In our July 1988 issue, Amy Fine Collins dissected spring and summer collections by Yves Saint Laurent and Bill Blass, whose embroidered creations reproduced paintings by van Gogh and Matisse. In light of “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology,” now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we took a look back at her article, “Sequined Simulacra,” where she examines this art/fashion symbiosis. —Eds.
Art and fashion have always fed on each other. Not only have artists from Pisanello to Picasso designed clothing, but dressmakers from Rose Bertin to Jean Patou have turned to historical or contemporary painting for inspiration. This year, two designers—Yves Saint Laurent and Bill Blass—took the art/fashion symbiosis to new extremes. Both couturiers included in their spring and summer 1988 collections evening wear beaded with facsimiles of well-known 20th-century pictures. Blass had his jackets, tops and skirts embroidered with replicas of some of the 1920s Matisse paintings exhibited last year at Washington’s National Gallery. Saint Laurent produced two jackets embellished with van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Irises of recent auction notoriety, and capes, suits and dresses adorned with less sensational motifs taken from Braque’s works of the ’40s and ’50s. Lesage, the venerable Parisian embroidery house, whose clients have included most major couturiers of the last two centuries, executed the elaborate, labor-intensive and ultra-costly needlework for Saint Laurent. Blass’s less technically perfect beading was done in India at considerably less expense.
Art and fashion, in the 1980s, are more than ever about big money. The two commodities compete with each other for status. Art has no practical value, but can appreciate, while clothing is functional but largely devoid of any real investment potential (the most paid at auction was £3,500 for a dress worn by Marilyn Monroe). Chanel once wittily juxtaposed fashion’s instant allure with art’s durability, saying, “Couture creates beautiful things that become ugly, while art creates ugly things that become beautiful.” 1 Blass, who asserts that his Matisse outfits are “investment pieces—just as a painting would be,” 2 would like us to believe otherwise.
These days, art and fashion are among the conspicuous consumer’s most avidly pro-cured trophies. And what article of clothing could broadcast money more boisterously than a glittering Saint Laurent jacket modeled after one of the world’s two most expensive paintings? For the wearer, the cachet of the Irises and Sunflowers jackets comes first from the designer’s name; second, from the high-class craftsmanship of the tailoring and sumptuous embroidery; third, from the buyer’s presumed knowledge of art (the minimum necessary to pass as cultured 3 ); and finally, from the reflected golden glory of cash. For these garments come with price tags as impressive, in their way, as those attached to the van Gogh paintings—$85,000.
Mind-boggling as this price may seem, the cost is not purely arbitrary. The expense of Saint Laurent’s tongue-in-cheek celebrations of luxe, art and beauty breaks down as follows: Lesage embroidered the sunflower jacket with 255,000 dazzling sequins and 46 feet of matching green and yellow silk ribbon. However, the production cost ($26,000) is due not to materials, but almost entirely to labor—600 hours of it (part of it in sampling). Lesage billed Saint Laurent for the finished work, and the designer’s markup was roughly 300 percent. (All of these prices when translated into dollars are inflated by the unfavorable exchange rate.) François Lesage has said he pays 150 francs (about $30) an hour to his seamstresses, and he, too, charges triple his cost. His 90 highly skilled laborers (known as the “little hands”—an anatomical necessity for this kind of work) are thus paid reasonably well, and the House of Saint Laurent is reputed to pay the highest hourly rate in the industry. 4 No one, then, is really being exploited, but huge profits are being made. Sending his creations to India for beading kept the cost of Blass’s Matisse tops and skirts down to a mere $5,000 to $7,000 (no figures for labor are available). And since Blass’s clothes are ready-to-wear, they never, with or without embroidery, soar to the stratospheric price points of made-to-measure couture.
Interestingly, the prices of Saint Laurent’s and Blass’s chic salutes to wealth and privilege actually reflect the market value of the paintings reproduced. The Sunflowers and Irises, as the world well knows, went in March and November of 1987 for ca. $40 and $54 million respectively. But according to Christie’s, the auction record for Matisse, set back in 1979 for Portrait of a Young Sailor, is a mere $1,716,000.
