Art Basel Hong Kong Still Draws Fashion Crowd Amid Uncertainty

HONG KONG – Riding on the high of ComplexCon, the city concluded March’s Arts Month with the latest editions of fairs including the 11th edition of Art Basel Hong Kong and the return of Art Central.

Serving as the kick-off to Art Basel was a soirée at Harbour House, Rosewood Hong Kong’s new 3,100-square-foot penthouse with a breathtaking sweep of the Hong Kong and Kowloon skyline.

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The luxury property had teamed with London’s Serpentine Gallery for an evening capped by a performance by Sophie Ellis-Bextor, marking the launch of Rosewood’s RWD Front Row cultural series, in conjunction with the hotel’s fifth anniversary.

Earlier that day, the program had hosted panel discussions with Minsuk Cho, the Seoul-based architect who designed this year’s Serpentine Pavillion, and Sumayya Vally, who became the youngest architect commissioned for the program when she imagined the 2021 edition.

Speaking on the opening day, Angelle Siyang-Lee, director of Art Basel Hong Kong, was anticipating the first full-on post-pandemic edition.

“This week alone we have at least two major financial summits, attracting family offices to Hong Kong, the international cultural summit hosted by West Kowloon attracting the major museums and the One Earth Summit hosted by the World Economic Forum, as well as other major kind of like industry events going on around the same time,” she said.

The fair itself welcomed 65 additional galleries, amounting to a nearly 40 percent increase over 2023, bringing its total to 242. Exhibitors hailed from 40 countries and territories, with Ghana, Iran, Tunisia, Israel, New Zealand, Portugal, Denmark and Canada newly represented this year.

The program also extended outside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, with public installations, including a film co-commissioned by Art Basel and M+, presented by UBS, for the Kowloon-based museum’s facade.

The fair executive said this was proof of Hong Kong’s resilience as the best place for art business due to its geographical position with a four-hour flight from most territories in Asia, tax-free transactions, experienced infrastructure as well as a long-standing art ecosystem that includes international blue-chip galleries and headquarters of the major auction houses.

“We definitely know that the attendance will be more diverse in terms of their backgrounds and a lot more will be coming from outside of Asia,” she said, pointing out that the 2023 fair opened only a month after the last of China’s COVID-19 restrictions had lifted.

“We are seeing great collectors and institutions returning this year for the fair and Art Basel Hong Kong remains an important meeting place for us to connect with people from across the region,” said Dawn Zhu, director of Asia at Thaddaeus Ropac at the end of the first day.

By the end of the two-day preview, the gallery had sales of over 1.5 million euros, including a stainless-steel work by British sculptor Tony Cragg that went for 725,000 euros.

Touring the fair, Stefano Rosso, chairman of Maison Margiela and board member of OTB Group, said Hong Kong remained “the perfect location for the most interesting art fair of the world,” owing to its position as a multicultural hub.

“It’s a much more international crowd this year,” said Lorraine Kiang, cofounder of the Hong Kong and Shanghai-based art gallery Kiang Malingue, noting there was brisk business around works that translated well in pictures, as collectors often earmarked their choices ahead of the fair through digital previews.

While blue-chip collectors remained strong, she also noted the recent growth of a younger demographic, seeking pieces that had personal resonance rather than an immediate resale value in what she deemed “a pleasure mindset.”

Artists who attracted attention and sales included New York-based Taiwan-American painter Brooke Hsu and Hong Konger Liu Yin, whose painted peaches were among the artworks selected for Art Basel’s billboards and promotional material.

Los Angeles-based gallerist Anat Egbi said success at the show hinged on being relatable, with her gallery leaning into its roster of artists in the wider Asia-Pacific region — New Zealand-based Angela Lane, India’s Soumeya Netrabile or Marisa Adesman, whose work was recently acquired by the prestigious Deji Museum in Nanjing, China.

Early Art Basel data indicated visitors from some 40 countries and territories, as well as more than 400 curators, museum directors, trustees, and patrons from more than 50 major institutions worldwide. Yet as concerns about the economy loomed, as did Hong Kong’s new security laws, the final visitor tally came in at 75,000, below last year’s 86,000 figure.

There were nonetheless promising markers for the city’s prospects, including the completion of a 14-story office building in West Kowloon that will soon bring the staff of UBS under one roof.

Part of the landmark project atop the high-speed rail terminal of the area, the 460,000-square-foot space is almost twice the size that was revealed when the Switzerland-based bank inked the leasing deal with developer Sun Hung Kai Properties in 2022.

For many in the fashion industry, Hong Kong was a mandatory stop as they returned to Asia, such as Patou chief executive officer Sophie Brocard, who included it in a wider trip that spanned Korea, a major market for Patou, and Shanghai Fashion Week in her role at the LVMH Prize for Young Designers.

“I found Hong Kong to be still a global, strategic hub. The city is vibrant and enjoying a rather positive vibe,” OTB chairman Renzo Rosso told WWD. “It was interesting to visit all the malls to understand where to make the best of the great moment all our brands are living. This is our biggest endeavor in the city: finding the right locations for the new stores and relocating some of the existing ones to more strategic and visible spots. Diesel in particular underwent a big change in the last years and its retail footprint must match its positioning.”

Takashi Murakami and curator and art adviser Adeline Ooi in conversation at Landmark, with a translator.
Takashi Murakami and curator and art adviser Adeline Ooi in conversation at Landmark, with a translator.

