Strokes for Different Folks

The comeback of the handmade and the handsigned in fashion

By Clara Young

Design for the Prada S/S 2014 show by 2 X 4, New York. Photo: Attilio Maranzano. Courtesy Prada, Milan, Art Resource and Scala, Florence A/W 2013 Lady Dior and Andy Warhol bag. Courtesy Christian Dior, Paris

Late one night in November 2013, Belgian fashion designer Ann Demeulemeester sent out an email saying she was leaving her clothing line after 27 years. Though the fashion world was surprised and, of course, saddened by her departure, the chatter was not so much about her resignation as about how it was announced. Demeulemeester had sent out a PDF of a letter she had written in hand with a fountain pen, ending her missive with an affectionate ‘x’ – a virtually blown kiss to the industry – and her signature, unexpectedly prim. The handwrought signature, whether it is an illegible scrawl or a wildman brushstroke, is a glimpse into the personality (read: genius) of its maker. This is exactly what Roy Lichtenstein was mocking when he composed nothing but a giant brushmark in Brushstroke with Splatter (1966): he was sending up the Pollocks and Klines and their superannuated heart-on-sleeve paint marks. But the intervening years of concept-driven art, together with sleek, ubiquitous, bloodless, depthless digital pictures, have made us desire handexecuted strokes and lines and scribbles again. The gestural has clawed back, and it is doing so not just on gallery and museum walls, but on unexpected canvases, like the torso of a shift dress and the smooth leather surface of a handbag. It is just the thing that fashion brands crave, and that they borrow, periodically, from the plastic arts.

Designer Paul Poiret, who most famously got Raoul Dufy to create woodcuts for his opera coats in 1910, wrote, ‘Am I a fool when I dream of putting art into my dresses, a fool when I say dressmaking is an art? For I have always loved painters, and felt on an equal footing with them. It seems to be that we practice the same craft, and that they are my fellow workers.’

The art of putting art on dresses is not one that is done easily. Often, it is too much of a good thing, just as eating in a restaurant with a spectacular revolving view seldom yields a good dinner. Art on clothing tends to detract from, or worse, subtract the need for a garment that can stand on its own without surface decoration, whose cutting, tailoring, draping and volume constitute sculptural gorgeousness enough.

And, yet, there were those early Andy Warhol drawings at Christian Dior last winter. Demure, fragilely rendered pumps and languid ladies were embroidered onto handbags and sewn into bustier panels. “I saw those drawings at the Serpentine in the 80s,” says Howard Tangye, artist and head of womenswear design at Central Saint Martins, London, “and the way Dior put them on the clothes was with great respect, like they were beautiful, valuable jewellery.”

There is the belief that even when produced in unnumbered multiples, clothing consecrated by the wobbly line or dribbled paint of an artistic paw – possesses the aura of rarity, and the authority of skill

The preciousness of embellishment executed by human hands – not even necessarily those as hallowed as Warhol’s – has been conspicuous in fashion in the last few seasons. Behind it is the belief that even when produced in unnumbered multiples, clothing consecrated by someone’s patte – the wobbly line or dribbled paint of an artistic paw – possesses the aura of rarity, and the authority of skill.

“What I am thoroughly bored of is the digital mirror-image trickery of print,” says Julie Verhoeven, a London-based artist and illustrator who has created prints for Peter Jensen, Versace and Louis Vuitton. “I think that’s what designers are currently rebelling against, and seeking a print which has more textural, gestural qualities with a sense of the artist’s hand and emotive force at work.” This was what Raf Simons was trying to get at when he enlisted Warhol for Dior. In the collection notes, Simons writes, ‘For me Warhol made so much sense. I was interested in the delicacy and sensitivity in the early work he did, I was drawn to that graphic style naturally in this collection. It was that notion of hand work and personal signature that fitted throughout.’

The handwriting of each designer used to manifest itself in the way they engineered their clothes: the way a gown looked on the mannequin as she swished past you down the runway; the way a suit fit the moment you tried it on in the dressing room. Yves Saint Laurent’s signature was a lithe and tailored line. Chanel’s was boxy and unhampered. Balenciaga’s was sculptural. Vionnet’s was fluid. But in the Internet age, a designer must make his or her mark on virtual observers who are nowhere near the clothes. What grabs eyeballs is not the subtlety of silhouette but things that show up best on a small screen – colour, pattern, image – and which lend themselves readily to digital production.

