The Art of the Fashion Collaboration

Susan Mc Ateer

Last month Urban Decay announced a limited edition line of makeup inspired by the late New York artist Jean Michel Basquiat. Although he had a stunningly short career, he died when he was just 27 years old, Basquiat has had a lasting impact not just on the art world, but on visual culture. His work was graffiti inspired, chaotic, brash, and primal, and his experience of being a young black artist in a predominately white middle class art world played out through his art. Just last week one of Basquait’s paintings Untitled 1982 sold for a record $110m making it the highest auction price ever for a work by an American artist. All of this equates to a career that is crying out for a makeup line with instagramable packaging, right? *Eye roll*.

I don’t have anything against artist collaborations; I still swoon over Yves Saint Laurent’s shift dresses which are walking Piet Mondrian canvases, and don’t even get me started on Elsa Schiaparelli’s collab with Salvador Dali because I will gush about lobster dresses and shoe hats until I’m hoarse and you regret everything. One of the main differences with these inspired pairings is that these were active collaborations. Both parties were alive (off to a good start) so both points of view are more accurately brought together, whereas Basquiat died in 1988 so his estate has been dealing with this new partnership. Apparently it was the estate who proposed the idea, which has me raising all the eyebrows. It sits a little uneasy that an artist who was outspoken and critical about social injustice and our consumer habits would have his work plastered on the packaging of a massive international brand, with a hashtag that brings up a host of filtered selfies of young women. Is this the place for contemporary artists in the age of smartphones?

Yves Saint Laurent, Piet Mondrian Collaboration 1965. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Yves Saint Laurent, Piet Mondrian Collaboration 1965. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Louis Vuitton has been all over artist collaborations for quite some time now. They’ve worked with artist duo Jake and Dinos Chapman, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince and Yayoi Kusama. A few weeks ago Vuitton announced their latest sojourn into contemporary art with a line designed by artist Jeff Koons. Koons is divisive at best; his bold appropriation of pop culture and his dominance of the art market can sit a bit too close to his former career as a Wall Street broker for comfort. His work with Vuitton inspires the same ‘PAH’ reaction that his art does. It’s snarky, vulgar and borrows from the art historical canon, and we mean art history with a capital A H: he has used the Mona Lisa (because we definitely have not seen enough of that face yet) and paintings by Van Gogh, Rubens, Titian, and Fragonard. It is appropriately named the Masters Collection. And of course, it’s all men. The patriarchy does get tiresome. 

Koons has fuqed around with the Masters before. For his ‘Gazing Ball’ series he commissioned reproductions of some of the most recognisable paintings around and put half a blue glass sphere directly on the canvases. This series confronts the viewer with paintings and visuals that are culturally familiar, but the glass sphere reflects part of the work back on you. As Koonsy says “This experience is about you...your desires, your interests, your participation, your relationship with this image” - not sure how convinced you have us there Special K. His collaboration with Vuitton feels like a further step towards viewer participation and reflection; take the paintings off the gallery wall, actually out of the gallery altogether, and put it on your arm or your back (genuinely can’t get over how much I want the Mona Lisa backpack; does this make me a bad person with the taste of a tourist who wants the practicality of a backpack and would queue for hours to see the most famous painting ever and not cast an eye on anything else?). Like Koon’s actual art, this fashion crossover is on the nose, it’s crass, but like or loathe his work this collaboration aligns with his practice, and his probing of consumerism is taken even further.

Louis Vuitton and Jeff Koons collaboration 2017

Louis Vuitton and Jeff Koons collaboration 2017

Collaboration is a saturated concept these days. Millennials particularly respond to the idea of partnership as a way of seeing shared values align, and as a means to satisfy the desire to find something new. Celebrity collabs are constant and you can’t scroll through instagram without seeing an ‘influencer’ partnering with a brand or 50. When a brand turns to working with an artist they are tapping into a high-brow culture to elevate their products and their story. Our bullshit detectors are particularly alert these days, we’re exposed to so much that honesty is really what we’re craving right now. We want to believe in a collaboration. We want to see a partnership that respects both the fashion designer and the artist. When designer Raf Simons worked with artist Sterling Ruby (legit name, not a jewelry plating) in 2014 the end result was a new label that really comes across as a combined effort. Ruby didn’t simply splash some familiar imagery on Simon’s established style. The pair, who had known each other for nine years at that point, established connections in their work and came together to communicate a new point of view through a menswear collection. As Dazed out it “This wasn't just another collaboration – Simons's and Ruby's vision verged on the cult and elevated our obsessive teenager years beyond the confines of both art and fashion.” Amen. 

From just glancing at The Sceal it’s easy to see that art and fashion are aspects of culture and society that we are F-A-S-CINATED with, so when the two collide we want tummy flips, not belly flops. The latest pairing of Basquiat and Urban Decay feels unsettling, cheap and poorly thought through. Give us more Simons and Ruby, Kusama and Vuitton, GucciGhost (graffiti artist) and (shockingly) Gucci, and please give me that Koons da Vinci tack-show of a backpack. 

Postscript: Amelia a.k.a my personal genie, made this happen: