In an empty parking lot on a trendy section of Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, artist Alex Israel and the luxury scion Alexandre Arnault braved a persistent drizzle during the Frieze L.A. art festival this month to pose with a 20-foot-tall replica of a Rimowa roller suitcase. The suitcase’s color scheme — baby blue fading to it’s-a-girl! pink — was the artist’s reference to the shades of the Los Angeles skies at sunset.
Israel, a 36-year-old Angeleno, and Arnault, a 26-year-old Parisian and son of LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault, were promoting a collaboration between Israel’s art and Rimowa, the German luggage maker that Arnault helms as chief executive and for which he is quickly turning into a broader luxury company. Israel recently became part of that strategy since Arnault sent a message to the artist two years ago.
“I randomly reached out on Instagram, and he responded,” Arnault said. They had jet-set pals in common — supermodel Karlie Kloss and art collector Dasha Zhukova, among them. Arnault’s family art collection includes several Israels, and Arnault, in particular, liked the artist’s large “Sky Backdrop” paintings, which interpret the sunsets Israel grew up with and are in museum collections, including the Broad in Los Angeles and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Three days after Arnault suggested that Israel collaborate with Rimowa in 2017, the artist delivered a series of sketches.
It took more than a year to translate those sketches into color-graded anodized aluminum suitcases, carry-on sized, that will sell for $2,800 when they become available this summer.
The younger Arnault has been carrying Rimowa since his mother took him shopping at age 15 at the Bon Marché department store in Paris. Carrying Rimowa in his family is seen as an act of rebellion, he said. “I was getting in trouble for it,” Arnault said. “When you’re young and traveling commercial, you can’t use a Louis Vuitton suitcase because it gets stolen or makes you a target.”
A little more than a decade later, he convinced LVMH to buy a majority stake in Rimowa and he embarked upon a strategy to turn the luggage maker into a travel brand that will offer, he said, travel services and hospitality. He said the company will soon launch new product categories. One recent offering involves selling a $6,000 suitcase that comes with a year’s worth of monthly travel by air with the Skyhour app, where travelers can buy coach flight time by the hour. He said he sees promise in Rimowa much like his father once saw the 19th century luggage maker Louis Vuitton.
The collaboration with Israel is part of Arnault’s strategy to elevate the luggage beyond its utilitarian aspects. What makes a suitcase more than a suitcase? When it’s a work of art that uses the sides of a suitcase as a canvas.
Israel is an L.A. native — he attended Harvard-Westlake high school — and during the Rimowa event in West Hollywood, he welcomed his toddler niece and nephew to the pop-up giant suitcase.
Israel has been unabashed about crossing the line between art and commerce. His first project was a line of sunglasses called, appropriately, Freeway Eyewear, that he sells online as well as at Barneys New York and the Gagosian gallery shop in New York.
“We live in a world where everyone is a brand, and we communicate through the language of branding,” Israel said with a shrug. “When it comes to communication, I try to be open to all possibilities. … Not everything I do as an artist has to be art. Making products is a way of reaching a broader audience.”
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