How winter jumpers became artists’ canvasses

Simon Chilvers on why this season’s woolly sweater is inspired by artworks. Styling by Raphaëlle Helmore. Photography by Gabby Laurent

Raf Simons’s autumn/winter 2019 knitwear featured David Lynch film stills
Raf Simons’s autumn/winter 2019 knitwear featured David Lynch film stills | Image: Gabby Laurent

In my living room hangs a Raf Simons tabard in a black frame. It features one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s most recognisable self‑portraits: naked torso, one arm outstretched, knowing grin. The shot was originally taken in 1975. And the tabard was part of Simons’ spring/summer 2017 collection, which featured numerous other images from Mapplethorpe’s back catalogue. The show was one of the most memorable I’ve been to, in part because it reminded me of the first time I saw the artist’s work at London’s Hayward Gallery in 1996, and also because it epitomised the designer’s habit of injecting his collections with a range of cultural and artistic references. 

From left: Dylan wears Paria Farzaneh mohair jumper, £575. Bali wears Marni wool jumper, £690
From left: Dylan wears Paria Farzaneh mohair jumper, £575. Bali wears Marni wool jumper, £690 | Image: Gabby Laurent
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The best art, like the best fashion, makes me feel delirious. Even more so when the two are intertwined. I still recall the pang of desire I felt as a teenager on seeing David Hockney’s portrait of fashion designer Ossie Clark, from 1970, wearing a fuzzy patterned jumper. I long for the colourful diamond knit worn by Christopher Wood in his 1927 self-portrait, and the pink sweater captured by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye in her glorious Jewel painting of 2012. And there are others by Lucian Freud, Elizabeth Peyton, Alice Neel and, most recently, Andrew Cranston, who I first noted at Frieze in New York in May. 

Self Portrait, 1927, by Christopher Wood, in Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge
Self Portrait, 1927, by Christopher Wood, in Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge
Dylan wears Raf Simons wool jumper, £733
Dylan wears Raf Simons wool jumper, £733 | Image: Gabby Laurent

Cranston, a Scottish painter who trained under Peter Doig, says the inclusion of knitwear in his works, such as Pee from 2018, is “personal, visual and socio-political”. The artist was brought up in the Scottish Borders where, until the late 1980s, at least half the town’s population worked at one of the local mills producing knitwear. “The whole town hissed and fizzed with the sound of the hurtling shuttles of the knitting machines,” he says. When you look at Pee, the first thing you notice is not, perhaps, that it’s a picture of someone urinating, but the fantastic Fair Isle sweater inspired by one Cranston himself owned. “It’s symbolism, it’s opticality, sometimes just an excuse for beauty,” he says of his use of colourful knits. “But who needs an excuse?” 

Fred wears Valentino x Undercover wool knit cardigan, £1,950, and wool knit jumper, £850
Fred wears Valentino x Undercover wool knit cardigan, £1,950, and wool knit jumper, £850 | Image: Gabby Laurent
From left: Brian wears Hermès cashmere high-neck, £1,890; Osquello wears 2 Moncler 1952 wool jumper, £530; Ethan wears Ermenegildo Zegna XXX cashmere jumper, £1,880
From left: Brian wears Hermès cashmere high-neck, £1,890; Osquello wears 2 Moncler 1952 wool jumper, £530; Ethan wears Ermenegildo Zegna XXX cashmere jumper, £1,880 | Image: Gabby Laurent

A long-time fan of knitting, the American artist Sterling Ruby launched a selection of sweaters earlier this year as part of his fashion line S.R. Studio. LA. CA., some of which debuted at the Pitti Uomo menswear fair in Florence. “My sweater obsession must be rooted in the many childhood years I spent around my family while they knitted,” explains the artist. The handmade jumbo knits he showed on the runway were made in California, some using hand-dyed wool. “I have always been intrigued by the meditative, therapy-like sensation that knitting offers and drawn to objects that rely heavily on traditions of craft,” Ruby adds. “From pennant pleating and hurdle stitch to honeycomb cable, I like to feel and see the process and assembly of a garment.” 

