We are using cookies to give you the best experience on our site. To find out more see our Cookies Policy. By continuing to use our website without changing the settings, you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

The Real Reason Why Fashion Is Obsessed With Art

Brands and designers love Old Masters and cutting-edge artists.

The endless flirtation between the worlds of art and fashion is no more apparent than at Frieze London. Every October, the art fair takes place after the four autumn fashion weeks – New York, London, Milan and Paris – and fashion insiders joke that, with all the parties and dinners, Frieze is the extension of the month-long fashion-show festivities. In 2017 at Frieze, brands Bally and Etro, designers Christopher Kane and Adam Lippes and the online retailer Moda Operandi all hosted art-related events.

Fashion has always been enthralled with art. Designers have pilfered ideas and statements from artists as a little girl might mimic an older, more erudite sister. Coco Chanel collaborated with Pablo Picasso on costumes for the Ballet Russes in the 1920s. In 1937, Elsa Schiaparelli created the famous white silk ‘lobster dress’, which features the crustacean as homage to Salvador Dali’s sculpture of a lobster and a telephone.

Yves Saint Laurent brought fashion and art closer still. His impressive art collection, amassed with his partner Pierre Bergé, inspired his fashion creations. In 1965 he took the graphic squares of the Modernist painter Piet Mondrian and transposed them to cocktail dresses. Yves Klein blue was another obsession, as were Matisse’s cut-outs, the colourful fronds of which appeared printed on a black couture collection in the 1980s.

Fashion uses art to boost its sales value: commerce is the iceberg beneath both their worlds

Saint Laurent did not see his clothes as artworks. “Yves and I were convinced that fashion is not an art, but fashion needs art to exist,” Bergé said, in 2009, the year their art collection was sold at Christie’s in Paris for £333m.

Fashion uses art to boost its sales value: commerce is the iceberg beneath both their worlds. A modern fashion brand rooted in the lofty ideals of art is seen by some as a magic formula. Louis Vuitton, whose parent company LVMH posted a 14 per cent increase in revenue in the third quarter of 2017, has a history of collaborating with artists on cult bags, including Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami, and Yayoi Kusama.

In 2017, its Masters collection in collaboration with the artist Jeff Koons, the world’s most expensive living artist, known for his metallic balloon dog sculptures, saw works by Da Vinci, van Gogh and Picasso pasted on leather bags, museum gift shop style. “I believe that these bags are art,” said Koons, on his Instagram feed.

Perhaps what Koons means is that they began as art. Putting pictures on bags is just replication. More subtle are collections that reference art works without directly reproducing them. For that, you can look to designers such as Erdem Moralıoglu, whose clothes are singularly charming. A self-confessed geek, his collections are obsessively researched and as lush as the sets of the Merchant Ivory films he watched as a child.

For his autumn/winter 2017 collection, the designer, who goes by his first name and is of Turkish and English stock by way of his birthplace, Montreal, imagined a meeting “which could never have happened” between his great-grandmothers, one from Edwardian England, the other from eastern Turkey, near the Syrian border.

At the catwalk, as with every Erdem show, guests found a ribbon-tied manual of pictures on their seats, which included 18th century portraits and elements of illustrated manuscripts from the 16th century. You don’t need a grasp of history to appreciate the beauty of Erdem’s clothes, but the intellectualising invests the high collars, the printed velvets and the exquisite Ottoman-inspired jacquard work with a certain weight.

Gucci has a more modern approach to appropriating art for fashion. The Italian megabrand is its parent company Kering’s biggest profit motor, and posted record third quarter like-for-like sales – up 49.4 per cent – in October 2017. Millennial shoppers in particular like Gucci for its flamboyant, glitter-encrusted designs, but also for innovative collaborations with cutting-edge artists.

Recently Gucci has worked with Trevor Andrew, a graffiti artist known as GucciGhost, who spray-painted handbags; Helen Downie, the Instagram-famous artist known as Unskilled Worker, whose spectral women have appeared on T-shirts after Gucci found her paintings of its catwalk looks on her feed; and the Spanish artist Coco Capitan, whose illustrations and aphorisms feature on bags, shirts and scarves.

Most importantly, none of these collaborations feels forced. Because if an art reference feels like a marketing tool, the entire endeavour is left looking hollow.