Menswear with art at its heart

New collaborations between designers and artists are bringing a playful élan to men’s wardrobes that combines collectable cachet with a strong message, says Simon Chilvers

Prada’s Milan headquarters was decorated with comic-strip-style panelling for a recent runway show
Prada’s Milan headquarters was decorated with comic-strip-style panelling for a recent runway show

At New York Fashion Week last year, a white top emblazoned with Andy Warhol’s 1963 screenprint Tunafish Disaster peeked out from under a relaxed double-breasted navy and burnt-orange checked suit jacket at the Calvin Klein show. A few weeks earlier, at London’s Swiss Church during Grace Wales Bonner’s elegant menswear presentation, a 2005 work by Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili, Blue Biceps, appeared on a sleeveless black linen shirt. Then, in Milan, a model strode down the Fendi runway wearing a beige hooded top bearing a wonderfully naïve drawing of a desk lamp drafted by Sue Tilley. These three pieces of clothing, all highlights from the spring/summer 2018 menswear shows, underscore a significant style moment: if your eye is drawn to clothing that looks like it might also be found hanging on a gallery wall, this is a season that will definitely speak to you.

Certain designers have a longstanding reputation for their interest in art; Miuccia Prada is one of them. This season, Prada commissioned American‑Taiwanese artist James Jean and Belgian Olivier Schrauwen, both known for a certain graphic handwriting, to create comic-strip-style works that not only appeared on clothing but were also blown up onto panels and displayed on the walls of the label’s Milan headquarters, where the runway show is staged. The fruits of this collaboration included a grey cashmere sweater (£785) bearing an image of a monkey with lasers shooting out of its eyes, and a simple beige coat (£1,030) with a block of striking monochromatic graphic illustrations. Taking the idea further were several eye-popping zip-up blouson-style shirts (from £660) entirely decorated in comic-book-esque scenes.

From left: Prada x James Jean/Olivier Schrauwen cotton shirt, from £660. Prada x James Jean/Olivier Schrauwen cashmere sweater, £785. Calvin Klein 205W39NYC cotton vest featuring the work of Andy Warhol, £165. Calvin Klein 205W39NYC cotton T-shirt featuring the work of Andy Warhol, £165
From left: Prada x James Jean/Olivier Schrauwen cotton shirt, from £660. Prada x James Jean/Olivier Schrauwen cashmere sweater, £785. Calvin Klein 205W39NYC cotton vest featuring the work of Andy Warhol, £165. Calvin Klein 205W39NYC cotton T-shirt featuring the work of Andy Warhol, £165 | Image: Calvin Klein 205W39NYC

Backstage, Prada spoke of the “hand-drawn, human, simple and real” appeal of these visuals. “Fragments of life” was how she referred to them, Jean explained. “She liked the human quality of the drawings and the graphic possibilities of comic-book panels. Playing on ideas of multiplication and cloning, I developed motifs of repeating eyes, virtual reality and viruses used to deliver DNA in gene editing,” he says. On the clothes, these images delivered visual punch. But they also provided a collectable quality.

It’s a cachet that’s not lost on Stella McCartney, who also sees the collectable and cult potential of her third menswear collection, for which she incorporated elements of the work of late Japanese graphic artist Pater Sato. “When you look at this collection, it’s a one‑off,” she says. “Individual pieces will hopefully become items in your wardrobe that feel precious, something that not everybody has, that will go up in value and always be in your life.”

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Sato’s prints, including the head of a woman in a hot red catsuit, her eyes peering out, appear as a circular motif on simple striped shirting (from £380), as an emblem on a classic black sweatshirt (from £185) and as a lining inside a tailored beige coat (from £1,480). “I have a love of airbrushing and graphics that really draws me to Sato’s work,” says McCartney who recalls seeing his posters when she was growing up. “I have never really seen anything like it since.”

McCartney has previously collaborated on womenswear with artists such as Gary Hume and Robert Crumb, but this is the first such collection for men. For her, the idea of artist collaborations is fundamental to her brand’s codes. “Men and women have always used clothing to have a conversation with the outside world,” she says. “This relationship with art brings into our house a dialogue from outside fashion, and I think that is very important.”

Prada x James Jean/Olivier Schrauwen belt
Prada x James Jean/Olivier Schrauwen belt

Raf Simons, a designer whose work always strives for intellectual ballast, also uses dialogue with an artist to push a new, reinvigorating narrative at Calvin Klein, where he became creative director in 2016. For his first collection, presented last February, his show notes simply stated: “You are sat in an artwork by Sterling Ruby.” Simons, a keen art collector and a regular at Frieze, has a longstanding working relationship with Ruby, the American artist known for his epic graffiti-inspired spray paintings and polyurethane sculptures, and had commissioned him to create a trilogy of installations within which to showcase the Calvin Klein collections.

Ruby had no direct involvement with the clothing itself, however, but this season, Simons introduced an art element that did link to the collection: a clothing collaboration with The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Warhol’s work, including portraits of movie star Dennis Hopper and art collector Sandra Brant, as well as macabre prints such as Little Electric Chair and 5 Deaths, appear on pieces such as denim jackets (£555), tops (£165) and classic straight-cut jeans (£420). “It’s about American beauty and American horror,” says Simons. “Fashion tries to hide the horror and embrace only beauty. But they are both part of life.” Ruby’s second installation, created for the catwalk show, also echoed the theme; axes were suspended from cheerleader’s pom-poms while jack-o’-lanterns became patchwork national flags.

