The Corruption of Collaboration
As luxury streetwear and sneaker culture have risen to dominate the fashion industry over the past fifteen years, so have fashion collaborations. From Adidas x Pharrell to Nike x KAWS to Louis Vuitton x Jeff Koons, it seems like there are few popular designers and artists who aren’t in on the action. Yet, while artists and designers have teamed up to produce commercially sold garments for nearly a century, both the artistic processes behind, and the products of, collaborations have drastically changed. For much of the twentieth century, partnerships between designers and artists were grounded in inspiration, experimentation and mutual admiration, but, as social media has expanded the idea of branding from companies to individuals, artists have increasingly marketed themselves as brands, resulting in twenty-first century collaborations that frequently operate as co-branding projects meant to create hype, expand audiences and solidify reputations.
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Although the starting point of modern Western fashion collaboration is often traced to the 1937 summer evening dress influential Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli and famed Spanish painter Salvador Dalí teamed up to create, the history of collaboration extends further back both within Schiaparelli’s oeuvre and within the canons of art and fashion. Starting in 1909, Russian impresario Serge Pavlovich Diaghilev debuted his first season of Russian ballet in Paris, featuring music by composer Igor Stravinsky, choreography by dancer Mikhail Fokine and Art Nouveau-inspired costumes by artist Léon Bakst. While Diaghilev’s ballet lost 76,000 francs (nearly $500,000 today), it received praise throughout Europe, which inspired him to found a year-round touring ballet, the Ballets Russes, in 1911, that ran for nearly two decades. While the Ballets Russes’ main legacy falls within the history of dance, it is also significant for its impact on art and fashion.
During the Ballets Russes roughly twenty-year run, Diaghilev hired renowned artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse to design costumes for his performers. Picasso played with figurative forms for the costumes he designed for the 1917 production of Parade and went on to create costumes for five more Ballets Russes, despite the disdain many of the artist’s Cubist followers felt towards him mingling with the wealthy theater-goers of Rome. For the Ballets Russes’ 1920 production of Le Chant du rossignol, Matisse designed costumes that made use of unusual materials such as graphite and Bakelite. And, while the garments that resulted from these collaborations were not commercially available, the collaborations themselves offered space for artists and designers to mingle, a space that designer Elsa Schiaparelli stepped firmly into during the ’20s and ’30s.
Born in Rome in 1890, Schiaparelli grew up in a family of aristocrats and intellectuals and showed herself to be highly creative and fiercely independent at a young age; in 1911, she published a collection of explicitly sensual poems, Arethusa, which shocked her parents enough that they sent her to a convent in Switzerland (which she was later released from after going on a hunger strike). By 1927, when she founded her own fashion company, Schiaparelli had already gotten married, had a child, gotten divorced, worked as a model and freelance designer and lived in New York, London and Paris. The design that kick-started her career was a hand-knit pullover with a black and white trompe-l’oeil motif that Vogue called a “masterpiece,” and Schiaparelli quickly became known as an innovator and provocateur; during the late ’20s and ’30s she introduced rubberized raincoats, jumpsuits with visible and colored zippers and the first evening dress, among many other influential designs.
Starting in 1928, when she teamed up with Russian writer Elsa Triolet to design a necklace featuring hundreds of porcelain beads meant to resemble aspirin tablets, Schiaparelli began working with a who’s who of legendary visual artists—including Dalí, Giacometti, Magritte, Picasso, Warhol and many more—on an array of garments, accessories, painting and photographs that arguably sparked the modern-day trend of fashion collaborations. One of Schiaparelli’s most frequent and successful collaborators was Dalí, who so admired her that in his book, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, he claimed that the late ’30s were defined “not by the surrealist polemics in the café on Place Blanche, or by the suicide of my great friend René Crevel, but by the dressmaking establishment, which Elsa Schiaparelli was about to open on the Place Vendôme.” During this time period, Schiaparelli designed a shoe hat inspired by a photograph of Dalí with one shoe on his shoulder and another atop his head, a black rayon skeleton dress based on Dalí’s drawing of a woman with see-through anatomy that reveals her ribcage, and, of course, the aforementioned 1937 evening dress that featured Dali’s drawing of a lobster.