The advertisers and press understood perfectly how to promote these rarefied wares. Ads for Blass’s Matisse items and a photo in a feature on Saint Laurent’s Braque garments (in the French Vogue for March) presented the merchandise surrounded by carved, gilded frames. These clothes, the magazines imply, are priceless treasures “suitable for framing” and capable of turning the act of purchasing into an act of connoisseurship. (Gilt frames alone have become such signifiers of money and prestige that New York magazine recently reported the latest decorating trend in Paris is to hang groups of them sans pictures.) The Blass/Matisse and Saint Laurent/van Gogh clothes have about them such a precious-object aura that stylists for advertisements and magazines found it difficult to show women wearing them. Instead, they displayed them flung on chair backs (Blass ads), draped on dressmakers’ dummies (Saint Laurent in the Tatler), or clutched to a model’s bare bosom (Blass in American Vogue). If all this worshipfulness toward glitz and money was taken a little far, Blass, for one, now admits it. After showing his more restrained fall ’88 collection, he reflected, “There was a fine edge of vulgarity creeping [into last season’s designs].” 5
High fashion’s recontextualization of van Gogh’s and Matisse’s paintings provides a chance to reevaluate them from a rather offbeat perspective: how do they cut it as clothes? It is, after all, not simply a question of reproducing the image, but of transposing it from two dimensions into three: a garment unlike a painting must move, have a back as well as a front, and be structured to accommodate the body. Saint Laurent understood better than Blass what would translate successfully into a bead-on-fabric medium. He chose two van Goghs whose all-over patterning made them as appropriate for dressmaking as any conventional floral print, and he disposed of details, such as the vase, which interfered with the flowers-by-the-yard effect. Adding to the appeal of his embroidered reinterpretations, the rough, glossy texture of the Lesage beading amusingly mimics the crusty sheen of van Gogh’s thick impastos. The jacket thus substitutes its own charge for the original’s. Saint Laurent is not the first designer over whom van Gogh’s still lifes have exercised their flowery charms—Jacques Doucet, the couturier immortalized by Proust, once owned the Irises.
Blass faced a more difficult problem—the reconstruction of entire interior scenes (including architectural elements, furniture, still life, landscape) meant to be as coherent and legible as the original paintings.[pq]The prices of Saint Laurent’s and Blass’s chic salutes to wealth and privilege actually reflect the market value of the paintings.[/pq]Blass heightened Matisse’s best-known traits almost to the point of caricature—colorism and luminosity become in his hands bewitching, jewel-rich flash. But unintentionally awkward, even surrealistic effects result: balustrades run across backs, floors cut through hips, windows “puncture” openings in the female body.
What finally does it say about the Irises, Sunflowers and Matisse’s Nice pictures that they were adapted to this purpose? One can hardly imagine, say, Munch’s Scream getting the same treatment, or even van Gogh’s and Matisse’s more unsettling works—the Potato Eaters or Mlle. Yvonne Landsberg, for example. The Sunflowers and Irises are among van Gogh’s least difficult works, because as still lifes, they are less prone to the artist’s wildly expressive distortions, which can become insupportably wrenching in portraits and even landscapes. By now much of van Gogh’s work, like Saint Laurent’s clothes, has come to represent safely elegant, blue-chip taste. As Kenneth Silver has shown, the Matisse Nice pictures used by Blass were already conservative, stylish and expensive when they were made. These languorous bourgeois scenes present Matisse at his most un-threatening, and so suit “the taste of the current, politically conservative moment for both luxury and conformism” [see A.i.A., June ’87].
These fashions, dependent on borrowed glamour, celebrate art as a symbol of indolent comfort and private wealth (few of the Matisse pictures from this period, and of course neither of the van Goghs, are in public hands). Can this trend go further? Will collectors commission Lesage-embroidered versions of their favorite treasures? Will women wishing to pass as old-money collectors or art cognoscenti demand to wear paintings on their backs? Balzac knew the profound correspondence between what we wear and what we desire: “The question of costume is one of enormous importance for those who wish to appear to have what they do not have, because that is often the best way of getting it later on.” 6
1. Quoted in Valerie Steele, Paris Fashion, New York, Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 10.
2. “View: State of the Art,” Vogue, Feb. 1988.
3. Many of those attending Saint Laurent’s spring show, however, mistook the Braque clothes for homages to Picasso. See, for example, Bernadine Morris, “Marriage of Fashion and Art by Saint Laurent,” New York Times, Jan. 27, 1988. p. Cl.
4. The information about cost comes from Jennet Conant with Megan Dissly, “Everything that Glitters,” Newsweek, Apr. 18, 1988, p. 78; from Stephen Gold’s PBS documentary, Haute Couture: The Great Designers; and from Steele, Paris Fashion, p. 279. (Thanks to Jane Page for calling my attention to Gold’s film, and for discussing the subject in general with me.)
5. Michael Gross, “The Frill Is Gone,” New York Times, May 2, 1988, p. 24.
6. Honore de Balzac, Lost Illusions; quoted in Steele, Paris Fashion.