Representing the creative future

Collaborating with brands: Everything you need to know

Expert information about the artist, the brand, and the commission

Ah, the eternal question: is fashion art? The two fields are certainly intersecting more than ever in the form of brand collaborations with artists, suggesting the boundaries between the two have become increasingly blurred since Elsa Schiaparelli’s monumental collaboration with Salvador Dalí to produce the lobster dress, shoe hat, and skeleton dress among other notable surrealist creations. Last Wednesday evening, as storm Duncan lashed down on Haggerston, a hoard of practising artists flocked to the Sarabande Foundation to hear Blue Gaydon of MT Art Agency speak to artists Karimah Hassan and David Aiu Servan-Schreiber about the long-theorised commercial intersections between art and fashion.

The trio spoke about the difficulties of navigating this precarious divide between two visual fields, the dichotomy of art versus commercialism, and the practicalities of working with brands as an independent artist. Over the course of an hour, they covered everything from contracts to pricing, legalities to meeting briefs, and the precious balance between the creative process and commercial awareness.

“We should start considering artists as people to work with because of their ability to approach an audience in a different, more genuine way.” – David Aiu Servan-Schreiber

Gaydon began by introducing a brief history of brand/artist collaboration, plotting back to the vineyard Chateau Mouton Rothschild’s historic employing of artists to design the labels for their bottles. The vineyard boasts bottle designs by the likes of Jean Cocteau, Dalí, Andy Warhol, and Henry Moore among many others. This marks the beginning of a long and complex history of businesses, and in particular drinks brands, incorporating the work of artists into their aesthetic. Other noteworthy examples the trio discussed included Tracy Emin’s Longchamp bags, Damien Hirst’s collaboration with Alexander McQueen, and Andy Warhol’s unauthorised collaboration with Campbells Soup, which David suggests that started to make brands think. “We should start considering artists as people to work with,” because of, “their ability to approach an audience in a different, more genuine way.” Hassan goes further here. She speaks of how, “by collaborating and catching the coattails of certain brands, you can be part of that culture, allowing you to take your message to a wider audience who might not just see art in a gallery.” Allowing, in theory, both the artist and the brand to stay culturally relevant, so long as they share in their values.

“Staying on the brand’s radar by consistently creating work.” – Karimah Hassan

So what are the key considerations from the artist’s perspective when looking to begin a collaboration with a brand? 

The brand may approach the artist, “which is optimal for me,” explains Hassan, “that means I have the power and the leverage to demand more of a creative brief and to ask for the budget up-front.” Secondly, Karimah spoke of a more organic way to make contact with potential brand clients, emphasising the importance of fostering connections. “Staying on the brand’s radar, consistently creating work,” this method takes more commitment, time, and conviction but can eventually lead to longer-lasting, more creatively fulfilling partnerships with brands. Finally, collaborations may come about as the result of a third party. “This makes you look more trustworthy,” Hassan explains, “if you don’t have the help of an agency or a studio, even if you find someone who’s got an ‘in’ to a marketing agency or who can approach a brand on your behalf, it really helps in terms of pitching yourself at the value that you’re seeking.” Gaydon backs this too; “recommendations go a long way.”

“It doesn’t matter how passionate I am as an artist, if someone who has half an idea can pitch themselves twice as well they will get the job.” – Karimah Hassan

Blue goes on to speak of the importance of research before a project of this type, “talk about what you love about the potential collaboration […] make them think that you’ve done your homework,” to prove to the brand that they are doing something that actually appeals to you as a potential collaborator. A small bit of research can go incredibly far.

There’s immense power in the pitch. As an artist, you may be best suited to approaching things from a visual or conceptual standpoint, but as Karimah emphasises, “you’re approaching the marketing team at the brand, never an artist.” There is therefore huge importance placed on first impressions here, and so there is power in presenting the brand with either enticing previous projects completed for other clients, or with a mock-up of what you propose to do for them. “It doesn’t matter how passionate I am as an artist, if someone who has half an idea can pitch themselves twice as well they will get the job,” emphasises Hassan, who has trained herself not just in art and art history, but in business. This proves vital in understanding contracts and having an ability to foster productive, two-way relationships with brands.