The lobster print dress would go on to cause a minor scandal when Wallis Simpson wore it for a Vogue photo shoot in anticipation of her marriage to Edward VIII (who abdicated his throne to marry the twice-divorced Simpson). While the shoot was meant to rehab Simpson’s image, it did the opposite due to the lobster, which Dalí had established as a daring sexual emblem in his artwork. It is impossible to know whether Simpson or the photographer, Cecil Beaton, knew the full implications of the design, but the result was additional publicity for Schiaparelli. Yet, it is also doubtful that Schiaparelli’s endgame was press; she viewed design as an art form instead a profession and her collaborations with other artists as indispensable to not only her artistic practice, but to her life: “One felt supported and understood beyond the crude and boring reality of merely making a dress to sell,” she recounted in her autobiography.
But not all fashion collaborations since Schiaparelli’s have met the high artistic standers she set: consider Yves Saint Laurent’s 1965 misappropriation of Dutch abstract painter Piet Mondrian’s colorful grids and the disposable “Souper Dress” Andy Warhol created with Campbell’s Soup the following year. (Is it any surprise that the equally opportunistic Warhol and Laurent collaborated on silk-screened portraits in 1974?) Both collaborations have been immensely influential on fashion and culture, but neither represents a grand artistic achievement as far as creativity, risk or technique.
However, popularity doesn’t always preclude original art. Take, for instance, the collaboration between pop/street artist Keith Haring and designer Vivienne Westwood for Westwood’s AW83-84 “Witches” collection. Westwood and her then partner, famed music producer Malcolm McLaren, had been making waves since 1971 as arbiters of Teddy Boy and punk style with their King’s Road, London shop that seemed to change names with each new stylistic direction: from “Let it Rock” to “Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die” to “Sex and Seditionaries” to finally “Worlds End” in 1979. On the other hand, Haring had only recently rose to prominence through his frenetic white chalk subway drawings “based on the primacy of the line,” which eventually led to his first solo exhibition at the Westbeth Painters Space in 1981 and his SoHo gallery debut a year later with a one-man exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. In 1983, Westwood and McLaren traveled to New York City to meet with Haring, which resulted in the “Witches” collection, inspired by Haring’s “magical, esoteric sign language” and featuring a number of his drawings against the backdrops of Westwood’s sometimes simple, sometimes avant-garde silhouettes.
While printing graphic art on clothing might seem trite in 2018, it was groundbreaking in 1983, both visually and as a representation of the cultural exchange happening between New York and London in the realms of fashion, music and art. The early ’80s were a time when boundaries between artistic communities were being bent, if not utterly broken; graffiti and street artists, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, PHASE 2, LADY PINK, and Haring, were finding critical acceptance in art galleries and punk and hip-hop artists were intermingling in unheard of ways, including The Clash inviting Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five to open for them in New York in 1981 and Kurtis Blow in 1982. And, while it’s easy to wonder how much Westwood and McLaren thought about publicity when they decided to collaborate with Haring, especially considering McLaren’s tendency to ride the bandwagon of growing subcultures—as demonstrated by his 1983 hip-hop-infused album, Duck Rock (which also featured artwork by Haring)—it’s nearly impossible to argue how effectively the “Witches” collection translated New York and London’s merging artistic communities into garments.
Another near-perfect pairing of an artist and a designer occurred a decade later when Cindy Sherman created a series of photos featuring personae dressed in Comme des Garçons clothing for the ad campaign to promote the brand’s AW94 “Metamorphosis” collection. Both Sherman and Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo have long pushed against beauty standards placed on women’s bodies and the pairing resulted in a series of strange and striking images. For “Metamorphosis,” Kawakubo made use of boiled wool fabrics shaped into a mix of military and domestic workwear silhouettes (that, paired with the title of the collection, could have alluded to Cinderella), which often resemble unfinished doll’s clothing and sometimes resemble unrolled bolts of fabric; in response, Sherman photographed herself in Kawakubo’s clothing—plus her own makeup, masks, wigs and accessories—to create various personae that simultaneously channel horror films (think Michael Myer’s mask from the original Halloween), religious figures and children’s stories, such as Pippi Longstocking. Over the years, Sherman has also collaborated with Marc Jacobs, Balenciaga, Chanel and, most recently, Supreme on a series of “Grotesque” skate decks.
