The It curators: A new breed of young socialites are selling art

They're young, well-connected and passionate about art. Vladimir Restoin-Roitfeld, crown prince of the glamorous 'gallerists', talks to Charlotte Philby.

Saturday 16 October 2010 00:00 BST

Once, the chances of a 25-year-old man – even if he was well-connected and stylishly-dressed – forging a successful career on the international art circuit were slim. The world of buying and selling sculpture and painting was a stuffy club reserved for an elite few with qualifications in History of Art from hallowed institutions. But times have changed.

Having survived the recession (so far), the contemporary art market continues to fuel a glamorous intercontinental scene that makes stars not just of its artists, but of collectors, gallerists and dealers: think of tycoon-collector François Pinault, or dealers and gallerists like Jay Jopling, Larry Gagosian and Charles Saatchi. An intoxicating blend of money, creativity and glitz is producing wave after wave of ambitious young art-mad socialites, many of whom aren't just buying the stuff, but turning their largely untrained hands to curating, dealing and nurturing artists.

One of the best-connected is Vladimir Restoin-Roitfeld. If part of his surname sounds faintly familiar, that's because he is the son of Carine Roitfeld, the editor of French Vogue. Born and raised in a smart Paris suburb, he moved to America to study at the age of 17; eight years on, he is a fully-fledged art curator. This week, he is part of the contemporary art circus descending on London, as he shows the works of the painter Nicholas Pol at the Old Dairy in east London. Good-looking, well-connected and charming, Restoin-Roitfeld is the apotheosis of a type now teeming the art world: the "It" curator.

Part dealer, part gallery-owner and part party-host, the It curator would be barely recognisable to an art-world denizen of a decade ago. Restoin-Roitfeld spends much of his time flying around the world, schmoozing potential buyers, talking up his clients and securing the best venues in which to exhibit their work. It's a job made infinitely more possible by virtue of an impressive address book. He's often photographed with his mother at art or fashion parties, along with his model-turned-art director sister, Julia. His closest mates include the actress Mary Kate Olsen, supermodel ex-girlfriend Lily Donaldson; current partner Giovanna Battaglia, a fashion editor at Italian Vogue and a former D&G clothes-horse with legs up to her eyebrows, and the model Erin Wasson. Then there are more established contacts, such as his godfather, the celebrity photographer Mario Testino, and fashion designer Tom Ford.

Restoin-Roitfeld is far from the only young dealer on the circuit with a preposterously glitzy Rolodex. Patricia Bickers, editor of Art Monthly, is only too familiar with the new breed. "There are two main types of curator," she explains. "There is the artist/curator, who is usually impecunious and often begins by showing his/her own contemporaries. Then there is the commercial curator/dealer, who usually has some financial backing. If both types hang around long enough, they tend to merge." But, Bickers says, "the celebrity or It curator is a sub-species of the latter and tends not to stick around".

Predictably, Restoin-Roitfeld is adamant that he's not part of any trend: "I am creating my own movement," he says.

What does a man like Restoin-Roitfeld want from the art world? And what can he offer it in return? Several weeks before the London show, I meet him in Paris, where he is helping prepare Nicolas Pol's show. He usually lives in New York's Upper East Side, but when he's in France, stays at his parents' rather lovely apartment overlooking Les Invalides in the 7th arrondissement of the city.

Pol's studio is several floors up in an old factory building in the rather less chic Vincennes suburbs. It is Restoin-Roitfeld's job to help the artist decide which works to show in the exhibition, and he strides up and down the small room before standing back to admire each piece individually. He is wearing black skin-tight Dior jeans, shirt unbuttoned to just above the nipple revealing several shiny gold chains, and spotless YSL Chelsea boots. He flashes me a peace sign by way of greeting. "When I see your face," he says, "I think we have met before, non?" (We haven't.)

Up in Pol's studio, Restoin-Roitfeld takes me through the work, giving his commentary in a transatlantic drawl. One piece is a huge white and neon-pink silk screen bearing a crest which the artist has adapted from an old cheese label, with a few strokes of black at the centre of the canvas. The image was inspired by the idea of a virgin prostitute, the artist explains: "I began to see her as a hermaphrodite, masturbating, surrounded by sex toys". He adds: "I just love the idea of the possessed skeleton fucking itself". Restoin-Roitfeld remembers the first time he saw Pol's art: "When I walked into the studio, everything went blurry because of the emotional impact of the work."

Charming and enthusiastic he may be, but by his own admission, Restoin-Roitfeld hasn't a formal background in art or art history to qualify him. His degree, obtained from the University of Southern California – where he spent most of his spare time surfing and partying with a group of pals which included Russian It girl Dasha Zhukova and Greek shipping heir Stavros Niarchos III, both now also players in the art world – was in international relations, business and film.

For a while it looked as though he would work in the movie business – Restoin-Roitfeld's great grandfather, Jacques, was the Russian producer behind The Count of Monte Cristo. His grandfather, Wladimir (Carine's father) was also in that industry; after college, Vladimir got a job as assistant producer at Paramount, before becoming a PA at a talent management company in LA. But Hollywood wasn't for him: "Everything was too political. I was attracted by the idea of the proximity to the art and creativity of the movies, but it was all business and money."

Equally, he could have worked in the fashion business. But from a young age, Vladimir – whose father made his fortune launching the clothing label Equipment – was adamant that he didn't want to follow his mother and father there: "I wanted to be part of my own world. Even when your parents want to give you your own freedom, it's very difficult for them not to tell you the best way of doing things."

In more general ways, he says, he is inspired by his famous mother – "the most hard-working woman you could ever meet" – to do something original and creative. "She has always believed in following an independent spirit," he says.

Then, a couple of years ago, having resolved that he didn't stand much chance as an artist – "I knew I didn't have the talent myself" – Vladimir decided to move behind the scenes of his chosen industry, and in 2008, he launched the private art dealership Feedback Ltd, which he now runs from an office in Chelsea, New York's art district. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he adds, "my business model breaks away from the conventional gallery system".

As a child and teenager, he says his parents would take him to the big gallery exhibitions in New York and Paris: "I always had the feeling that world was something very institutionalised and closed, selling art at crazy prices to a very select type of public."

On that basis, when Restoin-Roitfeld launched Feedback Ltd two years ago, he decided to forgo a physical gallery, and instead show his artists' work at a number of carefully selected venues in "key spots across the globe". Thus cutting costs, bringing contemporary art to a wider audience, and maximising the chance of selling his clients' work: "with the internationalisation of the art scene, it's very difficult to promote an artist if you're stuck in one place".

The itinerant Restoin-Roitfeld met Pol last year after being introduced by friends: "We met for coffee, he was so intriguing and intelligent," he says. Pol agrees: "I just knew from the first time he visited my studio that he was the one I wanted to work with: he had an almost epileptic reaction to my pieces."

Restoin-Roitfeld says that he had no qualms about utilising his celebrity pulling power: "Everything we do is dedicated to maximising publicity for the artist, so we do massive openings, and invite thousands of people including people from Wall Street, from the movie industry and the fashion industry: people who will make the opening really fun and create a buzz for the artist". And it paid off. In 2008, Restoin-Roitfeld's first professional exhibition – a group show for several unknown artists – received £50,000 of funding from Louis Vuitton, a deal which came about through a personal contact at the fashion house.

Since then, Giorgio Armani has also joined his list of generous sponsors: "He got in touch once he'd seen the Vuitton collaboration and asked if we could work together". He backed a show by New York graffiti artist Richard Hambleton, a contemporary of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who had slipped below the radar after succumbing to an ongoing heroin addiction. Restoin-Roitfeld represents the 56-year-old artist, together with occasional colleague, Andy Valmorbida, the playboy heir to one of Australia's biggest private conglomerates.

The launch night for the show, which took place in Milan during fashion week in February this year, was, unsurprisingly, packed-out with guests, including Bond actor Clive Owen and Francesca Versace. Photos of the event soon appeared on Vogue online. For 25 years, Richard Hambleton had been selling just enough work to fund his habit. Given a glamorous launch night, attended by several hundred of Restoin-Roitfeld's friends, Hambleton found his work being sold at a recent charity dinner for £1m, with a "tiny piece" being snapped-up shortly after at Christies for £50,000. Congratulations to his dealer.

Restoin-Roitfeld isn't complacent; and despite the party pictures that depict him at opening after opening, he's serious about his role. "It is easy to look at me and think: 'That kid has all the contacts, life is easy for him'," he frowns, pushing a piece of steak around his plate with a fork. "But when you have this privilege, you have to build trust with people and you need to work harder than anyone because you can't disappoint anybody and you have no excuse." Otherwise, he shrugs, pushing his plate firmly aside, "you will only ever be the kid with the contacts".

The new breed

Vito Schnabel

New York socialite Vito Schnabel is the son of painter, film-maker and master bohemian, Julian. Now a dealer, curator and artists' manager, Vito (who has been romantically linked to Elle Macpherson) put on his first show aged 16 and was recently described by Victoire de Pourtalès of the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery in Paris as a serious talent: "A lot of young people have tried to be a curator like Vito, but they don't have his knowledge or capabilities". Schnabel, 24, has a degree in Art History from Columbia University, and his last exhibition, The Brucennial 2010: Miseducation, drew 30,000 visitors.

Alex Dellal

Son of billionaire property mogul Guy Dellal, 27-year-old Alex launched his gallery 20 Hoxton Square – which he runs from a vast space in east London bought for him by his father – in 2007. Dellal describes his project as "a platform for up-and-coming artists". Dellal also produces a bi-monthly arts newspaper from the gallery, which doubles up as a studio for a few resident artists, and as a public venue for screenings, artists' talks and seminars.

Tyrone Wood

Tyrone Wood, the 24-year-old son of former Rolling Stone, Ronnie, has spent the past four years fronting the family's Scream Gallery in Mayfair, which showcases emerging talent alongside the work of bigger names such as acclaimed graphic artist R Crumb, Paul McCartney and Frank Sinatra. He became a regular on the party pages following his relationship (which ended last year) with the model Rosie Huntington-Whitely.

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