Fashion and Art – collaborations in culture and sustainability

The first partnership between artist and fashion designer goes back to the early 20th century, but at the turn of the millennium, Louis Vuitton recognized an opportunity that changed the industry. Now, in the 21st century, artists play a vital role in rethinking the wasteful and unsustainable approach that developed to become fast fashion.

By Maya Garabedian for Mutual Art

Yves Saint Laurent, Cocktail dress from “Homage to Piet Mondrian,” worn by Muriel, Autumn/Winter 1965 Haute Couture Collection, Photograph by Louis Dalmas in Paris, July 1965. Courtesy of Musée Yves Saint Laurent

The idea that art and fashion are interconnected certainly isn’t hard to grasp — after all, fashion in and of itself is an art. But the collaborations between high art – that of individual artists with their own fan base and art fair accolades – and high fashion – that of renowned designers with flagship stores and fashion shows – is a relatively modern invention. Since the early-to-mid-twentieth century, creative directors and designers of major labels have pulled inspiration from visual art. What’s worth noting, however, is that the collision and rippling after-effects of the fashion and art worlds can’t be boiled down to honoring the deceased, à la Yves Saint Laurent’s homages to Piet Mondrian and Henri Matisse in the latter half of the century. The true unification of the two worlds happened in the 1930s, setting the precedent for an active collaboration between designer and artist.

Yves Saint Laurent, Henri Matisse-inspired evening gown worn by Edia Vairelli, Autumn/Winter 1980 Haute Couture Collection, Salon Impérial of the Hôtel Inter-Continental, Paris, July 1980. Courtesy of Musée Yves Saint Laurent

The earliest example of true collaboration of design was in 1937 when Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, known as the rival to Coco Chanel, began developing a more Surrealist style with the help of her friend, Spanish artist Salvador Dalí. Fascinated by Dalí’s lobster-oriented works, she had him draw a lobster motif that was then printed onto a silk organza dress produced by the leading silk designer, Sache. The purity of the sheer white fabric in contrast with the passionate red of the lobster, its placement a clear nod to Dalí’s sexually-charged use of lobsters in his own work, was a source of controversy at the time. Schiaparelli and Dalí bonded over their desire to shock an audience, push the conventions of beauty, and challenge gender stereotypes, leading to more than a one-off collaboration.

Elsa Schiaparelli, Salvador Dalí, Woman’s Dinner Dress, 1937, printed silk organza and synthetic horsehair. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The pieces that came a year later were less subtle in their anatomical references. Two of the most famous are Shoe Hat, a phallic-shaped upside-down heel, and Skeleton Dress, a silk crêpe dress inspired by Dalí’s Woman with a Head of Roses. Using a quilting method called trapunto, a technique largely foreign to dress-making, Schiaparelli inserted three-dimensional wadding into a flat outline, creating a two-layer dress that gave the illusion of a protruding skeleton. Despite backlash from viewers, Schiaparelli and Dalí’s collaboration garnered so much attention through their stylistic mash-up that their legacy paved the way for generations of collaborations to come.

Left: Elsa Schiaparelli, Salvador Dalí, Shoe Hat, 1938, wool felt and silk velvet. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Right: Elsa Schiaparelli, Salvador Dalí, Skeleton Dress, 1938, silk crêpe, trapunto quilting, cotton wadding. Courtesy of The New York Times and the Philadelphia Museum of Art

In a post-Schiaparelli-Dalí world, collaborations deviated from shock value in order to cater to a consumer market, shifting away from the designer-artist friendship model and towards a label-artist strategic partnership. Inevitably, this changed the collaborative process and subsequently, the products produced. Although the outcome may be less prolific, a business-oriented environment has its strengths too. There’s now a bigger incentive to collaborate – increasing its occurrence, which is a win for art lovers – and to do so while aligning with the modern emphasis on brand identity and harmonization, which is a win for fashion lovers. One brand in particular is the blueprint for this model of contemporary collaborations and its successes: Louis Vuitton.

Louis Vuitton x Stephen Sprouse, Speedy 40, 2001, silkscreened leather, metal. Courtesy of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

In 1996, under the then creative director Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton released a celebratory Centennial Collection where guest designers were invited to reimagine the brand’s classic monogram bags. The success of these creations, sold in seven cities worldwide, was the predecessor to inviting artists to do the same — something which no other luxury brand was doing at the time. In 2000, the first collection of artist-designed bags was released in collaboration with Stephen Sprouse, the first of many to “deface” the timeless Louis Vuitton monogram logo. His graffiti-like, Pop Art approach was an immediate hit sensation, starting a movement within the company and fashion houses worldwide.

