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Parisian Gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin on Taking a Page From Fashion’s Playbook

The man behind superstar artists including Takashi Murakami and JR is looking to build “the perfume of the art world” with a new eBay deal. He also just opened his seventh outpost, in Los Angeles.

Parisian Gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin on Taking a Page From Fashion’s Playbook

Emmanuel Perrotin

Parisian gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin is taking a page from fashion’s playbook — never mind that he helped write it.

Ever since Marc Jacobs splashed Takashi Murakami’s work all over Louis Vuitton handbags back in 2003, the art and fashion worlds have become increasingly intertwined.

Perrotin, who represents the superstar artist, is now seeking to build the “perfume of the art world” through an expansion on eBay aimed at making art more accessible to the masses, just as fragrance has put luxury brands within reach for a wider customer.

He’s also opened a new outpost in Los Angeles, taking over the old Del Mar theater on the Westside, and brought in former LACMA curator Jennifer King for a blockbuster opening show of Izumi Kato, which debuted Feb. 28. MSCHF, the collective behind the viral Big Red Boots, followed earlier this month.

Parisian Gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin on Taking a Page From Fashion’s Playbook

Perrotin Los Angeles

It’s all part of building brand Perrotin with a globalized reach, and opening the doors of the art world.

The geographical growth follows Perrotin’s sale last year of a majority stake in the company to private equity group Colony Investment Management. The gallerist remains in the chairman’s seat and makes the day-to-day decisions, but now has an infusion of cash to back his ambitious expansion plans.

On eBay, Perrotin will offer pieces ranging in price from 5 euros up to 20,000 euros, which he hopes will expose art to a younger and broader customer base. A Sophie Calle print goes for 360 euros; a JR tote bag sells for 18 euros.

It was a long-brewing project. Still, the move is a “risk,” he admits, with a big capital investment required to produce the prints and objects.

“We dream to create the perfume of our industry,” Perrotin says. Until now, the main source of revenue in the art world has been, well, art.

For fashion brands, beauty and fragrance have long been an entry-level luxury buy-in for younger, less affluent and aspirational shoppers. Perrotin hopes to diversify gallery income by replicating that model — and what is more aspirational than art?

“We always dream to have some parallel source of revenue, to help the gallery to be able to develop some very ambitious or very commercial projects. Step by step, we have developed the revenue of the merchandising.”

His bookstores are already profitable. “But it’s nothing compared to the mass market that exists for perfume or for all the products of fashion. We have very little in terms of diffusion [lines],” he says.

While he sees eBay as an evolution of the business and completely in line with his desire to democratize the art world, the news surprised people, in part because of the industry’s closed-door nature.

“Some aspects were very snobbish in a way,” he says of when he started out in the ’90s. He set out to change that for his gallery; instead of relying on a few big-ticket buyers, Perrotin wanted to make art more accessible.

“I’m from a generation of gallerists that want to change that. [Some galleries] make a fortune doing a very limited number of transactions. A gallery like me was fighting to create a link with fashion, with music, to bring more people to be interested in contemporary art.

“It was exactly the same feeling when Bernard Arnault was transforming the fashion industry,” he adds, of how the luxury titan expanded his brands with global stores and turned them into cultural destinations, in part due to their associations and activations with artists.

Many people thought Arnault’s moves were too big and bold; brands like Chanel resisted, Perrotin contends. But now they all have stores around the world and are placed prominently in airport duty free.

Arnault’s vision at the time was a “revolution.” Perrotin sees the art world’s growth as more tempered. “Between no evolution and a small evolution, we can work with a small evolution,” he says.

“The cooperation with fashion and the fashion industry players has brought many, many artists to the stage and that has had a very good effect on the ecosystem,” he says. “Maybe the world doesn’t get this collaboration, but they are wrong. This new population is coming to be interested in contemporary art, and we have to be glad of that. I don’t like all the collaborations, but maybe it has made contemporary art more central in our lives and that’s important for me.”

Even a small print can create a connection with an artist, and make someone write themselves into the artist’s story.

“I don’t laugh at that,” he says. “Because the best ambassadors of artists are collectors. If you have a big base of collectors, you have a good effect on your artist, and it can start from just a print.”

Perrotin explains that he started as a working class kid from the outskirts of Paris with a bank worker dad and a stay-at-home mom, who dropped out of school at 16 and made his first connections in nightclubs. He legendarily opened his first exhibition inside his own apartment at age 21, because he just loved art.

He now has galleries in New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo, and though he recently backed out of a Dubai deal, he hopes to expand to another — as yet undisclosed — location soon. That’s a total of about 86,450 square feet across the world.

He’s set up shop in those cultural capitals, forging a brand name that can cater to artists and clients who move around the world.

“We need to have [each city] to keep a link with the community, to keep up with museums, with collectors, with artists,” he says. The Los Angeles gallery set out to be a destination spot, as the city doesn’t get the foot traffic a place in Paris, or New York, might.

Parisian Gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin on Taking a Page From Fashion’s Playbook

Izumi Kato “Untitled #6” on display at Perrotin Los Angeles.

“The most important factor is that Instagram has exploded interest in art in territories where it didn’t exist before,” he says. Young artists can earn a following and find an audience without a filter. He supports that change wholeheartedly. Even if it can cause a sense of increased competition between creators, it results in a bigger ecosystem interested in art. The connected world can welcome more voices.

That’s not to overlook artists as cultural leaders and communicators; after all, Joseph Beuys cofounded Germany’s Green Party back in the ’70s, which led to some pretty avant garde political posters.

Artificial intelligence has the potential to become a great tool for talented artists that use it, while he dismisses the irrational exuberance of the NFT frenzy just a year or two ago. “It was such a caricature of speculation, pure speculation,” he says, asserting that it discounted the importance of good curation. “The majority of these NFTs were just a digital image of what we have on our website.”

He compares the digital frenzy to the rise — and fall — of Farfetch. “It was necessary to be strong digitally — and physically,” a lesson the online retailer failed to grasp — and Perrotin has taken that to heart. He emphasizes that his geographical expansion is part of that understanding. Instagram reach aside, being in the presence of art is still an elevating part of the experience. It’s emotional, it’s visceral.

The steps of his Marais gallery have become a tourist spot themselves — people snap selfies in front of its dual arches. He is proud of the fact that people are not intimidated to come to his gallery, and he relishes that openness.

Still, he cautions against an over-reliance on collaborations with entities ranging from fashion brands to hotels and restaurants, eager to co-opt works just to have something on display. “It’s better [for art] to be everywhere compared to nowhere, but we created a monster for sure,” he jokes.