One of the most interesting and complicated things happening at the end of our century is the way in which the fashion industry, an elite outfit that once treated the word 'retail' with the scorn designers reserve for the word 'copy', has been taken over by retailers. Even more interesting is the way that these retailers are now starting to buy up architecture as well. Most interesting of all is the final twist, in which all three - fashion, retail and architecture - are becoming the new denominators of culture. A word that, in England at any rate, used to signify a branch of totalitarian politics. To what extent is this a good thing? Well, a better word might be sinister.
Consider one fragment of the evidence. Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy or LVMH as it prefers to be called, is a Paris-based conglomerate that is now the world's largest retailer of luxury goods with sales totalling £4.8 billion in 1998. As a result of a series of acquisitions over the last few years LVMH has absorbed Christian Dior, Givenchy, Christian Lacroix, Celine, Loewe, DFS (once Duty Free Sales), Dom Perignon and Chateau d'Yquem, as well as the formerly independent firms of Louis Vuitton, Hennessy and Moet & Chandon.
Today LVMH is fabulously rich.
In addition to selling a vast range of products the group sponsors major art exhibitions and last year paid for the gigantic curtains at Jean-Marie Charpentier's Shanghai Opera House.
It is now awaiting the opening of its own United States headquarters building, the strangely draped LVMH pocket skyscraper on East 57th Street in Manhattan, designed by Christian de Portzamparc.
The global role of architects and architecture in this list of LVMH's activities is instructive, for it marks not so much a quickening interest in the subject on the part of the firm's charismatic entrepreneur Bernard Arnault, as evidence that building projects and their designers are increasingly being positioned as the backdrop to collections of frocks, perfumes, luggage, art, drink (and for that matter white goods, furniture and cars as well), in the allembracing landscape of consumables.
The emergence of this universe of designer products is important because, like the total performance art work of a Wagner opera, it aspires to be more than a musical play and much more than a fashion show. The price-ticketed universe enshrined in the gesamtkunstwerk sponsorship deals brought off by firms like LVMH aspires to the status of a new culture and increasingly attains it. Because governments have all but vacated the stage of cultural promotion, in the world of retail, products plus sponsorship can become culture.Similarly in the new world of architecture, projects plus sponsorship can become culture too.
The difference between the two is almost imperceptible, but it lies in the way that sponsorship in retailing means paying for a passive venue or a context, while sponsorship in fashion or architecture can mean paying for the Pygmalion-like education of a designer who can be quoted in Vogue , photographed at openings, and read about in gossip columns. In short a celebrity who will serve very well as a transportable walking talking trailer for a skyline of brilliant buildings.
One architect who has taken an interest in this phenomenon of promotional architecture is Dietmar Steiner, director of the Architektur Zentrum in Vienna. He believes that the retailisation of architecture has already been prefigured in the media, where success owes everything to advertising.
Advertising that is forever pulling towards the uncritical, non-specific, mass market universe of consumption, versus editorial that is always striving to cling to the critical, specific, elite market of ideas.