Cars enter the fashion world

With the Formula One season getting under way in Australia this weekend, the focus has been on the cars and race times, not on what the drivers are wearing. And yet, on catwalks and in car showrooms, the intersection between the worlds of cars and fashion is becoming increasingly apparent.

Carmaker Mercedes-Benz, for example, has sponsored many fashion weeks around the world; fashion label Carven’s recent Paris show included broken-down cars jammed into the walls, headlights illuminating the catwalk; Mini has collaborated with Puma (Mini by Puma) to offer clothes, shoes and accessories; and Porsche Design’s autumn/winter 2013 collection at New York Fashion Week marked the first time a car company has made a serious stab at creating a fashion empire.

Fern Mallis, a former IMG executive who created New York Fashion Week with help and sponsorship from carmaker General Motors, says: “I think that everyone who cares about design cares about all of the things around them: what looks the best and says the most about them, which includes cars. Cars and clothes speak to people’s subconscious and conscious levels. This trend has gone beyond the requisite baseball cap and leather jacket with the company logo on.”

Indeed, Porsche Design, a spin-off launched by Ferdinand Alexander Porsche in 1972, is repositioning itself as a luxury brand for fashion and accessories. In September, it is launching a full lifestyle collection, including menswear and womenswear, shoes and accessories. In 2011, it hired Thomas Steinbrueck, who worked with fashion designer Elie Saab, as creative director and to design the collection, which will adhere to the Porsche mantra of form follows function.

Carven designer Guillaume Henry takes a bow on his car-strewn catwalk

“When Ferdinand Alexander Porsche designed the [Porsche] 911, he wanted minimal design with maximum performance and the idea continued with Porsche Design,” Steinbrueck says. “We are creating a brand that reflects the company’s heritage.”

Steinbrueck’s collection, shown in February, features pieces such as a black women’s wrap jacket ($1,290), a Porsche Design belt ($495) and a black pencil skirt with RawTec material mix ($1,150).

The car/fashion flow works both ways too. New York-based menswear designer John Varvatos recently consulted on the design of the Chrysler 300C John Varvatos Limited Edition, which will be presented at the New York International Auto Show this month, while former DKNY designer Anthony Prozzi now works at Ford as a senior interior designer, bringing his fashion background to bear.

“Fashion designers have an extraordinary ability to know what you will want even before you know you want it,” says Prozzi. “And car design is no different. When you really break it down, when all the technologies and textiles are the same, it is the design and the message it communicates that is the competitive advantage in the market.”

Shoes from Mini by Puma

In putting together the Ford Fusion’s interior, Prozzi says he uses the same “fantasy” that he might in his work as a fashion designer: “The interior story of the Fusion began with two muses – the then style director of Elle magazine, Kate Lanphear, and the hockey player Sean Avery,” he says, pointing to their two very different influences: chic and sporty.

As Fern Mallis says, “People think there is not a lot you can do in the interior of a car but if you get close to a real car buff, they are passionate about the materials. It is like being inside a great handbag.”

Indeed, the luxury fashion houses have long offered custom-made interiors for automobiles, as well as luxury helicopters, aircraft and yachts. Hermès, for example, teamed up with Bugatti in 2009 to create a special version of its Veyron model, and with car company Smart to design 10 cars in different colours upholstered in luxury materials from the brand. Hermès also worked with the Four Seasons George V hotel in Paris to create a hand-built Rolls-Royce Phantom, custom-made to the hotel’s specifications.

Bugatti Veyron with Hermes case

Cars customised by designers have long been a staple of the charity auction organised by General Motors for its cancer research funds campaign Concept Cure. Max Azria, founder of clothing brand BCBG, designed a brushed nickel convertible Chevy Cavalier; Tommy Hilfiger Jeans’ version featured an indigo denim carpet and red leather bucket seats with matching steering-wheel – while Betsey Johnson painted hers hot pink with her signature pin-up girl logo on the hood, and an interior with a pink carpet, green leopard-skin seats, rhinestone dashboard and an instrument panel decorated with faux gemstones.

“The fashion designers would go up to Detroit and meet the car design teams, which was a huge thrill for the team,” says Mallis, who was also involved. “They would see how the design process worked for cars, which was many years in advance of fashion. Often the inspiration for these car designs were textiles and fashion collections.”

Prozzi says: “There is no difference in what consumers demand when it comes to style and design between their choice in clothing and their choice in cars.”

Women’s leather jacket by Porsche Design

Fashion house Courrèges, which began designing electric cars in the 1960s and is being relaunched by new owners Jacques Bungert and Frédéric Torloting, is planning to produce (in partnership with a European carmaker) some of the funky, speedy electric cars designed by André Courrèges’s wife Coqueline that never made it to market.

The vehicles include the bubble-like Bulle, a battery-operated car that can reach 100kph. Then there’s the 17.71, an electric car that can reach 220kph and even comes with a matching outfit, and the Zooop, designed in 2006, which resembles a sliced lemon on wheels. The EXE, from 2004, puts a new spin on having the top down. With a plastic structure atop its lattice frame, the four-seater was designed to look like a jewel box.

Will they sell? “People have told me that they bought a Mercedes based on fashion week,” says Mallis. What more powerful fuel do you need?

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