Left: Louis Vuitton x Takashi Murakami, Monogram Multicolor Speedy 30, 2003, silkscreened leather, metal. Courtesy of Rebag. Right: Louis Vuitton x Takashi Murakami, Jewelry Box, 2003, leather, metal. Courtesy of Farfetch

The most famous of all collaborations within the label, possibly of all luxury handbag collaborations, is the Louis Vuitton x Takashi Murakami series that began in 2002. Murakami, an iconic artist known for blurring the boundary between fine and commercial arts, and as the “Warhol of Japan,” brought his eclectic style and vibrant color palette to the brand, creating the Monogram Multicolor Collection that came to define the early 2000s. Unlike most collaborations, which result in one single collection, Murakami’s success landed him a 12-year-long partnership, the brand’s longest to date. After the creative director position changed hands from Marc Jacobs to Nicolas Ghesquière, Murakami’s bags were seen as slightly outdated and were consequently discontinued — demand has only increased, however, making them one of the hottest resale items on the market.

Louis Vuitton x Yayoi Kusama, The artist with her bag in the Louis Vuitton storefront, New York City. Photograph courtesy of Popsugar

Even though positions within the company and brand aesthetics have changed over time, Louis Vuitton has continuously emphasized artist collaborations in a way unlike any other major fashion house. The brand’s impressive rolodex is comprised of artists like Richard Prince (2008), Scott Campbell (2011), Yayoi Kusama (2012), Jeff Koons (2017), and Kansai Yamamoto (2018). Since then, the brand has teamed up with several other artists, including the following six for the Artycapucine Collection: Sam FallsUrs FischerNicholas HloboAlex IsraelTschabalala Self, and Jonas Wood. What started as one collaboration every year or so, giving artists the task of reimagining the classic monogram look, turned into a revolving door of ingenuity with multiple artist partnerships in a season, creating the space for more experimental pieces in the fabric of an ever-growing brand. This decades-long commitment to collaboration has solidified the importance of art in fashion so much so that the practice has become commonplace throughout the industry.

Louis Vuitton x Sam Falls, Urs Fischer, Nicholas Hlobo, Alex Israel, Tschabalala Self, and Jonas Wood, Artycapucine Collection, 2019, leather, metal, embroidery. Courtesy of Louis Vuitton​

Olafur Eliasson, Imaginary Morning Eclipse (O is for Organic), 2020, colored class, silver, driftwood. Courtesy of Interview Magazine

When discussing the environmental impact of fashion, the focus is usually on the production of what’s called “fast fashion,” the cheap, trendy, mass-produced, and readily available styles that dominate the market. Fast fashion is a consumer-driven sector of the overall industry, but its high demand is certainly not because of its quality of product, but because of its timely design. Fast fashion is popular because it democratized high fashion, giving everyday consumers the ability to wear styles adjacent to those on the runway. Production rightfully dominates the conversation with its wasteful business model — new designs churned out constantly, petroleum-derived fabrics made in factories overseas, shipped around the world, then arriving with an expected lifespan of about two years, despite the fact that it’ll take closer to 200 for them to fully decompose, is anything but sustainable. But the root of the problem may actually be high fashion, which sets the precedent for fast fashion. Relying on animal-derived products and a cutthroat business model that’s blinded by the desire for scarcity, even burning leftover goods to prevent devaluation, a clear message was left for its budget-friendly counterparts: accumulate wealth by any means necessary and don’t worry about the impact that makes. Maybe if luxury brands prioritized sustainability, smaller brands would follow suit. Thankfully, some companies, and with the help of big-name artists, have started down that path.

Stella McCartney x Gary Hume, Shirt from Spring Ready-to-Wear, 2002, worn by Ana Beatriz Barros, photograph by Sylvain Belan. Courtesy of Vogue Magazine

The one woman who is singlehandedly shaking up high fashion is designer Stella McCartney. As an animal rights activist, a pioneer in ethical fashion, and a longtime artist collaborator, with a wide variety of artists and mediums, Stella McCartney recently merged her label’s two defining characteristics, a sustainable brand message and an affinity for artist collaborations, into one. Before this merging of ideas, McCartney’s brand took part in a number of high-profile collaborations, establishing a rapport with artists and credibility within the art world that would eventually lead to one massive, philanthropic, multi-artist collaboration.