It’s a very impersonal thing, digital. You can’t see a hand. There’s no real identification, no sense of who did this drawing,” says Tangye. “In the Dior use of Warhol, you know straightaway who did it, which gives it huge cachet. But if you see an image, pattern and colour done in a mechanical way, you feel less connected to it. It takes away all the sensitivity that a real drawing has, and a real work of art in which you can see the brushmarks. I find that interesting and sensual and exciting. But a flat coloured image doesn’t have the same power as the real thing. Like multiples, it becomes a facsimile, not the real thing.”With the exception of haute couture, it is meaningless to talk about the real thing in ready-to-wear; nonetheless, Phoebe Philo created some very compelling facsimiles for Spring/Summer 2014 at Céline. 

The collection was blithely calligraphic, featuring abstract brushwork that was all but painted on the clothes. Printed onto tank tops, silk blouses and long pleated skirts, and jacquard-woven into coats and dresses, the inky ragged marks stoked our hunger for texture and human agency. Philo pushed texture even further, outlining paint dabs and whorls on a butter-yellow coat in frayed blue frill to give them relief, and mimicking dripping black squiggles of paint on a white dress with swags of hanging threads. A white tunic top festooned with rivulets of white thread gives the distant effect of a painted white canvas. The dribbles and dashes of this collection came from Brassaï’s postwar photographs of painted black-and-white graffiti in Paris, which he called ‘The Language of the Wall’. Though at double remove – a meditation on a meditation on street art – Philo showed her hand in this collection, as well as Brassaï’s, as well as that of Paris’s sidewalk vandals.

There is something that happens when creative people are working together that cannot be reproduced in the digital space

Miuccia Prada also drew energy from the streets that season by commissioning four artists and two illustrators to graffiti the ‘walls’ of the runway. To create a streetscape inside the Fondazione Prada that had something of an authentic urban throb required the real thing: murals were composed and painted in situ rather than digitally reproduced in large-scale wallpapers, the way Prada does in their Manhattan and Beverly Hills stores. The artists, Stinkfish, Miles ‘El Mac’ Gregor, Gabriel Specter and Mesa, worked the old-fashioned way: in the same space at the same time. Even the work produced by the two illustrators, Jeanne Detallante and Pierre Mornet, was blown up and painted by, respectively, muralists Luca Zamoc and Gionata ‘Ozmo’ Gesi.

“The idea here was to create an environment where the work would happen collaboratively between several artists working simultaneously,” says Michael Rock, founder of design consultancy firm 2 X 4, who helped curate the show, and with whom Prada works regularly. “There is something that happens when creative people are working together that cannot be reproduced in the digital space. In addition, as the work was happening over a period of time in Milan, Mrs Prada could be involved as it emerged. This facilitates communication about everything from palette and composition to content.” Using spraypaint, stencil and freehand, the artists populated the canted walls of the outside-in runway with women. Floating in an ambience of feminism, their faces peer out at us as well from purses, coats and bejewelled dresses.

According to the Prada press release, ‘This project contradicts the prevailing cultural condition of disembodied, networked communication.’ Real paintings – a hands-on act – were transposed onto clothing, layering it with the personality of the artist, but the Prada collection went further, building texture into the art-production process itself: the ‘rough’ disruptiveness of artists physically displacing themselves to a foreign city to work in a room with other artists, a process laden with inconveniences, serendipities, clashes and, perhaps, epiphanies. Not really a happening, but with something of the rude, rough reciprocus of artists performing together, the making of the Prada collection rebuffed the ‘smooth’ ease of artists who, left alone, would have worked as they are accustomed to, and uploaded their images away.

It is not that the digital medium necessarily deprives imagery of effort and feeling – designer Mary Katrantzou’s digital placement prints are complex, lush and intricately integrated into her garment design – but it lacks the autographic nature of the handmade mark, even when it is reproduced over and over again, as it is in fashion. We imagine these taches to be textured with thought and meaning, imbued with the emotion, intention and personality of, if not genius, then, at least, of somebody. We imagine that this makes the clothes look so much better. 

This article was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of ArtReview Asia.