Unity is a hallmark of good design. The term Gesamtkunstwerk refers to a work of art that employs multiple complimentary art forms to successfully achieve a singular, aesthetic vision. This concept, dating back to the 1800s, was developed by German opera composer Richard Wagner who sought to unify all works of art by way of the theater. The cornerstones of this coordinated ideology quickly spread across the visual arts, inspiring creative minds throughout the early 20th century.
Numerous complimentary theories have emerged from this concept and have been employed across a variety of creative disciplines. Gesamtkunstwerk in architecture, for example, refers to instances in which an architect is responsible for overseeing the design of a building in its totality, including furnishings, wallpaper, fabrics, accessories, landscaping, layout, and so on. This ideology was embraced most predominantly within the Vienna Secession and Art Nouveau periods, two distinct aesthetic movements represented largely by cohesive decorative trends and details. Throughout the 20th century, Gesamtkunstwerk reached international acclaim and was adapted within the English language to mean ‘total work of art’.
While times have certainly changed, the core ideologies associated with a ‘total work of art’ are more suitable than ever in evaluating the success of a design, concept, or, in this case, a brand. The fashion world today is overwhelmed with design houses struggling to be relevant and remarkable, both of which are contingent on powerful and unique ideas. Minnie Muse is applying the aesthetic ideals associated with the term Gesamtkunstwerk to assess the top five fashion brands today that embody the unified artistic vision Wagner put forth when developing the concept in 1849. Through careful analysis we have deduced those brands to be, Chanel, Hermès, Prada, The Row, and Thom Browne; and here is why…
The house of Chanel began as a millinery shop in Paris in 1909 and launched its first collection of ready-to-wear in 1913, comprised of relaxed basics for the modern woman. Throughout the course of the past century, the brand has evolved to include haute couture, leather goods, shoes, sunglasses, costume jewelry, fine jewelry, watches, perfume and four product lines in beauty, all while staying true to the intrinsic codes founder Gabrielle Chanel set forth some hundred years before. As the fashion industry’s largest, privately owned luxury brand, the house remains in complete control of its decisions with an unwavering focus on respecting its core values. While signifiers of the Chanel brand include tweed suits, little black dresses, two-tone shoes, gold chains, quilted handbags, and their trademark fragrance Chanel No. 5, the brand continues to evolve and invest heavily in technology.
Karl Lagerfeld presented his first collection for the house of Chanel in 1983 – the two have since become synonymous with one another – and continuously pushes the French brand into modernity, introducing innovations in fabric and cut each season. Today, Chanel operates 310 boutiques worldwide and works exclusively with architect Peter Marino on the design of each store. Within every boutique Marino utilizes hallmark materials of the house and has commissioned a number of contemporary artists, such as Johan Creten and John Michel Othoniel, to create unique works of art that are representative of both the Chanel brand and the artist’s creative aesthetics, encapsulating a complete Chanel environment within each store. While the Camellia flower is an instantly recognized emblem for Chanel, so is their black and white branding and interlocked CC logo, which has become iconic since its revival in the 1980s.
Chanel’s international presence is honored in the far-off locations of the brand’s elaborate pre-collections, having staged shows everywhere from Shanghai and Singapore, to Dubai, Salzburg, Havana, Seoul, Texas and in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. Each ready-to-wear and couture season Chanel tops itself with the lavish sets and environments constructed within Paris’s Grand Palais based on the collection’s theme. From a towering Chanel Jacket for spring 2008 couture and an entire iceberg for fall/winter 2010, to a farm setting (SS 2010) an enchanted forest (SS 2013 couture), a supermarket (FW 2014), an early 20th century café (FW 2015), a casino (FW 2015 couture) and an entire airport terminal (SS 2016), Chanel understands the importance of an all-encompassing creative vision and there is not telling what they will dream up next.
