This past June, Pharrell Williams, the long-awaited successor to Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton, debuted his first LV collection during Paris Fashion Week. It was a highlight to culture fans from many vantage points. Still, one element of the show at Pont Neuf was particularly striking for art aficionados: the incorporation of the works of Henry Taylor.
Chinatown Taylor, as the painter likes to call himself, is an LA-based artist most known for his paintings of Black figures. He is a chronicler of Black American life, juxtaposing iconic figures with personal memories and pivotal historical moments. During the show, his works were seen printed on jeans and jackets. The show opened with a video of himself conversing with comedian and actor Jerrod Carmichael in a video.
Taylor is far from the first to collaborate with Louis Vuitton. Nor was it his first with the French fashion house. Since introducing its ready-to-wear line in 1998, with American designer Marc Jacobs at the helm, LV has continually collaborated with high-profile artists on products, campaigns and books.
Earlier this year, LV had a second Yayoi Kusama collaboration, which brought giant moving statues made in the likeness of Kusama to Louis Vuitton flagship stores around the globe. Since Jacobs started collaborating with artists like Takashi Murakami and Stephen Sprouse in the late 90s, his successors have continued that legacy, ultimately leading up to hosting gallery spaces globally through Espace Louis Vuitton and their monumental Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Museum in Bois De Boulogne, Paris.
The intersection of art and fashion is an interesting one. In the conceptive years of Parisian Haute Couture, the houses would invite their exclusive customer base to the ateliers to see the new collections, much like buyers or gallerists visiting artists' studios nowadays.
To some extent, fashion designers are considered artists themselves (although Yohji Yamamoto begs to differ). Christian Dior (who ran an art gallery before starting his company in 1947) revolutionised womenswear with his sculptural Bar jacket. Every year, The Met's Costume Institute presents its fashion exhibition, with former shows honouring the likes of Alexander McQueen and Comme des Garçons' Rei Kawakubo. The designers (or creative directors in most cases) are presented as artists. They are sculptors of garments, which, especially for Dior and Kawakubo, seems apt. In both disciplines, creative expression is the core of the practice.
Art and fashion collaborations have gone hand in hand as far back as 1937 when Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali worked with the equally provocative Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli on their iconic Lobster Dress. His earlier work, Lobster Telephone (1936), inspired the dress originally made for Wallis Simpson. Dali and Schiaparelli were part of the Avant-Garde in Paris, where cross-pollination of literature, art, film and fashion was almost as usual as it is now.
The examples mentioned earlier are all considered 'high-end.' That is to say, high-profile artists collaborating with haute couture houses. Despite the commercial successes of Louis Vuitton's artist collaborations, these collaborations still represent highly gatekept, expensive spaces. LV's super exclusive ArtyCapucines series, custom made by artists like Tschabalala Self, Josh Smith and Jonas Wood, are auctioned by Sotheby's like their artworks.
But if you divide fashion into three realms: luxury/haute couture, high-end/streetwear and mass-market/fast fashion, you'll see that art has also penetrated the other two realms, albeit differently.
When Keith Haring "graduated" from Lower East Side street artist to invitee at some of the most respected art institutes in the world, he insisted on making his artworks as accessible as possible. Now, roughly 50 years later, his dream has come true. From t-shirts to umbrellas, phone cases and sneakers, Keith Haring (as well as 80s NYC contemporaries Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat) is everywhere. Since his estate first collaborated with Japanese retailer Uniqlo in 2003, the foundation has created partnerships such as Pandora, H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch, Tommy Hilfiger.
There are several differences between these and some of the earlier-mentioned partnerships. Firstly, Haring, Basquiat and Warhol had no say in the collaborations. These collaborations are made under licensing, which means the artists' estate gives the brands the rights to use the images in their collections in exchange for (large sums of) money. When Marc Jacobs invited Takashi Murakami to reimagine LV's iconic monograph, the artist was put to work. Through licensing, brands merely use existing artworks (or parts of them) and print them on their designs.
Perhaps the first example of this, although again within the luxury sphere, was Yves Saint Laurent's Mondrian Collection from 1965. Saint Laurent was a huge art fan (the Studio KO-designed, namesake foundation museum opened in Marrakech in 2002) and wanted to honour his art heroes. He designed a collection highlighting some of them, including six cocktail dresses made in the style of Piet Mondrian's abstract grid-based paintings. It is unclear if licensing was even a thing then or if the estate of the Dutch De Stijl artist was considered in the conception of this collection. Still, it was one of the most successful mergers of art and fashion in the 20th century, both commercially and critically.
That commercial and critical success is what brands (and artists) look for. And while commercial success is almost guaranteed, these collaborations also receive harsh critiques. Artists are sometimes seen as sellouts by the art world–any endeavour outside a gallery or museum is often frowned upon or deemed inauthentic. Interestingly, artists working with luxury fashion houses seem to receive less criticism than artists (or estates) collaborating with smaller mid-tier or mass-market brands.
It is probably why someone like Virgil Abloh, a master interpreter and collaborator, was successful during his time at Louis Vuitton until he died in 2021. Abloh was an artist in his own right, heavily inspired by conceptual artists like Marcel Duchamp as he challenged notions of functionality and aesthetics. At Louis Vuitton (and Off-White), he brought all realms and levels of fashion together and merged them with music, art and other fields of design.
Since Abloh emerged as a fashion designer, the art-fashion crossover has become increasingly ubiquitous. For brands, it is a way to increase credibility, while artists have a new outlet for creativity. Recent examples are Kerry James Marshall making a painting exclusively for Wales Bonner and Awake NY, who built their flagship store and collection around the work of Alvin Armstrong, Larissa De Jesús Negrón, and graffiti writer JA XTC. Conceptual artist Tyrell Winston (also heavily influenced by Duchamp) continuously works with fashion and sportswear brands such as Aimé Leon Dore, Reebok and vintage reseller Akimbo Club. Artists are as eager to work with brands as vice versa.
The lines between art and fashion are getting blurry, and the collaborations are more pervasive. With the fashion weeks around the corner this September, our eyes will wander curiously away from the white cube onto the runway.