On the opening night of Expo Milano, Ermenegildo Zegna's headquarters rolled out the canvas for a visual feast prepared by British artist duo Lucy + Jorge Orta. The Italian luxury menswear maison's modern glass-and-steel office - in the heart of Milan's up-and-coming neighbourhood Via Tortona frequented by the creative set - was transformed into a crucial element of the night's performance, titled "Symphony for Absent Wildlife".

As performers donned animal motif suits and walked down the stairs to play haunting tunes with primitive musical instruments, the delicate line between arts and fashion seemed to have gone even finer.

Such collaborations between arts and luxury maisons - for fashion, jewellery and designs alike - have established a closer connection between the two distinctive realms. Luxury has always had an appetite for arts from high-profile crossover collections such as Yayoi Kusama for Louis Vuitton to sold-out exhibitions at art institutions such as "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty", touring from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to London's V&A.

While these collaborations have sparked heated discussions about whether the efforts were more sales pitch than legit art curation, luxury maisons are now putting their own museums on the map, showing not only their own heritage and inspirations but also works of art from contemporary maestros.

Ermenegildo Zegna has been running its ZegnArt project since 2012, which has commissioned works of art and supported artists across the globe from its home in Trivero, Italy, to as far as Mumbai, India. The maison's Milan head office in Via Tortona and its factory in Trivero have presented exhibitions for public viewing. Its Fondazione Zegna's efforts in art began even earlier.

"ZegnArt represents a place where the vital forces of our time can come together, be put on display and become accessible to the public - which is the most important aspect of all," says the maison's CEO, Gildo Zegna.

Other luxury brands entering the artistic realm by operating their own museums include Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada. Exhibits aside, the museums built by world-famous architects alone are already important works of art.

Fondation Cartier, for example, moved to Paris in 1994, 10 years after its inauguration in Jouy-en-Josas, near Versailles. The museum, dedicated to multidisciplinary contemporary arts, was designed by Pritzker Prize winner Jean Nouvel. The newly built Fondation Louis Vuitton, designed by legendary architect Frank Gehry, reportedly cost the LVMH group a whopping US$134 million. The museum, nestled in a public park, is the first privately funded major cultural institution in France.

There are plenty of happenings in Italy too. While Gucci Museo took over the century-old Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Prada's new Milan extension to its original Venice premises was unveiled in May after a lengthy seven-year construction. The compound, designed by Rem Koolhaas' firm OMA, features spacious exhibition halls and a bar designed by famous auteur filmmaker Wes Anderson of The Grand Budapest Hotel fame.

With the impressive sum of funds and efforts invested, and strings that were pulled to tear down the walls between luxury and arts, one question prevails - what's in it for the luxury brands?

One easily overlooked reason is that the decision-makers themselves are prolific art collectors. For example, François Pinault, whose son François-Henri Pinault (CEO of Kering Group which owns luxury brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent and Christie's Auction), owns more than 2,000 important contemporary art pieces by Picasso, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.

LVMH boss Bernard Arnault's renowned art collection includes the works of Andy Warhol, Henry Moore and more, while Miuccia Prada has been collecting art since she established the Fondazione Prada in 1993 with husband Patrizio Bertelli, CEO of Prada. The passion for arts runs deeply in the veins of luxury maisons.

"LVMH's many years of corporate patronage and Louis Vuitton's collaborations with artists resonate powerfully with my personal passion for artistic creation," says Arnault, president of Fondation Louis Vuitton. "This passion is what fuelled my decision to build Fondation Louis Vuitton - bringing Paris a place that not only pays tribute to artists, but at the same time, inspires them in a virtuous circle of creativity."

Beyond the level of personal taste, arts is a palpable subject for luxury maisons to communicate their messages to targeted audiences with or without a direct link to actual product sales.

"It happens that luxury brands are patrons of arts, as it is in the case of Cartier," says Hervé Chandès, general director of Fondation Cartier. "There is no link between the activities or the products of the company and the programmes around contemporary art. This artistic independence is very creative and can be the key to long-term success."

The art institutions obviously create an effective means of communication which attract media attention - expanding coverage from fashion and luxury to art and design pages. Like how traditional art museums fare, luxury maisons' artistic foundations are also here to educate and, in the case of branding, to build the anticipation of a young generation of art and luxury lovers in the long run. Arnault points out that fulfilling an educational role, especially among the young, is one of Fondation Louis Vuitton's priorities and that it seeks to inspire both emotions and contemplation.

And Chandès says: "Fondation Cartier drives the image of the brand Cartier straight into the present. It's a powerful means of communication about the values of excellence and aesthetics the brand shares. Also, the very dense press coverage on a worldwide level about exhibition projects and not about the products is profitable to Cartier."

Ermenegildo Zegna's CEO agrees. "In our way of doing business, we always remain faithful to my family legacy, and with the launch of Casa Zegna, which is a sort of archive museum, we decided to honour our centennial history," Gildo Zegna says.

Luxury maisons are careful when it comes to artistic independence that's evident in the selection of exhibitors for their museum projects. Fondation Cartier, for example, has built a respectable international profile with its consistent dedication to represent contemporary artists of diverse genres from painting to multimedia art, performance arts and photography. Opening its doors only last year, Fondation Louis Vuitton too has embraced a similar approach in supporting multidisciplinary contemporary artists - some prominent exhibits include works of Andy Warhol, and Gilbert & George.

Since 2008, Fondazione Zegna has also been running a special project called All'aperto (meaning "outdoor" in Italian) that commissions world-famous artists to create site-specific public art for the Trivero community. An iconic series by famous sculptor Alberto Garutti, for example, reincarnated family dogs from the neighbourhood into cement benches scattered around the Trivero region, and they are also seen in Zegna's Milan headquarters.

"Today, contemporary art [museums] and sculpture parks are becoming a way of spreading arts around," says Anna Zegna, president of Fondazione Zegna. "Also, the whole community is well-engaged in these projects. Fashion is closely connected to visual arts. Why can't we praise it as a form of artwork that has been inspired and [that has] identically required creativity, work, research, dedication and passion?"

The nature of private ownership also allows luxury museums more flexibility when it comes to artistic freedom and independence compared to state-owned institutions.

"The Fondation transcends the ephemeral present by creating optimistic momentum and embodying a passion for artistic freedom. It is very much a dream come true," Arnault says.

Cartier's Chandès agrees. "Since it is a private institution, it can be more flexible than a public one and react quickly on opportunities. For example, this flexibility allows us to select artists on a large and long-term scale, but also to take advantage of all occasions of meeting, research and studio or exhibition visits."

Will the collaborations between contemporary artists and luxury maisons become what the Medici family was to Italian Renaissance artists? The answer remains unclear, yet it's surely not stopping more luxury brands from building lavish museums to safeguard their legacy and honour their art patronage. Swiss luxury watchmaker Audemars Piguet, for one, has planned a stunning spiralling museum in Vallée de Joux. The foundation, which has focused on environmental preservation, will include contemporary arts with the newly launched Audemars Piguet Art Commission.

 

AN INSIDE LOOK

CARTIER Fondation Cartier has been a platform for contemporary art exchange for artists and the public since 1984. The museum organises exhibitions of the works of distinguished artists and commissioned works every year. Examples of modern artists featured are Ron Mueck and Yue Minjun. Website: fondation.cartier.com

LOUIS VUITTON Fondation Louis Vuitton was founded in 2006 by parent company LVMH group. It promotes art exchanges between artists from around the world. One of the wow factors is the avant-garde design of the museum by Frank Gehry. Famous artists including Ellsworth Kelly and Olafur Eliasson have contributed to the museum’s collections. Website: www.fondationlouisvuitton.fr

PRADA Fondazione Prada has a long history of curating Utopian-related monographic artist commissions, contemporary art conferences, research exhibitions and cinema shows. The brand took it to the next level by opening a permanent cultural complex in Milan. It is known for collaborating with renowned artists such as Thomas Demand, Dan Flavin and Steve McQueen. Website: www.fondazioneprada.org

GUCCI Gucci Museo hosts a wide spectrum of cultural cubicles, from a cafeteria to a book store and a gift shop. Next to these is the exhibition of The Donation Project – a showcase of 20 tapestries commissioned by Cosimo de’Medici from the Renaissance in the 16th century. In addition, the brand has included some of its iconic pieces such as its bamboo handle bags and accessories. Website: www.guccimuseo.com/en/museum

ERMENEGILDO ZEGNA Fondazione Zegna was founded in late 2000 to promote the values and philosophy behind the Italian fashion brand. The foundation aims to conserve the environment and preserve the rich culture of Trivero, Italy, the community where the Zegna family grew up. Website: www.fondazionezegna.org

Tina Cheung