A new clothing collaboration between Christie’s and Highsnobiety is drawing criticism from an art handlers organization who see the joint retail project as exploitative.
The clothing line, which has been released jointly by Christie’s and the online fashion publisher, includes sweatshirts, t-shirts, and tote bags reading “art handler” — priced between $50 and $125. A marketing campaign advertising the line depicts models donning the garb brandishing Christie’s logo: one poses at the auctioneer’s bidding phone bank while another exits the main entrance of the house’s New York headquarters; a third poses in an art warehouse.
Art Handler’s Alliance, a labor advocacy group for art handlers alleges that Christie’s benefits from art handler’s low wages. In a series of online posts, the group criticized the recent marketing ploy for its tone-deaf approach that online detractors say aestheticizes employee labor.
In a press release launching the new line, Highsnobiety described the concept behind the merchandise’s design as an effort to blur the lines “between streetwear and luxury.”
The venture comes on the heels of Christie’s recently launched streetwear Department X, a department established last month under its luxury wing that is devoted to streetwear and sports collectibles.
The move comes as the market for pop culture memorabilia soars. Department X, which is meant to tap into a growing base of hypebeast collectors, led the collaboration with Highsnobiety.
An anonymous art handler at Christie’s and member of the Teamsters Local 814 union chapter told ARTnews that auction staffers shared the alliance’s viewpoint.
“We were as a collective offended by this campaign not only on behalf of ourselves, but for the working men, women and gender non-confirming community at large,” the source said.
Art handlers have been hit hard by the pandemic, as galleries and museums were forced to cut contractors amid budget cuts during Covid-19 that left many operational staffers working freelance gigs out of work. In 2020, employees of the New York-based art-handling and storage company UOVO faced threats of job cuts amid efforts to unionize during the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the same source, art handlers at the auction house, while overtime eligible, have been subject to “tighter” sale schedules they described as “grinding.”
Members of Christie’s art handling team in New York met with operational managers to discuss their concerns with the campaign on Thursday. The company’s marketing efforts will be reviewed internally.
“This is an illustration of a larger class struggle we contend with daily,” the source said.
In a statement, a Christie’s representative said the auction house has apologized to staffers critiquing the campaign and is “taking appropriate action to ensure this does not happen again.”