After attending the First Choice preview, Rosso said he’d been more impressed by the works of established artists than new ones. “Although I like some pieces by Spanish artist Javier Calleja,” he added. “And I finally got to spend some time with my friend Takashi Murakami, whose most beautiful pieces I collect, which is always contagiously inspiring.”

The Japanese artist’s stay, which included a visit to ComplexCon and a conversation presented by HSBC at Landmark on his current exhibition at Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art with curator and art adviser Adeline Ooi, was one of the highlights of the week.

A dinner marking the occasion saw Murakami signing table sets for a crowd that included Wesley Ng, cofounder and CEO of Hong Kong-based tech accessories brand Casetify, and Marni’s creative director Francesco Risso, who was visiting the Asian metropolis for the first time and said he was charmed by a place he likened to a surreal painting as well as the interest in creativity of its inhabitants.

For all the effervescence from visitors, Asia-based players remained realistic.

“Given the current situation globally, we are in a bit of a transition as things are shifting around,” said Fed Tan, founder of public and press relations agency Advisory Council. “People are still very interested in the market and many are here to observe and understand what they are going to do next.

“It’s a mature city and a lot of the more interesting, larger venues have already been taken up or used in the past,” Tan continued. “But the Hong Kong government now understands [this] and is obviously reconsidering how they can ease the process of getting venues and [meet] infrastructural requirements.”

Giving brands the appropriate resources to hold interesting events has tangible benefits for the city. According to Michael Wong, deputy financial secretary of the Hong Kong government, major cultural events like ComplexCon and Art Basel are estimated to contribute to the city by attracting 50 million visitors in 2024, 4 million more than official data projections to date.

And the success of ComplexCon was a good sign in Tan’s book. The three-day street culture event saw around 30,000 attendees queuing for exclusive drops, meeting brand founders, and enjoying experiences from more than 100 brands and organizations.

At a moment where luxury growth is flagging overall, the perceived authenticity of an event like ComplexCon favors that sector’s players, in the opinion of designer and artist Oscar Wang.

“For the first time, I feel like there’s a big question mark on whether the [luxury industry] will sustain itself or not. It seems like such a glamorous and successful business but looking at double-digit drops, and the hype not being able to sustain itself, means people are losing faith and interest,” said Wang. “And I feel like the younger generation also doesn’t buy into that mentality of luxury.”

That slight waver also affected the art world, in Wang’s opinion. “You can tell people are cautious about bringing the best works,” he said.

The sake cups designed by Ambush’s Yoon in collaboration with sake brand Heavensake.
The sake cups designed by Ambush’s Yoon in collaboration with sake brand Heavensake.

While foreign brands weren’t jockeying for attention with blow-out bashes, they were taking full advantage of the local and visiting customers’ presence in town.

Ambush released a limited-edition run of sake cups in collaboration with Heavensake, with 100 sets available worldwide from the jewelry brand’s Hong Kong outpost in the Belowground area of Landmark or its Tokyo studio.

Elsewhere in the shopping complex, Wang unveiled the Hug chair, plush seating with embracing arms designed around Ferragamo’s bag line of the same name and exhibited at the Italian brand’s boutique.

Jeweler Nadine Ghosn hosted a trunk show-cum-brunch in the Salisterra restaurant at The Upper House, attended by press and private clients.

“There’s a greater intersection than ever between art, fashion, and fine jewelry and I think more and more people are pushing the envelope on that, taking advantage of these moments where an international crowd is coming together,” she said. “You get much more done in a short period of time.”

At Lane Crawford’s IFC flagship, the whimsical nature-inspired fine jewelry of Tokyo-based designer Mio Harutaka was on full display, including a giant topiary rabbit on the department store’s external terrace.

American artist Danny Casale, best known as Coolman, created a mural at the K11 Musea mall as part of a launch event for his collaboration with Casetify.

“It’s exciting to see art leap off the gallery walls and into our daily lives through digital innovation,” said Casetify’s cofounder Wesley Ng, adding that the tech accessories brand’s business hinges on “bridging the gap between art and the everyday.”

Signs that Hong Kong’s love affair with arts continues strong were literally writ large on the city’s walls, particularly with waterfront installations on both sides of the harbor.

The recently inaugurated Wan Chai Harbourfront Event Space put on an illuminated installation by Italian artist Angelo Bonello featuring running silhouettes, while the latest edition of the seven-day HKWalls festival opened on March 23 with guided tours and conversations around street art.

On the Kowloon side, the Harbour City mall invited French artist Camille Walala to set up two large-scale public installations, including the 3-meter tall “Now You See It, Now You Don’t” city sign atop the Ocean Terminal deck overlooking the harbor and a 3,500-square-foot maze, which came with an exhibition of her work open until April 21 in the mall’s gallery.

Meanwhile, the Center for Heritage, Arts, and Textile (CHAT) marked its fifth anniversary with “Factory of Tomorrow,” an exhibition that explores the city’s past as a textile manufacturing hub and reflects on its future through the works of artists and collectives of Asian backgrounds.

Swire once more turned the Pacific Place complex in the upscale Admiralty district into a hub for arts, by staging an installation by First Nations Australian artist Daniel Boyd, exploring themes of identity, memory, perception and history through a sensory experience.

Along with “ArtisTree Selects: Enchanted Forest,” the first-ever exhibition of Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcellos in the city, Boyd’s work was part of the offsite Encounters program of the Art Basel fair.

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