Stella McCartney crepe de Chine shirt, £535, featuring the work of Pater Sato
Stella McCartney crepe de Chine shirt, £535, featuring the work of Pater Sato

Like Simons and Prada, Grace Wales Bonner, who launched her label in 2014 and is one of menswear’s brightest new stars, imbues her work with a cross‑section of cultural references. This season, she spoke of how the author James Baldwin’s themes of sexuality had influenced her thinking, while imagery by Ofili (£445) and homoerotic photographs by Carl Van Vechten appeared on shirts (£480). These pieces underline the designer’s interest in black masculinity, which has informed her collections since day one.

And as with Simons and Prada, the notion of collaboration for Wales Bonner extends beyond the clothing itself. To tell the story of her label, she commissioned Turner Prize nominee Lynette Yiadom‑Boakye to write a poem for her autumn/winter 2017 collection. ‘”I’m a huge fan of her as a designer, but also more widely as a thinker, a visionary and an artist,” said Yiadom-Boakye. “She has given us something we’re not used to seeing – a complete reimagining of masculinity, femininity and blackness that is at no point reductive, easy, stereotypical or clichéd.”

From left: Stella McCartney wool twill coat, £1,480, and cotton shirt, £380, both featuring the work of Pater Sato
From left: Stella McCartney wool twill coat, £1,480, and cotton shirt, £380, both featuring the work of Pater Sato

Meanwhile, at Fendi, Silvia Venturini Fendi commissioned Sue Tilley to create imagery of everyday objects – such as a desk lamp (£770), a corkscrew, bananas and an old‑fashioned telephone – to show that you can “bring fantasy and creativity into any aspect of life”, she says. British born Tilley, who was famously painted by Lucian Freud, recalls how the collaboration came about: “Fendi stylist Julian Ganio came to one of my shows and loved what I had done, so he showed my drawings to Silvia and they sat very well with her ideas for spring menswear, which involved combining the extraordinary with the ordinary.”

Fendi explains that she was inspired by the idea of looking at the big changes happening within the corporate world. “Everybody talks about technology and androids replacing humans. But creativity, fantasy, vision and dreams cannot be substituted – they are something connected to human beings,” she says. The appeal of Tilley’s hand-drawn illustrations is that while they are often mundane – she has previously sketched a bottle of Dove body wash – they are also quirky, human and real. On the runway, these images brought a new lightness and joy into the world of Fendi: a leather blouson jacket (£1,745) featured a jolly corkscrew where a breast pocket might ordinarily have been, leather tote bags (from £1,180) were decorated with the likes of banana skins, while silk shirting ( from £665) was printed with decorative images of cups of tea and vases of roses.

Fendi x Sue Tilley leather tote bag, £1,180
Fendi x Sue Tilley leather tote bag, £1,180

A similar sense of playfulness and childlike charm can also be seen in the collaboration between Marni and Venezuelan ceramicist Magdalena Suarez Frimkess. During the label’s latest show, a crudely drawn, somewhat startled-looking ginger cat featured on the bib-like panel of a vest (from £290) as well as in monochrome across a boxy cotton short-sleeve shirt (from £480) alongside an illustration on a hanging panel at the bottom of the shirt of a woman riding a bicycle. These wonderfully bohemian-style pieces (£270) formed part of the closing looks of the catwalk show and perfectly summed up the collection’s theme of “Lost and Found” – appearing, as they do, rather like ragged heirlooms discovered in a relative’s treasure chest.

Much like McCartney, Marni creative director Francesco Risso believes that an open dialogue between fashion designers and creatives outside the industry is paramount to both his own work and the heritage of Marni. “It’s fascinating how people outside the brand perceive it, what they can bring to it, or what we can learn from each other,” he says.

From left: Fendi x Sue Tilley cotton hooded top, £770. Fendi x Sue Tilley silk shirt, £665, and leather tote, from £1,180. Wales Bonner linen shirt featuring the work of Chris Ofili, £445. Marni x Magdalena Suarez Frimkess cotton shirt, £270
From left: Fendi x Sue Tilley cotton hooded top, £770. Fendi x Sue Tilley silk shirt, £665, and leather tote, from £1,180. Wales Bonner linen shirt featuring the work of Chris Ofili, £445. Marni x Magdalena Suarez Frimkess cotton shirt, £270 | Image: Thomas Giddings

Such collaborations between designers and artists can, argues Dan Fox, co-editor of Frieze magazine, easily be seen from a cynical perspective: that the aura of intellectualism and cool that the art world evokes is something that fashion wants to buy into. “But being a bit more generous, perhaps there’s a greater understanding now of the value of cross-disciplinary conversations,” he says.

Or, just maybe, the union is inspired by the way men themselves want to dress, as McCartney believes: “More and more, men want to look individual in a way that tells people how they feel, who they are – and what they believe in.”

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