All-seeing, all-knowing art collector Darren Romanelli has been ahead of the curve for the past twenty years. He caught up with Avant Arte co-founder Christian Luiten to talk art, fashion, sustainable furniture and our collaboration with rising star Alake Shilling.
To accompany the interview, photographer Justin Chung visited Darren in his Los Angeles office.
How did you get into art?
Darren Romanelli: How I got into art is such a great question! I’ve always been collecting, my entire life, whether it’s been sneakers, posters or t-shirts. Over the years I’ve matured and I just sort of graduated into a different sphere of object — art!
Was it in the 90’s?
Darren Romanelli: Yeah, late 80s, early 90s. I was constantly thinking about what I was wearing, and I was constantly organising objects and posters in my room. I was always curating, I didn’t realise at the time, but in hindsight it was the beginning of my abilities to storytell.
What kind of brands were you collecting?
Darren Romanelli: Jordan, Levi’s, Jimmy’z, Stussy to name a few. There was this XLARGE shop in LA, The Beastie Boys Store, and my parents used to drop me off there. I was infatuated by ‘swag’ at such an early age. I went to Tokyo on a trip in ‘97 and that opened up a whole other level. I’ve been going back religiously ever since.
What was the transition moment when you went from streetwear to art?
Darren Romanelli: So I started my brand in 2000 upcycling the vintage garments I thrifted. Simultaneously I had started a guerrilla marketing agency where we were posting ads for brands all over the city. LA street artist Shepard Fairey was doing the Andre the Giant/Obey campaign at the same time. It was during this time I started thinking more about media consumption, that moment of impact when you see a campaign for the first time.
You mention Shepard Fairey, who were the street artists at that time?
Darren Romanelli: I wasn’t really into graffiti until I met José Parlá back in 2005/06, and José really educated me with his perspective on the art form & his inner circle of writers. We were spending a lot of time together and quickly became very very good friends.
Years ago we did a project at CELUX, it was a membership only Louis Vuitton project space in Tokyo. June 13th was the brand we created, where we were experimenting with these hybrid installations, really pushing the boundaries on what collaboration meant to the industry at that time. This was early, early on before collecting became such a thing. We did a show in Hong Kong together, and then in Art Basel 2007. It was important work now looking back at it, I hope we can revisit some of those creations one day.
The cross-section of hip-hop and fashion is important to you. Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with Kayne West?
Darren Romanelli: He bought one of my upcycled Nike jackets from Colette, then we met at a shoot and became friends. I introduced him to Mark Parker (CEO of Nike). A funny story is that we hopped a ride on the Nike jet from Basel to his performance in New York City. On that flight he was sketching the original YEEZY.
So was art always for the billionaires? How have you seen things change over the past twenty years?
Darren Romanelli: It feels like it’s easier now with access than it was before, mainly because of Instagram. Swipe interface is so convenient, you quickly get lost with hashtags — researching, discovering. Instant collecting!
When I speak about you to people, they always say that you’re always ahead of the curve. Can you tell us about some of the artists you’ve championed like Hajime Sorayama and Robert Nava? What do you look for in artists?
Darren Romanelli: Wow. Well, I guess I’ll start with the element of discovery — that moment of impact when I see something for the first time is so important to me. For someone like Nava, I discovered him on Instagram years ago and I was blown away by the work. We became friends.
The idea of fortune telling is one that I take seriously. I’m blessed to have the vision, but it is a lot of work maintaining it.
In terms of being ahead of the curve, the idea of fortune-telling is one that I take seriously. I think about it a bit like how an actor preps for a film, becomes the character, becomes the role — I like to take that on for my clients, for my friends and for my collaborators. I feel really lucky to have the vision I guess, but it is a lot of work maintaining it. My agency has been a constant source of inspiration in my 20 years as a creative. About 10 years ago we converted the agency into an active think tank where we work with artists in the same capacity as with brands.
And Sorayama, you had already started collecting him twenty years ago right?
Darren Romanelli: Yeah, more like 10 years ago and you know Brian (KAWS) was also spending so much time in Tokyo. Whenever I would go to Sorayama’s studio and flip through his drawings, the back would say “RESERVE FOR BRIAN.” So funny!
So the project you’ve curated for us, how did you discover Alake Shilling?
Darren Romanelli: She is beyond magical. I’ve been lucky to be friends with her for a long time, I first discovered her work at 356 Mission, a gallery that unfortunately has since closed. When I first saw her work it was so powerful, whimsical, and there was so much energy in her brushstrokes and her characters were so infectious. Once I met her, I was so enamoured by her personality and her energy, and we became friends. The way she sees the world — her spirit is so pure.
For this edition, I really wanted to shine a light on her ceramics. They are so delicate and fun, so lovingly created over incredibly long periods of time, which makes it very difficult for collectors to get their hands on them. I thought this would be a great opportunity to share some of her rarer works with a wider audience, and we are so happy with the way they capture the spirit and energy of her work and beautiful soul!
And can you tell us a bit about the chairs you’ve been working on?
Darren Romanelli: I’ve been doing fashion for so long, I kinda got burned out. As I got older — you know I’m turning 45 in June — I’m more interested in furniture and staging environments these days.
I’ve perfected the bomber jacket silhouette in the early 2000s, and now I want to perfect a sustainable bean bag-inspired lounge chair! I developed the shape with a friend and have been fabricating them with vintage textiles and reclaimed materials. They feel good, better for the earth.
Everyone asked me: what the fuck do you do? I guess the best way to describe what I do is that I chase the idea of being inspired because when I’m inspired, I’m most passionate about being creative. For me, that idea of being engaged and inspired is the most important thing that I cherish in my life because without that, I’m bored.
Yeah, I guess life is boring!
Absolutely, and you don’t want to be bored!
Curated by Darren Romanelli
Alake Shilling’s warped, emotionally sincere paintings and sculptures have seen her amass a dedicated following of fans and collectors. Darren Romanelli has curated a series of 4 editions by Alake, each based on one of her recurring characters. The pieces will be Alake’s first ever sculpture editions, representing a unique opportunity to acquire her sought-after work.
First up is Jolly Bear, an edition of 75 in hand moulded, frit-dyed porcelain.
Alake Shilling was born in 1993 in Los Angeles, California, where she continues to live and work.