Companion, a large sculpture by renowned artist and designer Brian Donnelly was on display at an exhibition in Hong Kong. Donnelly, known as KAWS, is collaborating with other artists and fashion designers to develop a consumer market through branding aimed at Chinese youth. Photo: Wikipedia

Art and luxury have intersected time and again in China as brands work to find new ways to engage aspiring collectors and art enthusiasts, especially those in the country’s budding market of Gen-Y consumers.

Agencies and brands are increasingly using influential artists and their work to connect to this audience through branding and commercial products. Coming to Shanghai’s Yuz Museum late this month is an artist who is adept at connecting these markets thanks to his growing youth following in the United States. New York-based artist and designer Brian Donnelly, known as KAWS, is showing his work for his first survey exhibition in Asia. If it’s anything like his current show at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Tex., it will bring a wave of curious Chinese millennials.

KAWS’ popularity in the West (he is known for his toys and streetwear collaborations and has more than 600,000 followers on Instagram) could translate to China. His influence is already blossoming on the mainland and in Hong Kong. In January, Sotheby’s Boundless: Contemporary Art auction in Hong Kong saw the sale of several of his pieces — from paintings to sculptures — beating bidding estimates. In 2015 KAWS officially hit the mainland, debuting CLEAN SLATE, a Hong Kong installation in Shanghai’s Huangpu District through a partnership with luxury retailer Lane Crawford.

At the Yuz Museum exhibit, KAWS: Where the end starts, (March 28 to Aug. 13) will display a vast range of his key works spanning the last two decades, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, toys, and “advertisement interventions” that feature an iconic style that plays off cartoon-like imagery recognizable in Western consumer culture.

Aside from artwork and exhibitions, KAWS has been making a name for himself through brand collaborations buoyed by the growing interest among Chinese youth in streetwear culture and its imagery. His work last year with longtime friend and collaborator, Japanese fashion designer NIGO, creative director at fashion retailer Uniqlo, sold out online and in stores in the US and China and eventually had to be re-released.

KAWS has also worked with US apparel giant Nike, and soon plans to launch special-edition Air Jordans with glow-in-the-dark soles, which will retail about US$350. There’s no indication how Chinese consumers will react to the release, but it wouldn’t be the first time such a collaboration captivated China’s affluent sneakerheads.

But while these brands target fashion-savvy, aspiring middle-class shoppers, KAWS has also been establishing a firm footing in the luxury industry with a series of partnerships. He worked with spirits giant Hennessy in 2011. About the same time as the Uniqlo collaboration last year, the artist did a capsule collection of leather handbags in partnership with New York’s Colombia brand Nancy Gonzalez, which started at about US$3,000 and immediately sold out.

While this type of high-end creative concert did not take place on the mainland, art museums in China have already been making efforts to connect the dots between luxury and art to attract a new wave of millennial consumers. A more recent example of this type of partnership took place late last year at K11 Art Mall in Shanghai, which hosted an art exhibition featuring British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood’s collections and contributions to environmental causes. The show also saw limited-edition handbags made exclusively for the department store’s trendy Chinese-designer boutique.

Cross-pollination between the art and luxury industries is moving to redefine a luxury corridor in order to grow audiences and reach aspiring Chinese consumers who want to find a way to opt into the contemporary artist culture through buying into its product-based and commercial sphere. KAWS is already providing an avenue in which to do this — his Fort Worth exhibition attracted 400,000 visitors, drawing a healthy crowd of millennials. As luxury continues to change, consumers will likely see more of this type of collaboration, even with larger luxury companies (Louis Vuitton and Supreme, perhaps) moving in this direction.

This article was originally published on Jing Daily.

Jessica Rapp

Jessica Rapp is Associate Editor at Jing Daily, and has been writing about China’s emerging independent fashion scene and the country’s creative industries since moving to Beijing in 2011. She spent two years covering the capital’s dynamic fashion world in depth as style editor of the Beijinger magazine, and her work has also been published in Dwell, Design Sponge, Roads and Kingdoms, Melting Butter, and artnet News. She has also collaborated with U.S.-based lifestyle blog Votre Grande Soeur...