Creativity is dead, long live curation
Curation as a preferential strategy for brand differentiation, relevance, and equity gain
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Image: Samutaro and Banana Republic
There’s no mistaking an Acne Studios store for any other. Regardless of whether you’re in London, Stockholm, New York, or Tokyo, Acne Studios stores are stages, with carefully considered lighting, layout, ambiance, furniture, art, and a cherry-picked cast of shop associates.
“Artists, architects, and furniture designers have always been part of Acne Studios’ DNA,” says Dan Thawley, Editor-in-Chief at A Magazine Curated By, a fashion publication which has worked with some of the world’s most innovative fashion designers – including Martin Margiela, Kim Jones, and Thom Browne – as guest curators. When Thawley originally pitched his idea to create a magazine titled 'Floragatan 13 Curated by Acne Studios' (Floragatan 13 being the address of Acne Studios’ new headquarters, situated in the former Embassy of the Czech Republic) to Acne Studios in 2019, Thawley was inspired by the strong physical presence that Acne Studios always had, as well as the opportunity for a deep editorial dive into the brand’s beliefs, ethos and curated aesthetics.
The partnership is simply one example of a shift towards curation as a preferential strategy for modern brands to differentiate themselves, gain relevance, build equity and ensure longevity. With a good reason: the aesthetic world and the narrative that curation creates is much harder to replicate than a brand’s visual handwriting and a tone of voice. For Acne Studios, a curatorial point of view lives as a store experience; a carefully chosen influencers and friends of the brand and what architects and interior designers the brand collaborates with. It also lives as a company headquarters, as the mood it creates in its stores, as a piece of furniture, or now as an issue of a magazine. The variations are endless, and that’s precisely the point.
The Democratization of Curation
Modern curation is a far cry from the art curators of lore, who were revered and feared, and who could make or break an artist. Yayoi Kusama famously threw herself out of the window when she couldn’t make it in the New York art scene, which in the '70s was stiflingly white and male.
More recently, curators went from the capital “C” to the lowercase one. Democratization of curation changed the role and value of curators in form, but not in cultural importance. For Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director at the Serpentine Galleries, the role of curation has always been to democratize, to bring art to different sections of society and “build exhibitions into society.” Obrist brings up the idea of “civic curation,” where curation is linked to generosity and has a bigger social role.
“Places where exhibitions are presented are inaccessible to large parts of society. I was always interested in creating exhibitions that can be seen by as many people as possible, shown in many cities and open to many audiences,” he notes, adding: “Curare, curatus means to care. Initially, it meant to install objects in the museum. A curator was a caretaker of objects. Curation is also about curiosity. But then it happened that curation has expanded, and that has to do with art having expanded.”
This expanded meaning of curation makes products only one of the currencies individuals and brands trade in. “It has a lot to do with proliferation of ideas. It includes non-objects, quasi-objects and hyper-objects, like the weather, that are more complex systems,” says Obrist.
When brands moved from manufacturing products to manufacturing culture, design, luxury and art, curation zoomed onto taste, aesthetics, identity and social status. Curation became the fuel of modern culture: it is indispensable in the cultural landscape where products, people and experiences are all comparable in value: a concert can be equally desirable as a bottle of vintage bourbon as a pair of rare sneakers. It is not hard to see how this crowded cultural landscape can lead to the consumer choice overload, and why curation gained prominence as the obvious way out of it. The role of a curator is to sort through culture and show us what we need to know and why.
“There’s value in having someone who’s amongst what’s happening in culture. The value is having me as a narrator and telling the story, telling you what’s relevant,” says popular Instagram curator Sam Trotman, more commonly known under his IG moniker Samutaro. “A good curator does the research, writes and edits, and doesn’t just repost images.” Trotman sees himself as an educator and a dot-connector. “A lot of my followers enjoy reading the context and history behind images,” he says. “I connect what’s happening in culture right now with the past. There’s value in finding a new angle on old things and connecting them with new things.”
Beyond simple empathy for consumers’ attention spans, there are wider cultural shifts that took curation from the art world and made it part of our everyday consumption. Curation shifts attention from products to the curatorial point of view, which is infinitely more valuable. This flips the script of brand strategy from product benefits to the story, and makes it imperative for brands to think like curators. Case in point: Floragatan 13 Curated by Acne Studios is infinitely more exciting than any item that Acne designed in years. In the 80:20 framework of brand growth, which claims that 80 percent of brand success can be attributed to storytelling and 20 percent to its products, this does not matter. The Floragatan 13 curatorial halo will urge many former fans to consider buying Acne Studios again.
Democratization from a few curators to many inevitably results in the acceleration of culture and the compression of trend cycles. People get bored quickly and want to move on to the next thing. Hyped up by media, celebrities and brands, a new collaboration or the latest drop lasts only as long as people pay attention to it. Curation gives them longer legs and allows them to reincarnate in a number of future iterations. Original Air Jordans enjoy iconic status partially due to their proto-context (an unrivaled sports star, a popular sport, a critical mass of fans), but mostly to many curatorial interventions since.
Curation as 21st Century Creativity
Under pressure for newness, brands struggle to actually create new stuff, but by curating the old, they give it renewed meaning and purpose in consumers’ eyes. Curation contextualizes product within a specific time and a point of view. “I look at what’s happening across culture. Someone like Supreme may reference an artist, and then I’ll bring it back to the original sources or look into the history behind where Nike Dunks came from,” says Sam Trotman.
