Portrait of the Artist as a Fashion Designer
Using everything from graffiti to blood, New York artists are collaborating with fashion houses and designers to make clothing that’s wearable and collectible.
Artists have profitably and pleasurably collaborated with fashion designers for decades: Dalí worked with Elsa Schiaparelli, as did Warhol with Yves St. Laurent. Today numerous A-list art stars work with Louis Vuitton and Vanessa Beecroft and Helmut Lang, Mondrian and YSL, Gavin Turk and Hussein Chalayan.
Even emerging artists are now busily joining forces with the fashion world, not merely to explore new areas of creativity but also to give themselves a little more leverage and visibility in the digital age.
Instagram and other visual apps have kindled a keen appetite for art in a new generation of collectors, who have gotten hooked by buying affordable, accessible, and wearable art.
The six artists profiled below all approach menswear with entirely different methods, but each has lovingly translated his vision from canvas to garment.
Scooter LaForge, 45, TriBeCa, Manhattan
Scooter is wearing Walter Van Beirendonck customized wool blazer, Prada cotton shirt and Prada cotton pants.
Scooter LaForge already had a successful career as a prolific painter in 2011 when he began making his mixed-media paintings directly on simple T-shirts that were originally sold at the hot (and now defunct) shop of Patricia Field.
With no formal fashion training, LaForge works instinctively, painting clowns, flowers, monsters, portraits, superheroes, and animals on an array of fabrics.
Last year Beyoncé wore one of LaForge’s hand-painted army trench coats to the NBA All-Star game, and soon thereafter he began customizing clothes for the singer's daughter Blue Ivy. He’s collaborated with Belgian fashion designer Walter Van Bierendonck, Doc Martens and Eastpak backpacks. LaForge’s painted fashions also have wound up in gallery exhibitions and led to further collaborations with fellow artists, like Bjarne Melgaard’s Light Bulb Man sculpture.
LaForge believes creating wearable art pieces is his way of becoming part of art history. “I think the blurring of fashion and art will follow the path of history, in the tradition of collaborations like YSL and Mondrian, Schiaparelli and Dalí, and Raf Simons and Sterling Ruby. I consider the garments to be fine art and often get asked by curators to place them in shows. I am a lucky guy for people to collect my work on all fronts.”
Jon Burgerman, 36, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn
Jon Burgerman is no stranger to breaking with tradition. Products, both mass-produced and hand-made, have been part of his loose doodle-style repertoire for years, helping to build his fan base around the world. The strong graphic nature of his work makes it easy to translate to dress, which has inspired the artist to create a collection of kids clothes with Print All Over Me, an upholstery fabric venture with Kirkby, and other projects in conjunction with brands like Nike, Puma, RipCurl, New Era, and Diesel. In addition, he has also produced special, hand-made projects in concert with small designers, including sequined cashmere cardigans and huge embroidered scarves bearing his loopy, messy, smile-inducing characters.
“Seeing someone wear a piece of my clothing is in some ways better than having a collector buy a painting,” Burgerman says. “They are really representing you by going out and wearing your work. It becomes part of them—their second skin. With art, you sometimes suspect people are acquiring it to sell on at a later date. With a jacket or pair of sneakers, if they wear them then we’re intimately collaborating. The piece isn’t complete until it’s being worn, and it feels very special.”
Eric Helvie, 32, East Village, Manhattan
Eric Helvie is wearing Hermes reversible print jacket, Eric Helvie customized t-shirt, Hermes cotton pants, and Birkenstock leather sandals.
Eric Helvie entered the realm of wearable fashions as a necessity: Not long after moving to New York City in 2010, he began screen printing his work onto T-shirts as a way to pay his rent. He thereafter focused on making paintings, but the attraction to fashion came back when he began using Snuggies—the kitschy oversized robes made famous by infomercials—stretched on wooden frames as his canvases, their massive sleeves drooping across the picture plane. The artist’s wife now hand makes his Snuggies, embroidering an edition number on the sleeve. Helvie prints limited runs of his most iconic imagery, like his Cyclops or battleships, onto the pieces that can then be worn as drapey robes, or hung on the wall with grommets.