The French luxury house of Hermès was established in 1837 as a harness workshop. After introducing their first leather handbags in 1922 and a women’s couture collection in 1929, the brand has grown steadily to include 14 different design sectors, including women’s and men’s ready-to-wear, footwear, gloves, silks and textiles, jewelry, furniture, interior fabrics, tableware, perfume and watches, among many others, making it the most prolific brand on our list, as well as one of the most productive luxury brands operating today. While leather goods and saddlery still remain the most bountiful sector of their business, making up 30% of annual sales, all of the brand’s product offerings operate in a parallel manner held to the utmost Hermès standards, focused on, “leather, sport and a tradition of refined elegance”. Silk scarves have become a cornerstone of Hermès – they spend years designing new prints and have utilized over 70,000 colors in the creation of their scarves – as have their trademark Duc-carrage-with-horse logo and the brand’s signature orange boxes and shopping bags, both of which they adopted in the early 1950s.
While Hermès recently launched e-commerce and today operates 304 stores worldwide, the consistency of their aesthetic vision across all platforms is in thanks to a close collaborative relationship with architect Denis Monetl of RDAI who designs the interiors of each of the brand’s retail stores; one of the most notable being their prominent flagship in Tokyo, built also in collaboration with architect Renzo Piano. The shop windows of Hermès stores around the world tell a uniform story, often including animals and surrealist undertones, as do their print advertisements, which remain consistently whimsical each season putting particular emphasis on scarves, jewelry, tableware, and leather goods.
The storied house has continued to modernize their vision through pop-ups and collaborations; in 2015 the brand partnered with Apple Inc. to create leather watchbands for the Apple Watch. Hermès has hosted a handful of playful pop-ups around the world, such as ‘Hermesmatic;’ a mini all-orange Laundromat with the purpose of breathing new life into old Hermès scarves. While the brand rejects mass production – some of their handbags take 24 hours of work to produce – they launched a sub-brand called petite h, which focuses on upcycing scraps of discarded materials to create inventive accessories and home goods using old scarves and scraps of leather. In addition, the French house has philanthropic means, having launched the Hermès foundation in 2008 which sponsors creation and craftsmanship activities, as well as an Hermès prize in 2010, which supports and rewards innovative projects in the field of design. With an unwavering aesthetic vision and a commitment to excellence, to Hermès, the world is its orange-colored oyster.
The Prada brand as we know it, began in 1978 when creative director Miuccia Prada took control of the Italian house founded by her grandfather as a leather goods company in 1931. Since Mrs. Prada’s introduction of the first set of nylon backpacks and totes in 1979, followed by a small collection of shoes in 1984 and the first women’s ready-to-wear collection in 1989, the brand has been challenging convention through the worlds of art, fashion, design, architecture and publishing. Throughout the 1990s Prada worked on developing a strong luxury portfolio and launched Fondazione Prada, a foundation focused on supporting cultural and artistic initiatives through the fields of literature, cinema, music, philosophy, art and science. With headquarters in Venice and Milan, in recent years, Fondazione Prada has become as much part of the fashion brand as Prada’s clothing and accessory designs. Most recently, Fondazione’s main site in Milan, conceived by architecture firm OMA led by Rem Koolhaas, opened Torre, the final building on the site’s expansive campus.
Prada’s work within Foundazione is closely linked to the aesthetic vision put forth through the brand’s ready-to-wear collections. AMO, for example, the research and design studio within Rem Koolhaas’ firm OMA, conceives the set designs for Prada’s men’s and women’s runway shows each season. Through a robust repertoire of collaborations, a significant constituent of the Italian brand, Prada has worked closely with artists, such a Carsten Höller, when they launched the Double Club in London and Miami, in 2008 and 2017, respectively; film directors, such as Wes Anderson who designed Bar Luce, the Café at Fondazione Prada’s primary outpost in Milan; illustrators, such as James Jean who designed graphics for Prada’s spring/summer 2008 and resort 2018 ready-to-wear collections; and architects, such as Herzog & de Meuron, who designed and built Prada’s iconic all glass flagship in Tokyo’s Aoyama neighborhood. With 618 boutiques worldwide and a recently launched e-commerce platform, their global distribution channels are vast, however Prada’s unique curatorial vision and interdisciplinary spirit has prevented the brand from encroaching on saturation, instead, the Italian house continues to remain more desirable and progressive though each carefully calculated new turn.