In the ’90s and 2000s, Helmut Lang followed in the footsteps of Schiaparelli by teaming up with a series of artists, including sculptor Louise Bourgeois, conceptual artist Jenny Holzer and photographer Juergen Teller, to create installations, ad campaigns and even stores that seemed to be less about selling clothes and more about bridging the worlds of art and fashion. Consider the 1998 SoHo, New York flagship Lang designed with the help of Holzer, which looked more like an art gallery than a traditional high-end boutique; the space featured ample white space, hidden cash registers, huge black cabinets that obscured the clothes and one of Holzer’s large LED sculptures.
Although Lang officially retired from fashion in 2005, Marc Jacob’s has pulled from both his playbook and his phone book since, collaborating with Teller and numerous other artists, including Sherman, on collaborative clothing and campaigns. In fact, some cite Jacob’s 2001 collaboration with designer and artist Stephen Sprouse on a collection of graffiti-covered luggage for Louis Vuitton as the birth of the modern collaboration frenzy. And, while it is hard to argue the financial success of the collection (or that of Jacob’s subsequent 2003 collaboration with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami), these bag designs seemed more like money grabs than attempts at affective or even aesthetically innovative art.
The same might be said of Nike’s 2003 and 2004 Artist Series that allowed legendary street and graffiti artists such as Stash, Futura and ESPO, as well as major celebrities such as Pharell Williams and Halle Berry, to interpret some of the brand’s classic silhouettes. While the 2004 Artist Series, in particular, created a consumer frenzy—including hundreds, if not thousands, of sneakerheads who camped out overnight at Niketowns for the release—and acted as a major catalyst in the sneakerification of fashion, the collaboration did not result in stirring art, save one exception: ESPO’s clear Air Force 2 Low, which featured a partially clear silhouette and came with a pair of matching socks—spawned numerous imitations, including the 2017 Comme des Garçons Dunk High. Nike’s Artist Series did, however, cement the brand’s status as a gatekeeper of culture and purveyor of cool, while setting the table for the high-low aesthetics that have proliferated fashion since (including Louis Vuitton and Supreme’s trite, but commercially momentous collaboration last year).
In fact, the Louis Vuitton x Supreme collection is indicative of the direction fashion collaborations have taken in the new millennium as brands have looked more toward other brands to create co-branded products rather than garments or campaigns that represents a true merging of aesthetics or philosophies. Even when a designer does team up with an actual artist, the result is often as artistically vapid as an amalgamation of logos. Take, for instance, Gucci’s 2017 and 2018 collaborations with Spanish painter Ignasi Monreal that are essentially product placements masquerading as high art. While there are exceptions, such as design duo Abasi Rosbourgh’s visually stunning and politically relevant SS18 “Hyperobject” collection that features photos shot by eco-artist Justin Brice Guarigilia during a NASA mission over Greenland, more often than not, brands have stolen a page from the sneaker culture playbook by creating collaborations meant to build hype and drive sales for limited edition products.
Even some of fashion’s most regarded collaborators seem to be phoning it in. Consider Cindy Sherman’s aforementioned 2017 collection with Supreme. While the pair could have turned the tables on Supreme’s brightly lit, celebrity-filled, at times misogynistic t-shirts and ad campaigns photographed by the likes of Terry Richardson (who was recently banned by Condé Nast due to accusations of sexual assault) with an original shoot featuring Sherman’s strange personae and Supreme’s clothing, they instead opted to slap Sherman’s existing artwork on skate decks as part of the brand’s recurring “Artist Series.” Is there hope for fashion collaborations when even an artist as esteemed as Sherman seems to have bought into the hype machine? That all depends on how much consumers value the creativity of art versus the name (brand) creating it.