THE BEAUTIFUL SELL
Champagne house Ruinart has no need of traditional advertising
IN 1896, the French champagne house Ruinart procured some work from an artist ahead of his time, whose style would become known as Art Nouveau. Today the house’s arts patronage continues in a modern guise, on the floor of one of the world’s largest contemporary art fairs, in the hectic cultural meeting place that is Hong Kong, complete with Twitter hashtag #areyouinart.
“From the very beginning, Ruinart has been very close to the art world,” explains international communications director Jean-Christophe Laizeau, at a rare quiet spot at Art Basel Hong Kong in mid-March. “The Ruinart family has had a long dynasty of art collectors and a few members of the family were actually artists themselves. They made the first commission in 1896 with Alphonse Mucha who was a young artist from Czechoslovakia. He was not famous at this time, but well known by the happy few of the art crowd who started to collect Art Nouveau. Since then, the family Ruinart asked artists to dedicate work or in order to promote [the champagne] all around the world.”
Mucha’s first image for Ruinart was among France’s first advertising posters and caused a frenzy in fin-de-siecle Paris. Tall and narrow, it featured a beautiful, young, near-life-size woman with coiling hair and a profusion of stars from a champagne glass. Mucha’s posters (including promotional art for French theatre productions and perfumes) were so popular with the Parisian public — street art at the time was more garish — that enthusiastic fans cut them down with razors to take home.
Ever since then, Ruinart has used contemporary art to promote its champagne. The oldest producer in the world — established by Nicolas Ruinart in 1729, and now owned by French luxury empire LVMH — shuns traditional advertising outside France and instead commissions artists to create original pieces inspired by the champagne that go on tour across the globe.
Some notable recent works in the program have included a 2008 sculpture by Dutch artist Maarten Bass of a chandelier that has spectacularly fallen and melted on to a table; last year’s paper sculpture by Scottish artist Georgia Russell, using a copy of Ruinart’s first records; and a series of faceless portraits of the Ruinart family by Israeli artist Gideon Rubin in 2013. The house also sponsors art fairs.
“We have a partnership of 35 art fairs around the world, in Europe, in Australia, here in Hong Kong, in Mexico, in the USA — it’s huge,” says Laizeau. “Sometimes they focus on decorative arts, others are very contemporary arts or masterpieces in London.”
Laizeau, who travels the world with the commissioned art each year, scours fairs looking for the next artist to collaborate with. Despite Mucha’s poster having a glass of Ruinart champagne front and centre, Laizeau stresses to artists to produce original work, not simply an advertisement. “What we want is real pieces of art,’’ he says, “It is not like I asked you to do something with a bottle of champagne in the middle of something. I am asking you to do what you always do.”
A benefit of having a presence at the top international arts shows — often in hallowed VIP areas like the Collectors Lounge at Art Basel in Hong Kong — is that Ruinart is surrounded by its ideal customers. “We are making a highquality champagne,” Laizeau says. “It’s a very expensive champagne and so what we are doing is targeting our clients and our clients are definitely in the art world.”
With the global art market worth more than $72 billion last year (according to the TEFAF Art Market Report) and $3.9bn worth of art alone on display at Art Basel Hong Kong, it is easy to see the attraction of such an event for luxury brands and corporations, especially given the
growing popularity of Art Basel itself. The contemporary art fair originated in Basel in Switzerland in the 1970s and is now in Miami as well as Hong Kong. Collectors from around the world flock to see work by Picasso and Andy Warhol as well as emerging artists from Asia.
At the Hong Kong fair, held over five days in March in the city’s convention centre, Ruinart was joined by investment bank UBS, insurance giant AXA, Davidoff cigars and watchmaker Audemars Piguet in presenting art — and a great opening night party — in the Collectors Lounge. So sought after are the invites to these events that articles are written on how to get a coveted VIP Pass or whom to befriend in order to get one. Art Basel director Marc Spiegler recently told The New York Times there was a very high bar for organisations to be a part of Basel and they were only looking for ones with “day-to-day engagement” with the art world. “We get approached by companies each week who want to partner with us, and every year that number increases,” he said.
This year Ruinart selected French artist and furniture designer Hubert Le Gall to create a piece “dedicated to Ruinart DNA” for its exhibit (which will tour all the Art Basels, other fairs in Paris and London as well as Sydney Contemporary in September). Le Gall will also design this year’s Ruinart limited edition gift box. Laizeau says he doesn’t know why he didn’t commission a piece from Le Gall sooner; they are both based in Paris and have known each other for 15 years.
Le Gall says he was very “proud” to receive the commission but was also wary of losing his identity as an artist in the process. “Working for a brand like Ruinart was a challenge,’’ he says, from the Collectors Lounge in Hong Kong. “The challenge was for me working on a story for someone else, keeping my personality as well as expressing [the story] of someone else.”
As soon as he received the phone call from Laizeau, Le Gall left Paris for Ruinart’s vineyards in search of inspiration. What greeted him was very different from his idea of the Champagne region. In freezing February, there were no rows of lush green vines. “The sky was blue but they all were close to the ground, just sticks,” Le Gall says. “When you go into a vineyard in winter, you see the work of man … You see what they are doing to prepare [the vines], compared with July or August, when you see nature more — so it was very interesting.”
The dramatic seasonal changes of the vineyards left an impression on Le Gall and became a key theme in his work. He also wanted to express the role of time in champagne making, from growing the grapes to making the wine and waiting for it to age. His first thought was to make a “big clock” out of glass — but decided that would not be such a good idea for an exhibit travelling the world.
Le Gall says he wanted to push himself so he decided to work with Murano glass (made on an island off Venice) instead of his usual material of bronze. After spending months working with the master glassmakers at Murano and a brief sojourn in Greece, Le Gall settled on his idea: a series of 12 abstract works that represent a year in the life of the Ruinart vineyard, from the bare sticks in winter to the plump grapes ready for picking: “The wood is nature and the glass is the work of man, and the 12 months are the expression of time.’’
He says he rang Laizeau close to the deadline for the project “and said I have bad news and I have good news. The good news is that I am ready. The bad news is you don’t have one sculpture, you have 12 sculptures!”
By the end of Art Basel in Hong Kong, almost 60,000 people had been through the doors of the fair; the lucky few with VIP passes saw Le Gall’s work at the Collectors Lounge. Many thousands more will see it thanks to a very 2015 way of looking at art: through the lens of an iPhone, with a few selfies thrown in for good measure. It may be a long way from Mucha’s posters of 1896 on the streets of Paris, but it is clear Ruinart’s passion for art, and its power as a promotional medium, is still going strong.
“If you see Hubert’s piece, you can see it is Hubert’s work and it’s a Ruinart piece,” Laizeau says.
“I am very proud of it because it is me,” adds Le Gall. “If someone doesn’t like it or doesn’t feel it, it is not important to me because people have different sensibilities. But I am happy. The work expressed exactly what I want to express.”
“WHAT WE ARE DOING IS TARGETING OUR CLIENTS AND OUR CLIENTS ARE DEFINITELY IN THE
French artist and designer Hubert Le Gall, below, and left with Ruinart president Frederic Dufour, at the Murano glass factory where Le Gall had his sculptures made for Ruinart
Alphonse Mucha’s first poster from 1896, the distinctive Ruinart bottle, and Le Gall’s sculptures, which express the role of time in the creation of champagne