The Genteel
March 5, 2021


Rodarte SS 2012 (Source: Women's Wear Daily).

The Rodarte S/S 2012 collection immediately reminded me of the artist I first studied in my modern art classes when I took up the subject six years ago. He was the famous artist who sold only one piece in his lifetime, but whose seven (out of more than 2,000 that he produced) works have sold for $670 million posthumously. It was Vincent van Gogh that influenced the Mulleavy sisters to produce an eccentric set of elaborate gowns, silk floral prints, lush golden sunflowers, night sky swirls and sensual greens.

Although van Gogh suffered from mental illnesses, misfortunes and a lack of recognition for his work during his lifetime, he has been highly celebrated since his death. His signature style involved broad, gestural brushstrokes, pulsating colors and vibrant landscapes. Self-taught and not a proponent of formal art education, van Gogh produced a unique body of work that gave birth to Expressionism and expressionist painters in Europe and the United States. Despite his self-inflicted pain, alcoholism and loneliness, his work exuded a sincere optimism and hope for better days rivaled by only a few artists. It is that feeling which is elevated in the Mulleavy sisters' S/S 2012 collection, and it is the feeling with which we often like to unveil spring, perhaps dreamily dressed in fantastic ultramarine frocks.

* * *

Rewind to the beginning of this millennium when the Louis Vuitton monogram received a makeover in 33 clashing colours against a white or black background. This was the beginning of the grand collaboration between Marc Jacobs and Takashi Murakami. A brand that was formerly known and admired for its luggage products set in gold and brown received a truly contemporary facelift that propelled it to the most sought after luxury label in the world. "When I first saw Takashi Murakami's work," said Jacobs, "I smiled and wondered, 'Where did this explosion come from? Who was responsible for this collision of psychedelia, manga and, well, art?' Then I thought, 'I would love it if the mind that imagined this dizzying world of jellyfish eyes, singing moss, magic mushrooms and morphing creatures would be willing to have a go at the iconic Louis Vuitton monogram.'" Thus began an exciting collaboration that continues to this day.

When the sack dress started evolving into the shift dress in the 1960's, YSL realized that it became the perfect plane for bold color blocks.

Murakami, 49, was born and raised in Tokyo. He attended Tokyo University of the Arts in hopes of becoming an animator since he was an enthusiastic follower of anime and manga, but instead majored in Nihonga, a "traditional" Japanese painting style. Having obtained his Ph.D., he became disillusioned by the highly political field and turned to contemporary styles and media. This led to further frustrations as the post-war Japanese art market wasn't reliable nor established enough for his ventures. Murakami then strategized to create something uniquely Japanese that might pick up in the Western world, after which it could gain interest in Japan. He developed a "Superflat" theory which explored the Japanese heritage of flat two-dimensional imagery that permeated through Japanese art history and continues today in manga and anime. His theory is also a commentary on post-war Japanese society in which, Murakami claims, social tastes and class differences flattened, resulting in a culture with little distinctions between "high" culture and "low" culture. 

In his practice, the artist bundles a set of "low" or subcultural elements and presents them in the art market, which is considered "high-art" and even pompous by some. He flattens these elements even further by repackaging his artworks as merchandise (plush toys, t-shirts) and pricing them more affordably. In 2001, he incorporated his workshop, Hiropon Factory, into Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. where he employs roughly 70 people to produce his works. A year later, Jacobs emailed Murakami to see if he wanted to re-envision the LV monogram. Murakami took the opportunity to not only flatten the monogram to a resounding success, but also to later incorporate the imagery from this collaboration into his sculpture and paintings, further blurring the line between commercial branding and art.

Takashi Murakami for Louis Vuitton
(Source: Spread Of).

* * *

Strutting over to the more eccentric side, let us take a look at the influence of optical art on Emilio Pucci. Pucci was one of the most influential designers of the 1960's, on par with Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent and André Courrèges. Pucci was best known for the psychedelic prints, silk jerseys, skiwear, casual shoes and slacks that were just perfect for the jet-setting crowd. Not to mention, his aristocratic heritage (Pucci claimed to be the first person in his family to work in 1,000 years). His psychedelic prints, however, were actually influenced by the then-popular optical artists, such as Bridget Riley.

Bridget Riley was born in London in 1931. She studied art and taught it in her younger years, and beginning in her 30s, started to develop her signature Op Art style. This optic art, which was derived from the constructivist practices of the Bauhaus, consisted of black and white geometric patterns that, through their juxtaposition, appear to create movement, swelling, flashing and vibration on the canvas. While Riley created works mostly in black and white, Pucci decided to add colour to excite the eyes of the beholder.

It is also fair to say that Pucci was aware of and inspired by the pop art movement of the day as his colors bursted on fabric like never before. "Gaiety is one of the most important elements I have brought to fashion," he said in 1964. "I brought it about through color. Just as a tune can be pleasing to the ear but doesn't form music, so colors-in-contrast can be used to form a pattern which expresses to the eye very much what music expresses to the ear." Although Pucci, known for drawing all of his patterns by hand, passed away in 1992, Christian Lacroix, who served as a creative director from 2002 to 2005, created his last and lasting ode to Emilio Pucci (complete with swirling Op Art formations, Pucci Vivara palette, and the spirit of easy summer elegance) in the spring 2006 ready-to-wear collection.

Emilio Pucci at work (Source: Life in Italy).

* * *
One of the most famous, if not the most famous, collections inspired by art is that of Yves Saint Laurent from Fall/Winter 1965. Saint Laurent transformed Piet Mondrian's grid with primary colors into a dress that eventually made its way into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. When the sack dress started evolving into the shift dress in the 1960's, YSL realized that it became the perfect plane for bold colour blocks, which he no doubt had seen in modern art before, and he immortalized Mondrian and himself as the art-sensible and finely attuned designer. The collection proved so popular that it inspired a range of imitations that encompassed garments from coats to boots. Not to mention chairs that look like bright-colored and distant relatives of the Muskoka chair, and even Nike Dunk Low shoes with the familiar red, blue, yellow on white, adorned with thick black lines.

YSL "Mondrian" day dress,
Fall/Winter 1965 (Source: The
Metropolitan Museum of Art).

While Mondrian dabbled in impressionistic and naturalistic work in his youth, he is most known for his contributions to the De Stijl (Dutch for "the style") art movement. Also known as neo-plasticism, it was founded on the ideals of harmony and color in the Netherlands in the early 1900's. De Stijl proponents such as Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg simplified visual representations by reducing them to vertical and horizontal lines used with red, yellow and blue colours, along with black and white. Each of the colours, including white, were painted with careful brushstrokes, in multiple layers and with a dedication that sometimes led to blistering hands.

Unfortunately, by the time Mondrian's work was reinterpreted to appear on a human body in the 60's, the Dutchman passed away. However, his legacy lives on and not just in red-white-blue-on-white Vans or Ruthie Davies Graffiti Pumps in Mondrian, but in architecture, design and other forms of modern and contemporary art.



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