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Lo-res_MHHE009499-SConventional licensing agreements usually involve a brand granting the rights to its popular image or features to a manufacturer. Disney licenses firms to produce lunchboxes, apparel, and games with its popular characters; Porsche allows glove and sunglasses makers to put its logo on their accessories. But a new iteration of these agreements moves in the other direction, such that the brands themselves seek licenses from makers of a particular type of goods—namely, high-end artwork.

Notable examples include Diamond Supply Co. and Uniqlo, both of which reached agreements with the estate of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat to produce t-shirts imprinted with reproductions of his immediately recognizable art. Basquiat images also appear on high-fashion offerings from Comme des Garcons. The agreements open a new distribution channel for the brands; Diamond Supply Co. products now are available in the gift shops of various art museums that host Basquiat paintings in their galleries.

Other agreements go beyond printing images on clothing. For example, in collaboration with a German sculptor named Sterling Ruby, Calvin Klein developed designs for its stores and runway shows. The sculptures might not appear on a Calvin Klein–branded jacket, but their prominent influence on the brand is clear in stores and displays.

Although this form of licensing from the art world to brands has grown recently, it is not totally new. Andy Warhol was famous for promoting his artwork in various commercial formats, and his graphics continue to be one of the most popular sources for art-inspired clothing and accessories. The foundation that manages the Warhol licenses has earned more than $200 million from these efforts, most of which it issues as grants that support the arts.

But other artists express some concern about the deals. When the artist has died, as in the case of Basquiat and Warhol, there is less chance that licensing the artwork will dilute his or her artistic reputation. For living artists though, there is a clear dilemma: If they license their work to a brand, will they be accused of selling out? If they refuse, are they giving up a golden opportunity to expand their reach and make a living?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are some brands better fits for art licenses than others? Why?
  2. Are some artists’ better options for brand licenses than others? Why?



Source: Jacob Gallagher, “Has Fashion’s Licensing of Art Gone Too Far?” The Wall Street Journal, October 8, 2018