often hard to distinguish between artefacts and merchandise. It's just another sign of the merging of high and low, consumerism and culture, where for modern jet-setters a visit to the Uffizi, the Gucci Museo or the Chanel boutique on Rue Cambon in Paris is just another Instagram-ready opportunity to show off to their followers.