Trotman mentions My Clothing Archive, a niche Instagram account that is oriented towards OG Japanese designers like Junya Watanabe, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto and gives context to a new audience. Consumers are ready to spend premium on products that belong to a curated collection and that are enriched with cultural and social value. Curation turns items into collectibles and more often this value is created by curators, showing the importance of brands becoming curators of their own.
Viewed through the lens of creativity, curation becomes a perfect connective tissue in our niche and micro culture. “The curator is a junction-maker, a catalyst, a sparring partner, somebody who builds bridges,” says Obrist. The Internet created micro-collectives of menswear, streetwear, luxury watches, artisanal coffee, and Japanese denim aficionados who share ethos, style, reference points, even a vocabulary. It is easy to link up with others who share our taste, interests and hobbies and ignore the rest. Curators bridge the gap between different taste communities and introduce them to one another. They also often connect people, products and ideas in a way that creates something that’s simultaneously new and familiar (think LVMH x Supreme, IKEA x Off-White, or Nike x Dior).
Brands as Future Curators
Consumers today are omnivorous in their cultural interests, and they treat everything as an opportunity to flex their aesthetic muscles. And so, a good starting point for any brand to think like a curator is to create your own aesthetic world instead of simply relying on your product’s aesthetic or your visual handwriting. A brand’s aesthetic world is infinite: it extends to a pair of sneakers, a piece of furniture, a playlist, and even collaborations. Telfar expresses its aesthetic world through the brand’s multimedia performances, experiential retail, zines, Bushwick Birkin myth, artist and brand collaborations and its diverse community. Telfar’s clothes are simply one expression of Telfar’s taste and point of view.
Telfar's example also shows how curation gives mundane objects, like White Castle’s uniforms, value by connecting them with a point of view and a subculture that makes them stand out in the vortex of speed, superficiality, and newness. Beyond making products more valuable, curation as a brand strategy extends to the entire value chain. Menswear and furniture retail platform Bombinate curates the suppliers and producers the brand works with according to its values of quality, craftsmanship, localization and sustainability. By doing that, the retail platform not only protects and preserves the work of human hands by connecting craft brands to consumers seeking high-quality lifestyle products, but also narrows down and directs consumer choice.
To curate is also to pick the right retail, distribution or collaboration partners. In 2018, Rei Kawakubo told Dezeen, “I want to create a kind of market where various creators from various fields gather together and encounter each other in an ongoing atmosphere of beautiful chaos.” Places like Dover Street Market or Kapital don’t prioritize mass and superficial reach; instead they curate their own kind of niche customer with their elevated and informed selection of choices.
Going forward, it will be very hard to imagine a retail establishment that does not give off an impression of a gallery. Bankrupt department stores and downsized mass brands are a cautionary tale of what happens in the absence of any curation. Good news is that, unlike art galleries of old, modern culture welcomes curators of all stripes and presents endless curatorial opportunities for brands.
This article was originally published on Highsnobiety and edited by Christopher Morency.
Speaking of curation: on June 17th, Banana Republic (where I am the Chief Brand Officer) launched BR Vintage Shop. Imagined as a chest of curiosities that each time it’s open takes us to a different world - an abandoned campsite or a caravan route in a desert - BR Vintage Shop is both a time capsule and a brand revival. By tapping into the audacity and aspiration of imaginary worlds, which we created since the dawn of time, we are telling a story as old as time: one of humanity, curiosity and wonder.
Some stuff in there is so camp that it’s cool. Other stuff reads as timeless streetwear. The vibe is resolutely modern. Check it out.
“It’s about a spirit of adventure, and a spirit of imagined territories. There’s a sense of whimsy to the clothes, ‘in the sense that you dress up almost in a costume.’ The workplace was a challenge filled with unknown dangers to conquer. You just needed the right uniform. And Banana Republic’s clothes, Andjelic said, ‘made you feel bad-ass.’” - Rachel Tashjian, GQ
“Andjelic sees Banana Republic Vintage having a dual appeal — to Banana’s older audience moved by nostalgia and to Gen Zers buying up secondhand clothes to support the circular economy and recycling.” - David Moin, WWD
“Deeply inspired by Banana Republic's timelessly out-of-time catalogues, Andjelic and a team of ‘purveyors’ went through the archives to select 225 unique vintage pieces from the '80s, '90s, and early '00s. Ranging from classic hunting jackets to graphic tees and caps, the BR Vintage selection is indicative of the worldly ethos that inspired Banana Republic's founding.” - Jake Silbert, Highsnobiety
“Feed your nostalgia with sharp vintage t-shirts boasting retro Banana Republic insignias or keep with the classics by opting for a chunky knit sweater or chic leather accessory. As trends come and go, inspiration from past decades carries fashion forward, so why not take a page—or outfit—right out of the '90s playbook with a vintage polka dot matching set.” - Alyssa Kelly, L’Officiel
“BR archives were an untapped goldmine. As we are going through the brand relaunch, we wanted to tap into both the original BR customer, who has a strong nostalgia for our 1980s product, and the next generation, who is obsessed with thrift shopping and secondhand,” Chief Brand Officer Ana Andjelic tells NYLON. “It’s really up to our customers’ imagination to build their own worlds with these pieces.” - Erika Harwood, NYLON
Curation is co-opting, easily made possible by technology. Creativity will never die as long as creative human beings live and breathe. Critics of pure creativity will always be the ones who can't create themselves, the sucking remoras who opt (co-opt) to ride the trailblazing coat tails of others.
"Nowadays, we don't... go to an exhibition and see a piece of art directly. What we see is... a concept of what a curator perceives as art. Simply put, a true artist is not the director, but the curator. Everything depends on the curator's choice.” - Slavoy Zizek