When artists meet designers

When Zac Posen was asked why New York artist Rosson Crow was interested in collaborating on his recent spring/summer 2010 collection, the designer observed: “Throughout history fine artists have been funded by the greatest luxury brand of them all: Christianity.” Why, he asked, in today’s more secular climate, should anyone be surprised they have simply moved on from a religious brand to fashion brands?

It’s a question that is especially relevant as more artists team up with designers. Take “The Simple Things” (right) in the Tate Modern’s “Pop Life: Art in a Material World” exhibition opening on October 1. It is the result of a collaboration between the luxury watch and jewellery house Jacob & Co, musician and fashion designer Pharrell Williams, and the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. Williams’ seven favourite objects are cast in gold and laced with precious jewels by Jacob & Co and placed inside a Murakami sculpture. The piece recently sold to a private collector for more than $2m, proof that the fusion of art and fashion is not only culturally noteworthy but highly profitable too.

In the past the two worlds have flirted with each other – most famously in the case of Elsa Schiaparelli and the Surrealists – but since Murakami collaborated on a series of Louis Vuitton handbags and accessories in 2003, the relationship has become increasingly public, and productive.

Miuccia Prada’s work with the Fondazione Prada, for example, has seen her inextricably linked with the artists Carsten Höller and Francesco Vezzoli and the architect Rem Koolhaas. Vuitton worked with Richard Prince in the wake of Murakami, as well as the estate of Stephen Sprouse. Paul Smith has recently collaborated with the 84-year-old painter Craigie Aitchison, incorporating images of Aitchison’s beloved Bedlington terriers and tugboats onto ties and cufflinks. And British designer Richard Nicoll showed an autumn/winter 2009 collection of dresses with prints taken from the work of the punk artist Linder Sterling, previously best known for her cover art for The Buzzcocks and a friendship with Morrissey.

“The art world owes a lot to fashion,” says Posen. “Today, they have a schedule for selling, for example. Strategically, they have adopted some of the same approaches.”

“In other cultures, at other times,” says Sterling, “no one batted an eyelid if an artist designed a backdrop for a ballet, then a tea service. The more I travel through the worlds of fashion, art and music today, however, it seems that these planets stay firmly sealed off in their own force field.” It was the artist’s desire to break down some of these received hierarchies that led to her work with Nicoll.

“Warhol and Picasso designed wine labels,” says Paul Smith. “There is a different approach from the art world in the wake of the White Cube artists than perhaps there once was. My wife knew Craigie through her time at The Slade College of Art. In many ways, I’m much more connected to the worlds of music, art, architecture and design than fashion. If you asked Richard Prince about his collaboration with Louis Vuitton, it would be high concept. If you ask Craigie about this collaboration, he’d say, ‘I like Paul.’ He’s a sweet and light-hearted man. We’re a down-to-earth company and I’m a down-to-earth man.”

“I like Paul,” confirms Aitchison, “and I was really impressed when he asked me about this because I’d always thought I’d like to be a fashion designer. But I could never do the 3-D drawings.”

What no one involved foresaw, however, was the way in which the meeting of art and fashion would surpass mutual back-scratching to yield solid commercial results.

Paul Smith says: “Our business, year on year, is level. The average time someone spends in a shop is close to 10 minutes. In ours, it’s more like an hour. At our shop in Heathrow Terminal 5 people have been known to miss flights because of the browsing. Craigie is part of the sense of curiosity we have as a company.”

For Richard Nicoll, his collaboration with a wildly un-commercial artist has paid the richest dividends of his career. “That collection is our biggest-selling by far,” he says. “Sienna Miller wore a piece for the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show and the G.I. Joe premiere. Lady Gaga has worn a piece from it on stage. Linder finds it all really funny.”

They’re both laughing all the way to the bank.

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