“When you’re thinking about working with a brand, ask yourself what the brand is trying to say? Do we have shared values?” – Blue Gaydon

As an artist seeking to delve into the world of commercial work, it is important to show you are open to and capable of doing these collaborations. “It’s nice to start with whatever project is bought to you at the beginning, as long as it suits your values, as it’s a great way to advertise the fact that you are willing to do collaborations and that you are capable of doing them,” explains David on his first collaboration with Kiehl’s Cosmetics. Hassan then went on to speak of her collaboration with property developers Argent, the force behind London’s Coal Drops Yard development located just off London’s Granary Square. Karimah mentions how she “would never have thought about approaching Argent,” for the large-scale commission that she completed for them. “I had this dream idea to get my artwork in the street on a large scale. The team at Sarabande and I then sat down and discussed who I could approach to make that happen.” Hassan emphasises the importance of artists seeking outsider help and knowledge when required, “when you’re thinking about working with a brand, ask yourself what the brand is trying to say? Do we have shared values?” suggests Gaydon. Word of caution: take what brands, and particularly what the likes of property developers say with more than a pinch of salt – do your research and make sure that you and your collaborator share values at a deeper than surface level.

“Don’t miss deadlines and make sure you are super clear on deliverables and usage.” – Blue Gaydon

Ask the brand “why do you want to work with me?” recommends Blue, “you’ve got to work out that they believe in what you do and create as an artist and they’re not just skimming through loads of Instagram profile headshots.” Essentially, it is vital to ensure that the brand has an awareness of your practice, values, and the sort of work you make before taking on any collaborations with them. “Ask questions and be bold!” implores David. Blue then goes on to speak of the importance of assertive politeness as an artist; if the rate is too low, tell the business how long the work is likely to take, your usual day rate and explain material costs. In the context of smaller brands who don’t offer a rate, “Don’t be scared of thinking, ‘I feel like I’m worth a bit more than a pair of jeans,’ when faced with a quid-co-pro deal for artist collaboration,” explains Gaydon.

Some other key considerations for artists to consider; “don’t miss deadlines and make sure you are super clear on deliverables and usage,” Blue goes on to say. This is where we get down to the nitty-gritty of artist/brand collaborations, it is vital to read the contract, looking out for key details such as an exclusivity agreement stating a time which must pass before you work with one of the brand’s competitors. “You do have to make sure that your collaborations do not overlap with each other,” explains David, resulting in a bad look for both artist and brand. On rates: “There’s no magic formula for working out your rate” according to Blue, “my advice would always be to think about the different elements that go into the work. It’s time, materials, and resources but it’s also the idea. Don’t underprice the creative process.” From the point of view of the artist, Karimah recommends coming up with a particular set of responses when approaching or being approached by a brand for collaboration; “have a set of responses made up for yourself so you don’t have to keep saying the same things over and over.” Hassan continues, “I have four revenue streams, one would be talks/workshops, another a commission, live painting performances or an exhibition.” These are all different projects requiring different workloads and therefore rates. This makes it extremely easy for the potential collaborating brand to map out the artist’s skills and their options.

In terms of payment, it is vital to include payment terms on invoices and contracts. “They’re never going to pay in less than five days but you can try, I try,” explains Blue, “but I would not put anything more than thirty days.” It is vital for artists to include payment terms on an invoice and if possible to have these confirmed before taking on the job. This, as Gaydon elaborates, avoids you becoming what she refers to as “the annoying artist they don’t want to collaborate with again because you’re chasing them for payment. That shouldn’t be the end of a fruitful future collaboration.”

“Just keep thinking about different ways that your practice could develop.” – Blue Gaydon

The trio finished by speaking on the future of brand/artist collaborations, marking the trends in the direction these sorts of projects are moving in. Blue, working as a matchmaker between artists and brands speaks about four overarching trends based on inbound requests from brands she has received over the past few months. Firstly, “A great example of a buzz trend is brands scrambling to jump on the NFT wagon,” Gaydon explains, “if you are an artist exploring that space my advice is to be sure that what you are proposing is not just what the brand wants but that you are excited by it. It has to open doors to you that wouldn’t be open if you hadn’t taken on the job.” Secondly, Blue highlights the prevalence of experiential and public art in the wake of the pandemic, “there’s been quite a shift in trying to morph the art sector into what was quite an exclusive sphere into something that is almost people’s right,” she goes on, “people want to be immersed […] brands are really trying to tap into that.” These are simply trends that indicate the direction brand/artist collaborations are headed, but as Blue explains, if you are an artist that can’t offer that, don’t worry – stick to your guns; “just keep thinking about different ways that your practice could develop.”

So, as an artist looking to collaborate with a brand, there are some key takeaways from this talk. Always act with caution in ensuring that there is a transactional element to the project: both the artist and the brand must be getting something out of the collaboration. Ensure payment terms are clear and that your rate and expected outcomes are fully laid out before taking on a project, alongside clear terms regarding the usage of your work. Perhaps most importantly though, research is vital. As an artist, you don’t simply collaborate with a brand to fund your practice and pay the bills, but also to widen your audience and gain access to the ability to create work on previously impossible scales. Do make sure that you are aware of the brand, their values, their audience and what this would mean for you, the artist, in collaborating with them. After all, as Karimah explains, “they’re jumping on a community that you built.”

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