Kim Winser explores the relationship between these two creative cultures
Imagine the scene: it's summer 2017, and the elegant environs of London's Mayfair are filled with people. The doormen of Bond Street and Belgravia welcome the wealthy ladies of Britain’s capital, deposited by their chauffeurs for their latest designer spree. Top of their shopping list is the latest art collaboration from Louis Vuitton: a capsule collection of the luxury label’s signature bags printed with Old Masters paintings like the Mona Lisa. The vision of American artist Jeff Koons, the Masters LV x Koons collection sees works by Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Rubens, Fragonard and Titian wrapped around dainty purses, bowling bags, and totes, with the artists’ names written large in bold gold letters to educate those without the immediate cultural reference.
It is, perhaps, one of the most straightforward examples of fashion’s longstanding love affair with high art: a simple transfer of iconic images onto covetable products, in a bid to woo status – and design-conscious – consumers.
In my work in the fashion industry, I’ve always enjoyed being party to the fashion world’s creative processes. Watching a designer at work, evolving a collection from sketchbook to shop floor, is akin to witnessing a fascinating alchemy where a mix of diverse cultural influences shape the way we dress.
And our industry’s links with the art world have long formed part of that process. In its simplest form, working with artists can be seen to add an intellectual ‘kudos’ to an industry that's sometimes seen as frivolous. But in truth, many of the truly great creatives I’ve seen at design houses over the years are as talented in their own way as any fine artist: using cloth and cutting techniques with the same skillful mastery as a painter wielding brush on canvas. The reality is that creative folk are rarely immersed in the bubble of their own discipline, but absorb a wealth of ideas around them.
Fashion designers are curious about shape and form, fascinated by color, intrigued by social, historical and cultural references, and therefore find themselves drawn to art galleries, to museums, to artists' studios and archives, and to simply hang out with their contemporaries in the art world, or other design disciplines. From architects and sculptors to contemporary concept installation artists, the creative mind comes in many forms, and often has varied influences. You only have to look at the guest list at London events like the Serpentine Summer Party to see the patchwork of artistic talents that come together to form one of the most dynamic creative centers in the world.
Over the years, art and fashion have enjoyed a rich relationship, sometimes bold and brazen, often more understated, yet always stretching way beyond the boundaries of geography to bring global influences to our wardrobes. It's impossible to suggest that British designers are shaped only by British art, because the wonder of the creative mind is that it draws ideas from a plethora of sources – a snippet of vintage oriental silk, a faded photograph, a Moroccan mosaic or a rare sketch by an obscure artist – and amalgamates those into a cocktail of fresh shapes and colors that seem relevant to the modern day.
In its most obvious form, this relationship can result in literal translations of one person's artwork: Yves St Laurent's famed 1965 shift dress, replicating Piet Mondrian's renowned primary-colored block print, highlighted the relevance of cubist art in popular culture in the sixties, long after Mondrian's death in 1944. St Laurent was also close to Andy Warhol in an era when everyone hung out with rock stars at Studio 54, and the pop artist almost certainly influenced his designs. Later, YSL achieved cult status again for his watershed 1976 Ballets Russes collection which, although not directly inspired by an artist, was immersed in artistic references and had a bohemian, painterly feel to it.
There is an air of innovation and inspiration that accompanies creative people as they go about their lives, observing and absorbing ideas, subliminally or consciously. It was natural that the flamboyant Elsa Schiaparelli would find an aesthetic synergy with the surrealist Dali, creating her renowned 1937 Lobster Dress, Shoe Hat, and Tears Dress.
It may be that a designer will tell you his or her entire collection sprung from seeing a single painting or visiting an artist's retrospective, with extremely literal interpretations of their works – think Versace's 1991 collection emblazoned with Warhol's silk-screened portraits of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, for example. Or a brand may give an artist carte-blanche to create a capsule range for them: Vuitton are veterans in the business of collaborative artistic partnerships, teaming up with Tokyo-based pop artist Takashi Murakami in 2007, American artist Richard Prince in 2008, Japanese polka-dot artist Yayoi Kusama in 2012 and Anglo-Greek Brit artists Jake and Dinos Chapman four years ago, before their latest Koons project.
A few years back, British artist Liam Gillick worked with Pringle of Scotland to develop a knitwear range that was a textile translation of his signature color blocking. When asked how he would classify the fashion collaboration, Gillick responded, "it is intended to operate as an integrated aspect of my work for Pringle — meaning that it is not entirely one thing or another", perfectly capturing the slippery nature of these kinds of alliances.
Equally, designers may have more subtle influences from an art movement, period, or color palette. I have no doubt that Paul Poiret, for example, was heavily influenced by the art nouveau movement, with its exotic oriental aesthetic, or that Paco Rabanne's futuristic collections were shaped by the aesthetics of the sixties.
Consider the fluid plisse styles created by the likes of Madeleine Vionnet and Mariano Fortuny, which were surely inspired by the classical pleated cloth garments seen in ancient Greek sculptures. Charles and Patricia Lester, the Welsh couple who brought their own take on intricately pleated silks to the late twentieth century, may well have drawn reference from classical art, but the melting pot of inspirations, with other designers in the mix, creates a vivid 'mood board'.
In February 2014, Christopher Bailey's Burberry Prorsum collection was an homage to the Bloomsbury set and their Sussex home, Charleston House, with its chalky pastel palette and painterly murals. Alexander McQueen's Spring Summer 1999 collection saw Shalom Harlow in a strapless white cotton full dress, painted Jackson Pollock-style by two robotic sprays from an automotive production line. Who knows whether the late designer even had Pollock in mind when concocting his theatrical finale, but it was an immediate reference for those witnessing the spectacular show. Choosing a more collaborative approach, the house of McQueen, by now run by Sarah Burton, worked closely with Damien Hirst in 2013 to create a collection of fabric prints featuring butterflies, spiders, and insects used throughout the collection.
In 2011, another Brit artist, Tracey Emin, looked to her own back catalogue to inspire a trio of cashmere pieces for the Australian label Banjo and Matilda for a charity fundraiser, while Paul Smith recently worked with the painter John Tierney to incorporate his own rendition of Smith's Instagram-friendly pink Melrose store in LA into his collection on t-shirts, swimming trunks and more.
Similarly, the London-based shoe brand Jimmy Choo commissioned Rob Pruitt to sprinkle his magic on a range of accessories, resulting in shoes and bags emblazoned with monochrome animal prints and crystals. Produced in limited numbers, these modern collaborations are photogenic, press-worthy, and add a certain cultural cachet to the world of high fashion.
Today, in our fast-paced digital world, the need to create cult status in a saturated market drives increasing demand for the 'new', which frequently sees fashion houses looking beyond their own front doors for inspiration. But designers have always worked with artists, long before the commercial pressure to create these lucrative, must-have lines. As these examples show, fashion and the fine arts have, and always will, go hand-in-hand.
Kim Winser OBE is founder and CEO of luxury womenswear brand, Winser London. She is trustee of the Natural History Museum and an INED of the HSH group that owns the Peninsula luxury hotels. She served as director of Marks & Spencer, led the early turnarounds of Pringle of Scotland, Aquascutum, and advised Natalie Massenet at Net-a-Porter.