“Creating fashion objects has helped me to clearly understand objects as vehicles for desire,” Helvie says. “No matter how challenging a work of art is, it still needs to possess some kind of redeeming quality. There has to be an aura of accessibility.”
LILKOOL, 31, Gowanus, Brooklyn
LILKOOL is wearing his own suede vest (Margiela Colab), A.P.C. sky blue cotton long-sleeved t-shirt, Calvin Klein collection jeans, and a Gypsy Sport cap.
LILKOOL, aka Josh Maupin, began as a graffiti artist, where he developed his soft, cartoony style with bold lines. It also encouraged him to paint on any material he could get his hands on. This led to a 2014 collaboration with the Hong Kong based brand Joyce, for whom he hand painted 120 pieces of clothing—they sold out almost immediately. He has since decided to collaborate with a fashion designer at least once a year. For LILKOOL, creating art for clothing means trading his emotional process in painting for a more technical consideration of the structure and function of the garment. The fabric’s folds and movement inspire the placement of his favored thick lines that develop into characters and shapes, adding a new layer of inspiration to his work.
“Working with clothing has been a great way to gain some positive exposure into markets otherwise foreign to just producing paintings,” he says. “It has allowed me to be more versatile and given me the opportunity to create wearable art.”
Jordan Eagles, 39, Ridgewood, Queens
Jordan Eagles is wearing Skingraft leather jacket, cotton tank top by Calvin Klein Underwear, and cotton twill denim by Levis.
Jordan Eagles works in blood. And if, upon hearing that, your first thought tends toward the Goth, know this: Eagles makes it glamorous. Blood, both from slaughterhouses and donated from human collaborators, is the medium of choice for this artist, who uses a preservation technique to show the beauty of the organic material’s natural colors, patterns, and textures. The luminous red hues and delicate crackle patterns takes on a jeweled decadence when printed on clothing, as seen in the 2015 SKINGRAFT x JORDAN EAGLES capsule collection, in which Eagles collaborated with designer Jonny Cota. Working in fashion also inspired a new facet to Eagles’s oeuvre, expanding his medium to include fabric in his fine art.
“One of the wonderful results about the collaboration with Jonny on the fashion line is that it then evolved into us collaborating on a work for the Blood Mirror project as well—a work called Blood Flag,” says Eagles. “The print on Blood Flag comes from this microscopic image taken of the combined red blood cells of the first nine blood donors in the project. I soaked a single thread in the blood of the nine men, which Jonny then sewed by hand into Blood Flag. This works pay homage to the patriotism associated with blood donation and references scientific advances in the ability to screen blood.”
David Foote, 35, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
David Foote is wearing a Gucci silk jacket, David Foote customized t-shirt, Gucci wool pants, and Gucci leather slip-ons.
David Foote began as a fashion illustrator. That led him to fine art, and now fine art has led him back again. Foote has always applied the fashion process to his paintings; creating a body of work with a certain theme or feeling—in the same vein as a collection. His series of live paintings called Peace Line, in which he painted canvases suspended from clothes lines, spurred many collectors to suggest putting elements of these paintings onto wearable pieces. Foote chose appropriate pieces from these paintings for hoodies, T-shirts, and totes, finding it incredibly surreal to see his paintings come to life in three dimensional pieces.
“I think that old notion of translating a painting into clothing or products is ‘cheapening’ artwork is an archaic one that no longer applies to the times we live in,” Foote says. “That would be like frowning at Picasso for wanting to do sculptures instead of paintings. Our job as creators is to look to the future, transforming your artwork into another medium is just an evolution of an image and whether you want to pull a Warhol and repeat it 50 times or hand paint a shirt as one of one, it is still bringing a vision to life, which is what I think we are here to do as artists, creators, and visionaries.”
Special thanks to NATALIE KATES of Style Curator.
—Styled by Wendell Brown