We are in an era where fashion is mixing with art like never before. From clothes design to catwalk shows to even exhibition installations in museums, major labels to boutique homes, the term of fashion is falling over itself to incorporate significant names from a diverse assortment of the visual arts into fashion. It is hardly surprising, after all what’s fashion if not wearable art, and those collaborations involving the arts are certainly mutually beneficial. Fashion, often unfairly judged as one of the more frivolous applied arts, receives serious prestige by association, while the artists reach a broader, more populist audience.
Believe it or not, art and fashion have frequently crossed paths over history, so in this article we will be digging up the history of the long-standing relationship and time travel through history to see the result of art and fashion colliding through a century of boundary-pushing innovation, provocation and revolution.
If the collaboration between art and fashion is now at a peak, it is by no means a new phenomenon. Elsa Schiaparelli was among the most imaginative and notable fashion characters working between WWI and WWII, her nature was suited perfectly to the genius of Salvador Dalí who inspired some of her best-known works, it might only have been the collaboration of these minds that would create pieces like the 1937 Lobster dress.
The simple white silk dress featured a giant lobster painted by Salvador Dalí and has been a lively homage to his 1934 piece, the New York Dream-Man Finds Lobster in Place of Phone. Equally celebrated in Elsa Schiaparelli’s impressive catalogue is the wonderfully surreal Shoe Hat, made by Schiaparelli and designed by Dalí. The hat, which was fashioned into woman’s high heels, featured in Schiaparelli’s Fall-Winter 1937-38 collection.
Another early example of this fashion-art crossover originated from the bold geometry of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, whose “neo-plasticism” style was informed by cubism. From the 1930s, Hermès designer Lola Prusac appeared in Mondrian’s famous works — comprising white wallpapers, grids of thick black lines and blocks of main colours — for inspiration, making a selection of bags and luggage with square inlays of crimson, blue and yellow leather.
Mondrian’s work continued to exert a strong influence on fashion after his death in 1944. Famous French designer Yves Saint Laurent loved one of his most significant victories when, in 1965, he unveiled his Fall Mondrian Collection. Though other designers had previously experimented with a similar layout, it was Yves Saint Lauren’s six a-line cocktail dresses which captured the public’s imagination and broke new ground for the future role of art in Vogue.
It’s not just painters who’ve sparked inspiration for top fashion designers. Architects and their designs also have been cited as creative muses. Coco Chanel summed up the significance of this connection when she said: “Fashion is architecture. It’s a matter of proportion.”
Designing some of the most iconic architecturally-inspired clothing was couturier Paco Rabanne. His first runway show in 1966 was titled 12 Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials and featured pieces made from sheet metal and rubber. Regardless of the unconventional materials, Rabanne skilfully tailored his dresses to his models’ exact proportions.
Perhaps this is because Rabanne always had his mother’s guidance in the back of his mind: “In fashion you have every liberty except one, don’t ever undermine a woman’s beauty.” Rabanne was certainly true to those words, regardless of what materials he was using.
The amalgamation of art and style is so powerful that Alexander McQueen’s team chose to announce an exclusive alliance with Damien Hirst in 2013. The work reflects a meeting of two of the darkest minds in modern design. Ethereal and haunting, McQueen takes inspiration from Hirst’s Entomology collection.
Butterflies, Spiders and other insects creep across McQueen’s collection of 30 chiffon scarfs, forming geometric patterns throughout the fabric. This cooperation was celebrated equally throughout both the art and fashion world, suggesting an interdependence which will long continue.
Looking at big name designers nowadays, it is clear they’re continuing to follow suit by moulding all manner of design and art in their collections. Fashion’s favourite sisters, Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who’ve worked with high-street giants like Gap and Target, are among those who have turned to the artistic canon for inspiration.
The Mulleavy’s were celebrated for integrating Vincent Van Gogh’s work in Rodarte’s 2012 collection, from subtle references to the impressionist painter’s thick brush strokes inside their light fabrics and colour palette, to their daring tribute to Van Gogh’s piece, Sunflowers, which is known to be wall hanging art, incorporated into their iconic blossom print chiffon dress.
