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225 Forest shows Hurley's commitment to lowbrow art

August 02, 2009|Caroline Ryder

Another day, another concept store -- except that 225 Forest, a new Laguna Beach youth lifestyle boutique carrying Hurley, Nike ID and Converse wares, feels more like a street artist's workshop than a retail space.

The muted facade, devoid of any obvious signage, barely hints at what the space might be that houses this collaboration by the three brands. Step inside and, yes, there's merchandise, but it plays second fiddle to art and the making of art. The store's top floor is dominated by sophisticated screen-printing machinery where patrons can decorate their swimwear with motifs by well-known street artists. Walls are covered with wheat-pasted, cartoony icons by Jason Maloney, Hurley's in-house art ambassador. You can design your own Nike ID or Converse shoes at the store. And then there's the immense centerpiece, a 22-foot-high painting by skater/fine artist James Marshall, aka Dalek, a former assistant to Takashi Murakami who has deep roots in the lowbrow art movement. His painting -- a kaleidoscopic abstract comprising meticulously rendered shards of color -- cascades from skylight to floor. It is the largest free-standing piece of Dalek's career and, without doubt, the focal point of 225 Forest -- more so than the actual merchandise, perhaps.

Even Dalek is impressed. "They weren't joking when they said the whole store is basically built around the painting," comments the artist. And that's exactly what top brass at Hurley, who commissioned the Dalek piece, had in mind. "The art component of this whole experience is really important," explains Hurley Chief Executive Roger Wyett. "It represents who we really are."

For those who assumed Hurley began and ended at board shorts, the company's connection with the art community -- specifically the street and lowbrow art worlds -- may come as something of a revelation. Greg Escalante, co-founder and curator of lowbrow art bible Juxtapoz Art & Culture Magazine, emphasizes the heavy overlap between the surf and art worlds -- something that other surf-skate brands such as RVCA (closely associated with the Beautiful Losers art crew) and Vans have also tapped into. "A lot of surfers make art, and if they don't make it, they appreciate it," he says. In the same way that pro skateboarders and surfers traditionally have been sponsored by brands, these days so are the artists connected with the scene, via apparel and sneaker collaborations, in-store commissions and such. The underlying message is evident: In alternative sports, art is way cooler than advertising.

The last 15 years have seen popular graffiti and lowbrow artists flit back and forth among brands in a tidal wave of corporate teamings (KAWS has paired with Nike, Vans and Comme Des Garcons, among others; Futura 2000 with Nike, North Face and Levi's; Neckface with Vans, Stussy and Altamont Apparel, and the list goes on) -- to the point of overkill, some say. Louis Vuitton's most recent Stephen Sprouse collection -- featuring an $8,250 skateboard adorned with the late Sprouse's graffiti-inspired lettering -- was jeered by many in the skateboarding community who felt the luxury brand's flimsy ties with their world cheapened the entire venture. Scour the comments section of street wear blogs like High Snobiety and Hypebeast and the sentiment is clear -- there's nothing less cool than a luxury brand obviously milking a subculture for street cred.

We Are Supervision, a Chicago-based artist and media agency, has been connecting major brands with underground and graffiti artists since 2002 -- right when the trend for brand-artist collaborations was exploding. Much of it was and continues to be corporate bandwagon-ism, says creative director Jordan Nickel. "We've been doing this for a long time and it makes you really jaded, to be totally honest," he says. "There has been a serious history of people coming in and just being culture vultures and trying to get artists in the cheapest, quickest way possible. Those campaigns aren't really effective at reaching the demographic in a long-term, meaningful way -- because people can see right through them."

Authentic collaboration, Nickel says, is about companies "putting in the effort to respect the art form," which means paying the artists enough for their work, looking beyond one-off product collaborations and demonstrating a long-haul commitment to supporting the culture with which they are aligning. Those brands that follow a more authentic path will "stand apart," says Nickel. Those that don't, and continue to cut corners, will "fail miserably" in their attempts to connect with cutting-edge teens and young adults.

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