Fashion Imitates Art

Susan Mc Ateer

Looking at the Sceals I wrote in 2017, I was constantly drawn to the collaborations and collisions of art and fashion. The two feel like contemptuous lovers; sometimes they really work and something like Calvin Klein’s Spring 2018 ready-to-wear is born (more on that later), and other times you realise they’re so mismatched and we get Urban Decay interpreting Jean-Michel Basquiat’s legacy into a cheap eyeshadow palette. But something that has stood out in recent collections is the direct appropriation of artist’s work. Designers weren’t just influenced, they were nearly guilty of some mild plagiarism. The tumultuous year that it was, it feels as though we took shelter in bold visual creativity. 2016 acted as a foreword to what would be the political comedy/tragedy which played out in 2017, so we realised that we didn’t have time for a glimmer of an idea or a nod to something, we needed a clear-cut reminder of creativity in all its recognisable glory.

Art references in fashion are always executed with varying levels of success. A particularly interesting aspect is understanding why designers choose certain artists. Jeff Koons collaborating with Louis Vuitton feels like a capitalist smack in the face. By plastering some of the most famous paintings in the world on handbags including ‘Mona Lisa’ by main man Leonardo, and Van Gogh’s ‘A Wheatfield With Cypresses’, Koons aligned himself with artists commonly known as ‘masters’, and one of the most recognisable and lucrative fashion houses. It was well played, it was gouache, the art world collectively groaned, and I inadvertently found myself pining for a Mona Lisa backpack. 

While collaborations can sometimes feel like business deals or lazy appropriation, there were iterations in 2017 which felt quite sentimental. Stella McCartney’s Fall/Winter 2017 ready-to-wear collection brought together English heritage with nods to Queen Elizabeth’s Balmoral gettup (I live in Scotland, why am I not wearing quilted jackets and silk scarves to protect my do? Thanks for the reality check Stella) and sharp tailoring which recalls her training at London’s infamous Saville Row. As McCartney has been known to do, she also infused equestrian influences into the collection. You might be picturing jodhpurs or riding boots, but McCartney took the more explicit approach of using George Stubb’s horse paintings to adorn jumpers, dresses, shirts and jumpsuits. George Stubbs was an English painter best known for his paintings of horses, and is most likely to be Jack Donaghy’s favourite artist. This isn’t the first time that McCartney, a lifelong equestrian, has called on Stubbs for a collection. As Creative Director for Chloe (which she was at the age of 25, how that’s even a thing I don’t know) McCartney used Stubb’s horses in her Spring 2001 ready-to-wear collection. The horses appear on strapless shiny dresses and low slung shiny trousers - it’s so early 2000s that it feels like Gwyneth Paltrow should have worn it all with butterfly clips in her hair. This first foray into transfering Stubbs’ horses from canvas to clothing feels like a personal nod to her own interests, which makes the 2017 iteration feel like a bout of personal nostalgia. Sixteen years after that Chloe collection, she used recurring motifs for a collection entirely under her own name and brand. While harking to English heritage, it feels as though she was also harking to a personal heritage which is really quite a beautiful artistic intention. 

The motivations for designers turning to visual motifs over the past year feel very emotionally charged. Referring to his Spring 2018 ready-to-wear collection for Coach 1941, creative director Stuart Vevers spoke of using iconic images of American artist Keith Haring’s work; “It’s being able to go from a little boy in Doncaster remembering this guy’s work, to living in New York – his city – and talking to his friends, who worked with him. I’ve learned a lot. That’s why I feel emotional.” The collection overall has a youthful coolness to it. Slip dresses, sequins, 70’s suede and silk baseball jackets adorned the models who walked on a runway drenched in glitter. To be honest it’s not the most inspired collection, in fact it feels as though it borrowed some key ideas from other designers like Gucci. And let’s face it, slip dresses are hardly something to get excited over; but it’s a fun collection. Vevers borrowed Haring’s famous dynamic moving figures and hearts, adding them to bomber jackets, glittery knit jumpers, and sequined dresses. While I’m not totally convinced of the integrity of the collection, Haring’s energetic, spontaneous images are given a new lease of life on these youthful, sparkling clothes. Perhaps it’s Vevers’ emotional connection to Haring and his work that I’m really feeling. 

Coach wasn’t the only label to appropriate the work of a pop artist last year. Under Raf Simons’ guiding hand, Calvin Klein turned their attention to Andy Warhol. Since taking over at Calvin Klein, Simons (who is a native Belgian) has embraced what it means to be at the helm of an iconic American fashion house. His first collection embraced what felt like an all-American minimalism, and he went so far as to drape a skirt from the star-spangled banner. For Spring 2018 ready-to-wear the Americana nods kept coming with cowboy shirts in block satin colours. This transcended into a kind of American horror with 1950s style dresses rendered in waterproof nylon, and a creepy glimmer of Psycho styling with rubber pencil skirts and gloves. Slipping snippets of Andy Warhol’s screen prints onto denim, sheer nightgown-style dresses, and tank tops feels so appropriate for this American entrenched collection. Warhol, the ultimate critic of contemporary American culture, is a golden choice for the direction Simons is steering this all-American brand. The same emotion that seeps from Stella McCartney and Coach’s 2017/18 collections isn’t evident at Calvin Klein, but what is clear is Simons’ intelligence. By using direct imagery from such an iconic artist, he strengthens his point of view and adds a dark edge to his American dream. 

As we head into 2018 and a slew of new collections which will hit the runway in February, we will no doubt see more designers taking cues from the art world. The question is, in what form? I’m hoping for less overt channeling and more internal creation. We needed the direct reminder of art and creativity in 2017, now let's make something completely new.