There’s not much Julien-Loïc Garin pines for from home, but the CEO of Le French May does miss the pace of life in his native France. Here in hyperactive Hong Kong, where he has lived for the last six years, every second must be accounted for and invested in. Time moves differently in France, where lingering moments are enjoyed, and where idle afternoons sat out on a terrace are savoured rather than scorned. “It’s not things that I miss, it’s sentiments,” he says.
That doesn’t mean the 32-year-old is about to leave. With previous experience at cultural institutions like the Pierre Berge Yves Saint Laurent Foundation, which promotes the heritage of couture, Garin moved to Hong Kong to take up the helm of Le French May during the global financial crisis. Over 25 editions, the festival has brought a distinctive mix of art, music and performance to a frenetic city where the time and the space for culture is much harder to come by than in France. Past offerings have included freewheeling clarinet star Michel Portal, an exhibition by Marc Chagall and a collection of Rodin bronzes, which marked the festival’s debut in 1993.
In the last few years, Hong Kong has started to cast off its reputation as a “cultural desert” as it deals with new crises of identity and geopolitical positioning. Meaningful cultural events and institutions can help deal with those issues, as people who might never consider themselves interested in arts discover it can be a useful way to reflect on their own heritage and identity. And where the arts world is sometimes maligned as elite — especially in a city like Hong Kong where so many cultural events seem hidden, or have an overtly commercial bent — events like Le French May are helping to widen the public’s access to and understanding of culture.
“When I first arrived, there were a lot of challenges, but it’s also been an exciting time in Hong Kong,” says Garin. “Art Basel arrived, PMQ opened, we’ve had to find ways to face increasing competition from other cultural organisations – and that competition is stimulating.”
Much has indeed changed in Hong Kong since Le French May was launched in 1993. Back then, cultural events were few and far in between, and garnering financial support from local businesses was a struggle. At the time, Cantopop called the local musical shots, the art scene catered a rather niche crowd, and museums were sparse. Le French May was one of the few institutions of its kind when it was set up, though the arts scene wasn’t completely a wasteland – the Hong Kong Arts Festival preceded it, having been established in 1973.
Le French May was co-founded by the Alliance Française de Hong Kong and the French consulate, and it is supported by the Hong Kong government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department. Over time, it has accrued support from corporate organisations who have come to see the value of supporting widespread access to the arts. This has enabled the festival to diversify its offerings in a way that helps breathe life and culture into venues across Hong Kong by hosting events such as street art shows and a free street party on the harbourfront that will involve food, drink and dancing – something Garin says is par for the course in every French town.
The Gallic attitude of enjoying everyday moments and finding magic and beauty in the seemingly mundane is part of what Garin hopes to bring to the festival, which takes place from April to July. This year’s programme is typically diverse, with everything from hip hop to ballet, as well as a film component that includes the Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 cult romantic comedy Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulin, which depicts an ingenue discreetly orchestrating the lives of fellow Parisians. “The French like to beautify things – we’re good at embellishing things,” says Garin. “That’s what we do. We make the daily life beautiful and we take culture from everywhere and make it beautiful. And it doesn’t have to be elite – everything can be beautiful.”
That’s a statement that rings true for Amélie as it does the photography of Jacques Henri Lartigue, who captured the charm and beauty of the good life, and whose works depicting artists, celebrities and sportsmen of the Belle Époque will be on display at F11 Foto Museum through May and into July. The photographer, who counted Picasso and artist-playwright Cocteau among his circle of friends, and who worked on film sets with the likes of Bresson and Fellini, snapped charming images that showcase the joie de vivre spirit of his subjects. Another photographer, Guilliaume Girardot, whose works will be on display at YellowKorner gallery, shares a similar eye for beauty and sensuality in works specialising in women.
And while everyday beauty is a key theme of Garin’s vision for the festival, Le French May has always been keen to highlight links between Chinese and French culture, which go as far back as the 17th century, when Louis XV developed a fascination with imperial China and drafted voyaging artists to create tapestries based on their visits to the emperor’s courts. Those particular tapestries aren’t on show this year, but others are in a collaborative effort between Le French May and the Louvre, which has brought sceneries from the Manufacture des Gobelins to Hong Kong. 150 pieces spanning 800 years of French history will be displayed, revealing the intellectual tenets under which the the Louvre was converted from a 12th century fortress and palace into a museum after the French Revolution. This was a time that saw France as a leading force in a push across Europe to do away with elitism in art and make monuments hitherto only accessible to noblemen free to view.
The Louvre’s exhibit here is a source of excitement to history buff Garin, whose fascination with castles and opulent decor sparked his love of culture. As a child growing up in the southern city of Lyon, he often visited museums and historic sites. Italy and Switzerland are not far from Lyon, which has long served as a crossing point between cultures, with diverse architecture that speaks to its long history as a hub for trade. That’s a parallel Garin draws with Hong Kong, which he hopes to explore with his own upcoming festival, which will hold its first edition in November this year, HK Lumières. Inspired by Lyon festival La Fête des Lumières, it will light up Hong Kong’s heritage buildings, including the 1970s-era General Post Office and SOHO’s Central Police Station, a series of blocks of which the first was built in 1864. The festival will collaborate with local artists to put on installations that will show the city in a new light, using its history as a backdrop.
While accessible culture are passions of Garin’s, his professional experience has fallen on the opposite end of the spectrum, in the world of luxury couture. He is is particularly conscious of France’s cultural influence on the Chinese market, and calls for a nuanced understanding of luxury fashion, where it comes from and where it sits vis-à-vis art and commerce. This to be especially pertinent in China and Hong Kong – markets so lucrative and with such growth potential that brands are courting them to the point of subverting key tenets of their identity to appeal to new markets. Part of that has come with investing in novelty initiatives, the latest of which is Louis Vuitton’s collaboration with art world superstar Jeff Koons, who has superimposed famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, Fragonard’s “Girl with Dog” and Van Gogh’s cypresses, onto kitschy handbags.
In interviews, Koons has said that the project is part of his ongoing efforts to erase the cultural hierarchy that elevates fine art and old masters, by making them relevant to the masses. But it also could be described as a consumerist gimmick that doesn’t enlighten anyone to the history and meaning of the historical works. While Garin welcomes the discussion Koons’ bags have sparked about art and fashion in the 21st century, he says that influential cultural institutions should be putting their efforts into fostering understanding of the arts, not by following fads. He believes that education should be the first priority of all institutions offering an entry point into the arts. It’s a policy that is central to Le French May’s raison d’être.
“People need to see the proper art, and understand what it means and that way understand the universality of art and the messages they convey,” says Garin. ”Modern fashion does help show that fashion can be art in the daily life, but people first should go to the museums. That’s the first level. You need to understand the codes before you twist them.”
Le French May runs until 24 July 2017. For more information, click here.