Brian wears Prada wool jumper, £2,970
Brian wears Prada wool jumper, £2,970 | Image: Gabby Laurent
Bali wears Marni wool jumper, £690
Bali wears Marni wool jumper, £690 | Image: Gabby Laurent

In fact, this season’s menswear collections are rich in artistic knits – everywhere from Dior to Loewe, Prada to Hermès and Valentino to Marni. Not all of them are collaborations with artists, but all are imbued with an arty quality that will turn heads. At Loewe’s autumn/winter 2019 runway show, the British painter and photographer Keith Vaughan’s work appeared on fantastic oversized sweaters worn over leather fisherman-style trousers. “I’ve always loved his sketches,” says Jonathan Anderson, creative director of Loewe, of Vaughan’s influence: the male figure on the autumn/winter 2019 sweaters was inspired by one of Vaughan’s Wrestler paintings, which was among the first pieces of art Anderson ever bought. “The period of time in which he worked was very interesting. He was gay and had a lot of issues with that. I thought it would be nice to feature the work on sweaters because I feel there is something poetic about it; something a bit Camden with a sense of British subculture and punk.” 

From left: Brian wears Loewe wool Portrait Henley jumper, £895; Ethan wears Prada wool jumper (just seen), £2,595
From left: Brian wears Loewe wool Portrait Henley jumper, £895; Ethan wears Prada wool jumper (just seen), £2,595 | Image: Gabby Laurent
From left: Ethan wears Prada wool jumper, £2,595; Dylan wears Dior x Raymond Pettibon cashmere jumper, £7,800
From left: Ethan wears Prada wool jumper, £2,595; Dylan wears Dior x Raymond Pettibon cashmere jumper, £7,800 | Image: Gabby Laurent

At Dior, designer Kim Jones included knits emblazoned with the work of American artist Raymond Pettibon. “There’s such beauty in Raymond’s work and the romantic aspect applies perfectly to what we were doing this season,” explains Jones. “We pulled out subjects like the Mona Lisa-style drawing, which is a great piece, then worked in beads and printed it on various fabrics and knitted pieces.” One of the cashmere sweaters in the show – which featured Pettibon’s No Title (She Must Know…) from 2010 – took more than 20 hours to knit by hand and features 16 colours of thread. “We also used some of Raymond’s work that had never been seen before and commissioned him to do some more nature-inspired works for us, including the leopard print,” says Jones. 

From left: Dylan wears Dior x Raymond Pettibon cashmere jumper, £7,800; Fred wears Dior x Raymond Pettibon cashmere jumper, £8,300
From left: Dylan wears Dior x Raymond Pettibon cashmere jumper, £7,800; Fred wears Dior x Raymond Pettibon cashmere jumper, £8,300 | Image: Gabby Laurent
From left: Osquello wears Prada wool jumper, £2,970; Ethan wears Prada wool jumper (just seen), £2,595; Brian wears Loewe wool Portrait Henley jumper, £895
From left: Osquello wears Prada wool jumper, £2,970; Ethan wears Prada wool jumper (just seen), £2,595; Brian wears Loewe wool Portrait Henley jumper, £895 | Image: Gabby Laurent

And there were more. Miuccia Prada cited Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as her cultural touchpoint at Prada and showed splashy V-necks in contrast colours and lightning-bolt intarsia sweaters, while at Valentino contemporary art knits inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, time travel and images of Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange were delivered in collaboration with cult Japanese brand Undercover. 

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“This season’s collection was imagined around the theme of curves meeting straight lines,” says Véronique Nichanian about her current menswear collection for Hermès, which also features a series of illustrated sweaters. Nichanian’s twist on the knitwear trend recalled Sol LeWitt’s cube sculptures and Bridget Riley’s waves.

Which takes us back to Raf Simons. For autumn/winter 2019, the designer’s knitwear featured David Lynch film stills patched onto the shoulders. For spring/summer 2020, he has developed a limited run of tops that have been handpainted and finished by Simons himself. I’m already working out where to hang one.

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