BY Janelle Zara in Opinion | 15 SEP 23

Art and Fashion Crossovers: The Good, The Bad and Embarrassingly Ill-Fitting

Looking back at recent collaborations, Janelle Zara assesses the fashions we loved, hated and wouldn’t be caught dead in 

BY Janelle Zara in Opinion | 15 SEP 23

Controversial opinion: fashion designers are artists – at least, the very best ones are. Take Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo, for example; recall the way her lumpy, sculptural costuming for Merce Cunningham’s dance performance, Scenario (1997), so brilliantly complimented his affinity for distorting the shape and movement of the human body. Or the late Alexander McQueen, a visionary whose morbid fascination with death connected to that of Damien Hirst and was exemplified by his exquisite line of scarves with skull and butterfly motifs in 2013, hallmarks of the former YBA’s work.

There’s also designer Grace Wales Bonner, whose multivalent references to African diasporic fashions conceptually aligned with Mickalene Thomas’s textural collages for their Dior collaboration; deploying an elegant patchwork of Caribbean craft traditions, they reinvented the brand’s iconic Bar jacket for the Cruise 2020 collection.

Merce Cunningham, Scenario, 1997
Merce Cunningham, Scenario, 1997. Courtesy: Walker Art Center

The best fashion crossovers in art history are true collaborations like these – the rare but magical meeting of two minds attuned to the same eccentric vision. The list below is a brief look back at the crossovers that produced true works of art, accompanied by a joyous dissection of the worst ‘collabs’ – those artlessly and lazy misunderstandings of the assignment ­– generally the stuff that only hypebeasts would be caught dead in.

Takashi Murakami x Louis Vuitton, Monogram Multicolore, S/S 2003

At the behest of Louis Vuitton’s then-artistic director Marc Jacobs, Takashi Murakami infused the once-sleepy luxury luggage brand with a badly needed dose of colour and contemporary global relevance. The LV logo proved to be the perfect vessel for the artist’s Superflat philosophy of erasing distinctions between art and commerce. The pop inflections of the Monogram Multicolore collection immediately caught fire with the likes of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan and comprised 10 percent of Louis Vuitton’s revenue that year.

LV Multicolore campaign imagery
Assorted Louis Vuitton campaign imagery, 2000s, via internet archive 

The iconic logo would later appear throughout Murakami’s paintings, as well as in the retail shop he controversially installed within his 2007 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. For better or worse, the collection’s major financial success ushered in the modern era of ‘artist-designed’ handbags, which today are a dime a dozen. (Not that they’re affordable, just ubiquitous and largely unmemorable.)

Jeff Koons x Louis Vuitton, Masters Collection, 2017

Louis Vuitton and Gagosian are a perfect match of sensibilities; They are the quintessential purveyors of luxury status symbols, they dually embrace the extremes of vulgarity and refinement – coalescing in the Koons-designed Masters collection for Louis Vuitton. (Other Gagosian artists, past and present, with LV handbag collections include Alex Israel, Jonas Wood, Richard Prince, Urs Fischer and Yayoi Kusama, whose gargantuan likeness, installed outside Louis Vuitton’s flagship store, briefly terrorized Paris this summer.)

Masters handbags by Louis Vuitton
Louis Vuitton 'Masters' Collection by Jeff Koons, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Les Façons

Adorning the Mona Lisa with candy-coloured leather handles and gold block letters that say ‘DA VINCI’, Koons recreated the exact glossy kitsch that makes his sculptures objectively beautiful to behold. It was so garishly bad, it was good; Juicy Couture would be lucky to have him on their team.

Santiago Sierra x Balenciaga, The Mud Show, S/S 2023

Santiago Sierra, whose trolling appropriations of the abject include sculptures of human excrement, filled Balenciaga’s runway presentation with 275 cubic metres of dirt during Paris Fashion Week last year. Beautifully and effectively dragging the collection through the mud is exactly the kind of critical irreverence Balenciaga artistic director Demna would appreciate.

Balenciaga Spring Summer 2023.jpg
Balenciaga Spring 2023 ready-to-wear, Paris Fashion Week 2022. Courtesy: Balenciaga / Vogue Runway

These are two artists who mock capitalism by embracing its most grotesque and mundane aspects – Sierra has paid sex workers with drug addictions the price of a shot of heroin to get tattooed (160cm Line Tattooed on 4 People, 2000), and Demna’s fashion house released a horrifically ill-conceived 2022 campaign that referenced child sexual abuse and BDSM. The gag is that they’ve convinced their respective audiences that we’re in on the joke, when in reality we are the butt of it. 

Jonathan Anderson x Various Artists

JW Anderson’s 2020 tote bags printed with images from Tom of Finland’s ‘The Saddle Thief’ series (1958) summarize your average late-artist fashion collab in a nutshell: they flattened the artist’s practice into an aesthetic for the sake of moving unmemorable merchandise. (And why were the tote bags felt, not leather?).

Dan Levy Met Gala
Dan Levy at the 2021 Met Gala. Courtesy: Getty Images; photo: Dimitrios Kambouris

More difficult to forget was the time Anderson, as Loewe creative director, transformed the imagery of David Wojnarowicz’s Fuck You Faggot Fucker (1984) into actor Dan Levy’s hideously flamboyant 2021 Met Gala outfit. The designer had egregiously yassified the legacy of a queer artist who had lived unglamorously in the margins, erasing the rage and alienation inherent to Wojnarowicz’s work. Anderson’s efforts highlight the key difference between art and fashion: fashion is willing to accept aesthetics with no meaning. I just wish he would leave the dead in peace.

Amoako Boafo x Dior, Summer 2021

I do not love the fact that Boako portraits are embroidered onto $4,000 cashmere sweaters. While the artist occasionally renders the human face beautifully, his execution is more often muddied, with zero sense of lighting nor anatomical structure. But Dior Men’s artistic director Kim Jones captured the style inherent to Boafo’s work – a masculine-feminine swagger embodied by each of the painter’s subjects.

Dior Homme Spring 2021
Dior Homme Spring 2021 campaign. Courtesy: Dior / Vogue Runway; photo: Jackie Nickerson 

The collection featured slim-tailored suits and black leather stamped with the texture of lace, accompanied by military-inspired pieces – berets, combat boots, jackets – which were softened with florals, pastels and pops of lemon yellow. Chef’s kiss, 10 out of 10, better than the paintings.

Jenny Holzer x Helmut Lang, Recurring

Together these two made real, interdisciplinary, groundbreaking art, beginning with their collaborative I Smell You On My Clothes installation at the 1996 Florence Biennale. It was a multisensory and primal meditation on lust, in which Lang filled the exhibition space with a perfume meant to evoke the scent a lover leaves on the sheets, while Holzer’s LED sign displayed obsessive proclamations of love.

Jenny Holzer and Helmut Lang
Jenny Holzer and Helmut Lang, poster for Helmut Lang fragrance launch, 2000. Courtesy: Marc Atlan Design

Their scent-based collaboration continued when Lang launched his eponymous fragrance line in 2000, for which Holzer supplied austere yet poetic words of courtship for the advertising campaign.

Main image: Sculpture of Yayoi Kusama outside the Louis Vuitton headquarters in Paris, 2023. Courtesy: Creative Commons; photo: Yannick

Janelle Zara is a journalist specializing in art and design. She is based in Los Angeles.