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Why Are There So Many Basquiat Fashion Collaborations?

The late painter, whose work appeared in Tiffany’s latest advertising campaign, is a fashion favourite. It’s no accident: firms like Artestar broker deals between fashion brands and artists or their estates. But keeping them fresh is a challenge.
fashion art collaboration basquiat alice + olivia
Alice + Olivia is one among many fashion brands that have licensed artist Jean-Michel Basquiat's work for products. Getty Images.

At this past weekend’s Frieze Art Fair in London, collectors were on the hunt for the next art world sensation. It’s likely plenty of fashion dealmakers were, too.

Brands see contemporary art as a way not only to draft off a globally recognised artist’s popularity but also to signal their shared values to consumers – a Robert Mapplethorpe print might suggest sex-positivity, while Banksy on a T-shirt could reveal its wearer to be a capitalist critic.

It’s a strategy adopted by labels high and low. Uniqlo has released products featuring the works of Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. Fendi recently tapped Sarah Coleman to create a retro-themed, logo-stamped capsule collection. Dior’s Kim Jones worked with Kenny Scharf to create a range of psychedelic sweaters (the artist’s work has also appeared on more affordable offerings from Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters, among other places). Matthew Williams brought in Josh Smith to lend Baja flair to Givenchy’s Spring/Summer 2022 collection.

While some designers seek out new or obscure artists, the fashion industry can have a herd mentality when it comes to art appreciation. Basquiat, the New York-based street artist who died in 1988, is the current favourite, having been featured recently everywhere from Coach handbags to Tiffany’s new campaign. Since the beginning of 2021, there have been 89 percent more fashion products with Basquiat in the product description compared to the same period in 2019, according to retail intelligence platform Edited.

And behind most trending artists are marketing and licensing firms, which sell brands the rights to use an artist’s work or likeness. The most influential is Artestar, which works with living and late artists and has placed Basquiat, Haring, Scharf, Mapplethorpe, Gary Baseman and other artists with brands like Saint Laurent, Converse, Lanvin, Reebok and Dior. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts acts as the steward for the late artist’s estate. Meanwhile, talent agencies like United Talent Agents represent many living artists.

For brands, the collections are a win-win: they’re easily marketable with a built-in community. At its core, an artist capsule collection is a way for brands to absorb the “cultural capital” of the world’s most famous artists, said Interbrand global chief learning and culture officer Rebecca Robins and reach new audiences in the process.

There has been consumer fatigue with the sheer amount of collaborations over the past few years.

Gen Z, in particular, “are restating a new connoisseurship, where the currency of knowledge holds greater value,” Robins said. A screen-printed Dalí t-shirt suggests a penchant for the surreal; a Warhol and Marsha P. Johnson dress signals allyship to LGBTQ rights.

The most successful fashion-artist collaborations can achieve cult status. Vintage Louis Vuitton Takashi Murakami bags, which were first released as part of the Spring/Summer 2003 collection under then-creative director Marc Jacobs, still command multiples over their original retail price on resale platforms.

But as more brands have inked their own artist deals, the market for t-shirts printed with Basquiat’s neo-expressionist works or hoodies featuring Haring’s pop-art prints may be nearing saturation.

“Brands need to ensure that the collaborations with artists feel authentic to the brand and in line with the brand essence, just as they would with any other marketing activation,” said Arifa Sheikh, partner at Kantar’s consulting division. “And that it doesn’t feel like it’s a logo and a pretty image slapped together.”

Not Just ‘A Pretty Image On A Shirt’

A major mistake brands can make in pursuing a collaboration with an artist is to think that they can just slap an artist’s imagery on a product and it will sell. Instead, brands need to reimagine an artist’s work within the parameters of the collaboration and consider how it works with a brand’s overall offerings.

“If we just look at assets and intellectual property to be exploited on clothing, that is not something that we’ve seen a lot of success with,” said Michael Hermann, director of licensing, marketing and sales for The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Hermann said that despite an increase in requests to adapt Warhol’s works or likeness for collaborations, the foundation only accepts a limited number of partnerships each year. According to Edited, 64 percent fewer Andy Warhol fashion products were available for purchase in 2021 compared to 2019.

To be considered, brands must showcase an intention to push the art forward, not just repackage it. Hermann noted partnerships like one with designer Carolina Sarria — notable in that an independent designer made use of an oft-overlooked Warhol portrait of transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson — help subvert the idea of what a Warhol-themed collection can do. Items from Sarria’s Warhol collection, stocked at Dover Street Market, have sold out.

“If an idea isn’t articulated throughout every consideration, from the design to the marketing to the communication to the branding, then it won’t be as successful and it might just look like a pretty image on a shirt,” he said.

Failure to thoughtfully consider an artist’s work or legacy can backfire.

Saint Laurent contracted with Artestar to display Basquiat works in its stores in addition to releasing a capsule collection, which included adapting the artist’s paintings to $6,100 skimboards and $95 iPhone cases. The connection between the French luxury brand and the American artist was not immediately apparent to all. Artestar declined to speak for this story; Saint Laurent did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Some also questioned the inclusion of a Basquiat painting as the backdrop for Tiffany’s campaign featuring Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Tiffany chief executive Alexandre Arnault told Women’s Wear Daily that Basquiat must have been paying homage to the luxury jewellery brand in his painting “Equals Pi,” which shares a similar hue to the signature Tiffany blue (Tiffany declined to comment).

Not everyone was convinced by this explanation.

“The idea that this blue background, which I mixed and applied was in any way related to Tiffany Blue is so absurd that at first I chose not to comment,” Stephen Torton, Basquiat’s former assistant, said in an Instagram post. “But this very perverse appropriation of the artist’s inspiration is too much ... That [brands] speculate and monetize, commercialize and manipulate every manifestation of this rebellious genius is not to my taste but that is the game.”

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