But leave it to Marc Jacobs to take artistic inspiration to another level. Unsurprisingly the conceptual artist Daniel Buren clarified their 2013 Louis Vuitton collaboration as a “totally crazy adventure”. Not content with integrating Buren’s check canvas layouts into his garments, Jacobs drafted the artist to design the staging for his catwalk show.
Buren had complete artistic freedom when designing his eponymous set, complete with moving escalators. The breathtaking spectacle was set up in the central courtyard of the Louvre, making it an unforgettable alliance of art and style.
We’ve seen how easily fashion has adopted the notions of art, from the historic absorption of influences into the present day where style collections are conceived and promoted using, and in part producing, the new-found celebrity status of budding artists. But if the connection is a two-way road, what is the art world’s involvement with fashion?
Japanese Modern artist Takashi Murakami can rightly be regarded as a pioneer of multi-disciplinary crossovers, working in both the fine art areas of sculpture and painting while at the same time enjoying success in the fields of animation and product. His holistic, commercially-savvy approach makes fashion a natural arena for Murakami to express himself, and the artist recognised early in his career how improved vulnerability from mainstream collaborations could develop his work.
It was that guy Marc Jacobs again who got the ball rolling for Murakami, inviting him to work on a now-famous array of handbags for Louis Vuitton which re-invented the business’s signature LV emblem. Following the massive success of this endeavour, Murakami has struck up a long-term creative venture with the company, while he also enjoyed additional commercial success with the likes of shoemaker Vans.
On the subject of footwear, no discussion of this art-fashion symbiosis can pass without considering Tom Sachs and his work with sports mega-brand Nike with their collaboration on men’s and women’s sneakers. The American sculptor has something of a love-hate connection with style and commercialism in general, having produced several high-profile pieces critiquing the basic ideas of luxury brands like Chanel.
However, the more accessible area of sportswear gave Sachs a platform to explore topics of mass-production, economy of scale and environmental effects. The artist’s NIKEcraft collaboration centred on an imaginary, lo-fi mission to Mars, and pushed the boundaries of materiality by repurposing car airbags, ships’ sails as well as real spacesuits to build his futuristic designs of men’s boots.
Contemporary artist Vanessa Beecroft has integrated fashion into her multi-disciplinary work, together with the Italian’s performance pieces which makes extensive use of models in haute couture loaned from big name labels. This fascination with the performance part of fashion has led to notable collaborations, particularly centred on live shows and the theatricality of the catwalk.
When Kanye West started his Adidas collection earlier this year, it was Beecroft’s influence that made the series stand out; referencing her 2005 performance work VB55, the models did not parade up and down a catwalk whatsoever, instead occupying a space in un-moving, hypnotised ranks since they wore a selection of utilitarian, quasi-military urban casual women’s shoes.
Finally, we wind back the clock to the ever-innovative master of multi-disciplinary artwork, Andy Warhol. The Pop Art genius had a longstanding fascination with style dating back long before the days of fame and The Factory. Warhol had started out in fashion illustration, working for glossy magazines designing for commercials for goods like Schiaparelli’s gloves.
His breakout artwork, the infamous Campbell’s soup cans, quickly crossed over from wall art to wearables, with New York society girls among the first to wear dresses printed with can layouts in response to his series (Campbell’s themselves afterwards produced a paper edition of the apparel for the princely sum of $1 plus 2 cans of soup). Once a worker of journalism companies like Harper’s Bazaar, Warhol became a journalist himself, he started his own magazine, Interview, where style characters — designers, models, and fashionistas alike — played a starring role, and there wasn’t a demarcation between his personal and professional relationship with fashion.
Posthumously, Warhol’s position in the style Hall of Fame was cemented by Gianni Versace’s 1991 Pop Art collection, which comprised a jewel-encrusted variant of the artist’s lurid Marilyn Monroe prints.
It may be true that for each meaningful collaboration between art and fashion, you will find ten creatively empty exercises in advertising. Placing cynicism aside, however, and there is no denying the symbiotic relationship which has always existed between the two — a connection which only appears to be growing more powerful as more of the modern art world’s best talents step over in the glamorous world of fashion.