Lately fashion groups have been competing as zealously to erect architectural monuments as they do on the catwalk. Now Chanel has made its first move into contemporary art with a daring exhibition gallery designed by the architectural diva Zaha Hadid, home to specially commissioned works by 20 international artists. The collaboration between big-name architects and fashion houses is hardly a new development. After all, Jean Nouvel designed the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, built in 1994; Frank Gehry is preparing a glass cloud-like building for the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris and the Prada Foundation recently announced that Dutch superstar Rem Koolhaas, who has designed numerous Prada boutiques, will be the architect for its new premises in Milan.
But Chanel's Mobile Art project seems to have ambitions that go beyond recruiting a name architect. At a time when international architects fly all over the world to put up similar buildings and art exhibitions travel from one venue to the next on the international museum circuit, Chanel has founded its own nomadic gallery, which promises to take on a new character each time it lands. After its spectacular debut on the harbourfront in Hong Kong, the container - artworks and all - will tour Tokyo, New York, Moscow, London and Paris over the next two years
At the press conference in Hong Kong, Zaha Hadid does the "starchitect" very well: arriving three hours late, she sits queen-like on the sofa, resplendent in black, flanked on both sides by her near-silent architectural assistants, and laps up the guru treatment, not batting an eyelid when one of the Asian journalists (all dressed in tiny black dresses, unlike the scruffy Western press) describes her as the most famous architect in the world.
The pavilion is a striking technical achievement, built from shiny white, lightweight panels, ready to be packed up in 51 containers and shipped around the world, yet keeping to Hadid's quest for fluid architectural volumes inspired by organic forms. It takes four weeks to assemble, and three to take down. "The challenge was to find the right material for something that could travel," said Hadid. "Most prefabricated buildings are traditionally geometrical like a box. It was important to make a complex design which also had a logic of repetition that was easy to fabricate." She also compares it to her forthcoming performing arts centre in Abu Dhabi: "Both are about the integration of art and architecture. This is on a smaller scale, though there is always a surprise when you move through space."
The deliberately low pavilion makes an intriguing contrast to the skyscrapers surrounding it in Hong Kong. Inside the pavilion reveals an impressive variety of volumes and spaces. It could be seen as a sculpture itself, or perhaps a kind of handbag, the perfect carrying case for the works of art inside, commissioned especially for the show by curator Fabrice Bousteau to celebrate Chanel's famous black quilted handbag.
Chanel is pushing the boundaries of the fashion-architecture dialogue, but it has also gone further than its rivals by designating an overt fashion theme. The artists visited the atelier and Coco Chanel's apartment, but all of those I spoke to insisted they were given free rein to create what they liked - helped by the presumably vast budgets of the fashion industry, though Chanel refuses to release any figures. Many museums, by way of comparison, still struggle to meet the huge production costs of complex works. After all, patronage has always been critical to art-making, whether the benefactors were European aristocracy or the church. "I didn't agree to make something that is advertising," Bousteau says.
"I do believe it is art, though art is business. For me this is a new form of presenting art. If the artists are strong, it doesn't fall into publicity. Karl Lagerfeld wanted something very audacious." Although I had feared that Hadid's architecture might be too powerful for the artworks, most of them stand up well, or are cleverly set off by its varied volumes. Some works interact directly with the structure: the Taiwanese artist Michael Lin's flower mosaic floor has been conceived to fit the architecture and interact with Loris Cecchini's clever polygonal chandeliers - inspired by the "richness of Coco Chanel" - in the same room; the French veteran Daniel Buren has used his trademark stripes as a sly intrusion of verticals and geometry in a building where nothing is straight.
The Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury, whose shopping bag installations and slashed fabric remakes of Fontana paintings often appropriated items from fashion, says: "For this project I had access to the savoir faire of Chanel. I don't produce a different type of artwork when it's for Chanel or for a small public art space. Having used Chanel items since the 1980s, I wasn't stepping outside my work to do this. In some ways it was particularly evident for me. My work deals with identity and notions of identity. The Chanel logo is a metaphor for the ego."
Indeed, while there are plenty of handbags in evidence, the most memorable works are those that maintain a certain critical or ironic distance. Fleury produced a giant version of the iconic bag, which opens to reveal a huge powder compact, playing a video hinting at dark connections between violence, fashion and beauty. The white quilted walls of Fabrice Hyber's green steel shipping container provide a padded cell for a swiss army knife chair and disfunctional objects (a swing you can't sit on, a square football), as well as a video in which a girl in white Chanel suit tries out the assorted objects: a piece you only glimpse in passing, as if, says Hyber, it is "a handbag that is more beautiful on the inside than the outside."
There's not a handbag in sight in the Argentine artist Leandro Erlich's wonderful video installation The Pavement, which recreates a damp Parisian street as the lights gradually come on; some may recognise it as rue Cambon, home to Chanel. Against these, Stephen Shore's photos of the different stages of handbag manufacture look far too much like simple documentary and feel quite out of place here, as does Wish Tree by Yoko Ono, where visitors are invited to express a wish on a slip of paper and tie it round a branch, which finishes the show with an unnecessary touch of whimsy.
In creating its own global circuit, Chanel is also going out to meet a new (shopping) audience. As they enter, visitors are given a pair of headphones with an MP3 soundtrack to accompany the show, which was "conceived more like a landscape or a film than a classic art show," says Bousteau. "I need to empty my bag, reveal my secrets", intones the distinctive gravelly voice of the French actress Jeanne Moreau. "Enjoy the scenery." It's an interesting way of trying to make contemporary art accessible, but it is as likely to irritate as much as it informs, dictating your route, influencing what you think and determining how long you spend in front of each piece.
But Chanel can be congratulated for its bid to make contemporary art more accessible to the general public. I can see this being particularly successful in brand-crazy Hong Kong, where despite an exploding art market (China has recently overtaken France as the world's third-largest art market, chiefly through the rocketing prices of homegrown painters), the Chanel name is likely to be rather better known than those of the artists. It is less sure how well it will fare in traditional old-world Paris, where money is more discrete and where the contemporary artworld often appears to be a small closed milieu, generally disdainful of fashion.
So is it art or a global marketing campaign? Or perhaps both? This must be Chanel's hope: for visitors to see the brand as a cultural force - so long as they don't forget the handbags. Natasha Edwards writes for Conde Nast Traveler, the Telegraph and the Independent.