The first of many was in 2002 with artist Gary Hume, who she would collaborate with again some 12 years later. Together, they designed handmade t-shirts for a silent auction at the Thaddeus Ropac Gallery in Paris benefiting RAWA, an Afghan women’s rights organization.

Stella McCartney x Ed Ruscha, Shot from Winter Ad Campaign, 2016, photograph by Harley Weir featuring Amber Valetta. Courtesy of WWD Magazine

Following her introductory collaboration with Hume, she began working with artists increasingly often — creating ad campaigns with illustrator David Remfry in 2003, limited edition t-shirts with cartoonist Robert Crumb in 2005, the Spring/Summer 2006 collection with Jeff Koons, a 2009 capsule collection with Peter Blake, and a second collaboration with Gary Hume in Autumn 2014. Sustainability and artistry ceased to be disjointed two years later when Ed Ruscha came on board to do the Winter 2016 ad campaign. In typical Ruscha style, vibrant visuals with text overlays, two components of his Pop Art persona, the ad campaign garnered attention from fashion, art, and environmentally conscious people.

Linda McCartney, Untitled self-portrait (L is for Linda), 1975, photograph. Courtesy of Stella and Paul McCartney

McCartney’s most extensive collaboration to date happens to be one of her most recent, again harnessing the power of art as a means of working towards her sustainability goals. In the wake of a global pandemic, McCartney found herself looking for ways to be more aware of the world around her and more conscious of the creative process, ultimately devising the McCartney A to Z Manifesto, a blueprint of sorts that can be used to take steps towards becoming the most sustainable fashion house anywhere. With every letter, A-Z, McCartney partnered with a different artist to bring that letter and the principle it stands for to life. Each artist was given a task: to pick a letter and visualize it in any way they see fit. Of the 26 letters, only four were pre-existing works repurposed for the cause, and the rest were made solely for this purpose. Some artists were old friends and previous collaborators, like Jeff Koons and Ed Ruscha, “next-generation talents” like illustrator Will Sweeney and photographer Jermaine Francis, and even her late mother, the photographer, activist, and spouse of Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney.

Stella McCartney x Cindy Sherman, E is for Effortless T-Shirt, 2020, screenprinted organic cotton. Courtesy of Stella McCartney

Seven of the artists furthered their collaborative efforts by agreeing to make their pieces into exclusive t-shirts for the label, with each style individually numbered from one to 30. Not only are they printed on organic cotton and wrapped in recyclable material from renewable sources, but 50% of the profits from each artist’s shirt went to an organization of their choice. The list is as follows: Rashid Johnson’s A is for Accountable (The 14+ Foundation), Cindy Sherman’s E is for Effortless (Planned Parenthood), George Condo’s G is for Grateful (Conservation International), Jeff Koons’s K is for Kindness (International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children), Olafur Eliasson’s O is for Organic (charity unknown), Hajime Sorayama’s S is for Sustainability (Médecins Sans Frontières Japan), and Ed Ruscha’s X is for Kiss (Mojave Desert Land Trust Seed Bank).

Rashid Johnson, Accountability (A is for Accountable), 2020, oil on paper. Courtesy of Stella McCartney

By agreeing to be a part of this process, all 26 artists are, in a sense, taking part in this pledge themselves — to be mindful of the materials they use to create, and of all living things, with respect to sustainability, diversity, and inclusivity. Many of their subjects reflect this through their reoccurring themes of nature, as do their mediums, like the undeniably anarchist, blood-red “A” from Johnson, released for sale during Black History Month, and Eliasson’s sculpture made of glass resting on driftwood. Eliasson explained his choice of making an “O” out of the absence of material as a symbol of ethical consumption, saying, “It’s so much nicer to un-fill and un-buy, like making works of art by removing.” Partnering with artists who are mindful of the permanence of their own work, are exceptional at communicating visually, and bring their own fan bases and philanthropic causes alongside them puts a spotlight on sustainability in high fashion, and by extension, makes us reflect on the sustainability of high art.