Hong Kong art dealer and fashion icon Pearl Lam talks style, taste and luxury fashion

As Art Basel Hong Kong approaches, the renowned gallerist and local fashion icon shares her thoughts on the relationship between collecting art and buying expensive clothing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2018, 7:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2018, 7:19pm

There are strong parallels between collecting art and consuming luxury fashion, says noted art dealer Pearl Lam – the famously colourful proprietor of eponymous galleries in Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai.

Overwhelmingly, newer buyers of luxury fashion are focused on bold-faced brands, Lam says. “Very few want emerging, young designers. If you can afford it, you want the big names. You want to feel confident, that is why you buy big labels … It’s much the same thing with art.”

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New collectors, says Lam, “want to be secure and they don’t want to make a mistake. So they often buy names that everyone knows, they will go for the security of bigger names – because if there is a strong market for it, if everybody talks about it, it must be good quality … They want household names.” Lam says – Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, et al. “It’s very similar with fashion. With Hermès, Dior, Chanel or Louis Vuitton, they know they can’t be wrong.”

In fashion, the more sophisticated the consumer becomes, the more willing they’ll be to detour from the mainstream and express their own personality. Similarly, Lam says collectors often evolve from simply buying works with a name they know and trust to patronising art they are truly passionate about.

“A lot of my collectors come to me because they trust me. After so many years being in this business, they trust in what we show and what we judge to be good,” Lam says. “We have a record of building emerging artists into ‘brand names’, we have that credibility already.” Collectors, she says, will “follow you because they’re confident that the artists you represent will one day become a brand name.”

A voracious art hoarder herself (she says: “I have this ownership issue, I like to keep everything. I don’t like to sell. I never have sold any of the artworks I’ve collected”), Lam also invests heavily in fashion – purchasing garments to wear, or purely as objets d’art. “Sometimes, even if I would never wear it, I buy clothes as a collector’s item. I think, that is not wearable, but it’s a work of art, so I will just fold it and put it in a wardrobe,” she says.

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Lam feels that impracticality is at the heart of fashion as art. “Art is not about function, but fashion has to address some functionality,” she says. “Traditionally, the goal of fashion is to make a woman look beautiful. But with fashion design that looks like an art form, you completely delete the function of making a woman desirable.”

The wearer becomes a “tool” – like the wall of a gallery, a backdrop for the designer’s art, Lam suggests. “I totally disagree with that. I think clothes should help make someone look desirable. However artistic I may be, I wouldn’t want to dress like a bag of potatoes. But I appreciate that sort of fashion, and I will buy it. It’s similar to collecting art,” she says.

While the art on the walls of her galleries is often striking, Lam and her team take pains to dial back their style on the gallery floor. “We have a dress code that our staff can only wear black or very muted colours. We should blend into the background. You know, I can be very flamboyant in my style. Can you imagine if I wore flamboyant clothes? It would completely take away from the artwork. If I’m in the gallery I try to dress down, not up.”

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Despite her passion for fashion and self-proclaimed eccentricity, Lam can be the picture of restraint when need be. “The art is the focus, not me,” she says.