In September 1965, an A-line-dress-come-avant-garde-canvas appeared on the cover of French Vogue and heralded the most iconic collaboration between fashion and fine art to date. Inspired by the bold canvases of Dutch De Stijl painter Piet Mondrian, Yves Saint Laurent redefined the relationship between artist and designer, paving the way for future collaborations and infinitely expanding the social and aesthetic possibilities of haute couture in the twentieth century.
During the 1960s, the sack dress (once considered to be a universally flattering shape – go figure) gave way to a modified silhouette known as the shift. Yves Saint Laurent recognised that the simple geometry of this style echoed the minimal aesthetic of Mondrian’s celebrated works of the 1920s, defined by their graphic black lines and planes of primary colour. Mondrian’s elemental abstract language reduced the world to colour and line to convey the underlying spiritual order he saw as inherent in nature. By reducing the world to an abstract idiom, Mondrian aimed to express a fundamental philosophical principle. By transposing these concepts onto his designs, Yves Saint Laurent elevated transient fashion to the realm of fine art and philosophy and marketed these ideas as products to be consumed and claimed as part of one’s individual identity.
It’s ours to ask, then, what is gained or lost in the translation of fine art to fashion? Mondrian eliminated references to the nominal world in order to convey what he believed to be universal. Yet Yves Saint Laurent’s Autumn collection of 1965 was markedly inaccessible. To those who could not afford designer fashion, his designs reinforced the exclusivity of the art world (although many copycat designers soon made the style accessible at a lower price-point). In bringing high art to the high street, Yves Saint Laurent transformed his models, quite literally, into walking pieces of art. Art is commoditised and transformed from one kind of material good to another, gathering new associations each time it is worn. The stark simplicity of his design made haute couture wearable and replicable. As the dressmakers arranged each individual block of jersey or silk into a grid to seamlessly accommodate the female figure, so too Yves Saint Laurent pieced together decades of history, philosophy, and personal style to create one patchwork dress that irrevocably altered the nature of luxury goods as they applied to fashion and identity.
Yves Saint Laurent was not the first designer to establish a lineage between his work and a prominent figure of the avant-garde. The extravagant style of Italian designer, Elsa Schiaparelli, led to her productive and daring collaboration with friend and Surrealist Salvador Dalí. Although Dalí was not the only artist she collaborated with (Jean Cocteau and Alberto Giacometti were other prominent influences), he was certainly the most controversial. Their partnership led to the procreation of the infamous lobster dress of 1937 – a silk organza gown hand-painted with a lobster amid parsley sprigs. The lobster motif began to infiltrate Dalí’s work in 1934 (Dream-Man Finds Lobster in Place of Phone), and had markedly sexual connotations in the mind of the artist. The placement of the lobster across the front of the skirt was intended to be provocative. The design caught the eye of Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, who modelled the dress for a series of public-relations photographs by Cecil Beaton. The sexual connotations that informed her choice of apparel undermined the official purpose of the photographs. A selection of the photographs were printed by Vogue in a provocative eight-page spread.
The symbiotic relationship between fashion and art has only continued to gain traction since the 1930s. Under the creative direction of Alessandro Michele, Gucci has launched collaborations with street artist Trouble Andrew as well as illustrator Angela Hicks, and is set to release another collection with emerging artist “Unskilled Worker” later this year. Creating capsule collections, however, is not solely the domain of the Gucci brand. Louis Vuitton’s current collaboration with contemporary American artist Jeff Koons marks a new level of engagement in terms of fashion’s relationship with art. While Yves Saint Laurent appropriated Mondrian’s abstract vocabulary and Elsa Schiaparelli collaborated with a contemporary artist, the Masters collection of Louis Vuitton and Koons encroaches upon both of these models.
The collection is comprised of handbags, backpacks, shawls and keychains, each emblazoned with imagery from Koons’ Gazing Ball series – large-scale hand-painted replicas of masterpieces by Da Vinci, Rubens, Fragonard, van Gogh, and Titian – affixed with the signatures of the current collaborators. Koons is notorious for transforming kitsch objects into art. In this case, he transforms high art into fashion. The “art as commodity” formula is made glaringly apparent. Following in the footsteps of Dada artist Marcel Duchamp, he replicated and reinterpreted the great paintings by old masters, reducing them to a wearable part of consumer culture. Masterpieces are playfully appropriated and reworked by a contemporary artist to be superimposed onto textiles for the rich and famous. The discord created between the classical glory of the paintings, the brightly coloured poster paint, and the imposition of the universally recognised LV logo made this a collection like marmite.
For nearly a century, designers have found inspiration in brushstrokes of the artist and translated them to textile – be they appropriated, reinterpreted, printed, or modified. From Gianni Versace’s homage to Andy Warhol (Spring 1991) to Sonia Delaunay’s debt to the Fauves to Alexander McQueen’s curiosity in the Victorian Gothic, the marriage between fashion and art seems to be indissoluble. Despite the nights art may sleep on the sofa, it’s only ever a matter of time until fashion lets it back into the bedroom.