The straightforward design ethos that has come to define The Row grew out of the simple impetus of crafting the perfect t-shirt. Founded in 2006 with a 7-piece collection of unadorned basics, the brand has grown steadily over the past twelve years to include women’s ready-to-wear, handbags, shoes and sunglasses and a recently launched men’s collection set to debut in stores this fall. The Row has expanded internationally through highly controlled distribution channels and currently has two standalone stores in New York and LA; the latter, which opened in 2014, is an understated mid-century oasis, while the interior of the east coast store, which opened in 2016, was designed in collaboration with architect Jacques Grange. Both locations host a rotating display of beautifully sourced vintage furnishings as well as a curated selection of jewelry, items for the home and beauty products.
If the brand’s retail stores are physical embodiments of their all-encompassing vision, so are The Row’s runway shows. Having hosted a handful of presentations at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, the brand has also shown high in the sky of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, for fall/winter 2015, amongst a sea of Noguchi sculptures for fall/winter 2018, and at the Château de Courances just outside of Paris for spring/summer 2016, each carefully selected location has been a natural extension of the season’s collection. The brand’s unwavering focus on quality and longevity is represented across all aspects of their business, from their delicate logo, understated garment tags, beautiful boxes and unique shoe bags. Although The Row does not advertise, their printed material in the forms of invitations and looks books exhibit an esteemed focus to detail, while they have done a handful of carefully selected collaborations with brands like TOMS shoes, Superga, and Oliver Peoples, as well as artist Damien Hirst, who manipulated the brand’s trademark crocodile backpacks for Just One Eye boutique in Los Angeles. In just over a decade, The Row has been awarded three CFDA awards and the Wall Street Journal Innovator award for fashion in 2012, and shows no signs of slowing down their remarkably cohesive vision.
Thom Browne opened a small by-appointment shop in New York City’s meatpacking district in 2001 with just five suits. Known for his innovations in tailoring through his trademark proportions, Browne single handedly revolutionized the menswear industry with his shrunken, schoolboy cut and consistent color pallet. Today, Thom Browne’s collections have evolved significantly from ankle-bearing pants and fitted blazers, to include expansive women’s and men’s ready-to-wear collections, a made to measure division, sportswear, shoes, handbags, sunglasses and accessories.
Having stayed true to his original vision of creating perfectly tailored clothing in unwavering quality, Browne has managed to push himself to new heights each season through his own collections and additional creative projects. Browne began a fruitful relationship with Brooks Brother in 2007 launching a high-end collection called Black Fleece, while in 2008 he started working with Italian outerwear company Moncler and launched a men’s collection in 2009 called Moncler Gamme Bleu. In October 2017, during one of Colette’s final months in business, Thom Browne did an extensive collaboration and complete takeover of the second floor of Parisian concept store. One of the most notable traits of Browne’s work as a fashion designer is his innate tie to art, design and architecture. Browne not only creates paintings of his own, but he produces clothing of couture craftsmanship and stages elaborate presentations that often qualify less as fashion shows and more as performance art; so much so that at Art Basel in 2017 he reenacted the grandiose staging of his fall 2009 menswear presentation, incorporating 15 carefully sourced vintage desks.
Thom Browne’s affinity for antique design is expressed in the curated groupings of handpicked furniture at each of his thirteen international boutiques, including New York, Milan and London to Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo and Seoul. The brand’s trademark shrunken proportions are often mimicked through architectural details in the design of each location’s interior, along with uniform furnishings such as grey marble and industrial venetian blinds. Thom Browne’s unique vision and international following been highly commended by his piers, in addition to three CFDA awards for menswear designer of the year – in 2006, 2013 and 2016 – Browne has been awarded GQ designer of the year in 2008, was the recipient of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in 2012, and received the ultimate honor in 2013 when first lady Michelle Obama wore Browne’s designs to the swearing in ceremony of Barack Obama’s second term as US President. Most recently, Browne was tapped by the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James to outfit his entire team in matching suits going into game 3 of the playoffs. The consistency of Thom Browne’s unwavering vision is certainly to thank for the brand’s innumerable successes in just fewer than two decades in business.