Drive along Interstate 15 from Las Vegas to LA and you’ll come across Seven Magic Mountains: an installation of seven 30-foot stacks of neon-painted boulders rising up from the desert. The totem shapes might remind you of the practice of rock balancing – as if some giant had carefully positioned them there.
The artist Ugo Rondinone was musing on the tension between the natural and the artificial when he conceived the idea, so it’s not by chance that his installation ended up in the earthy corridor that connects two major US cities. The fluorescent boulders reflect the light while their jarring presence reflects the impact of humans on the natural world. Are we the neon sign in the desert? Bright with optimism, stark with warning. The closing look in Jason Wu’s Spring 2017 collection shares elements with Rondinone’s sculpture.
A neutral-toned sheer gown is hand-embroidered with technicolour flowers, their petals fluttering like neon butterflies off the fabric and into the third dimension. These neon blossoms are uncanny, like Rondinone’s rocks.
They, too, exist in the midway space between what’s manmade and what’s natural. And they, too, are laced with certain optimism and beauty.
There are no coincidences here: Wu was directly inspired by Rondinone’s work. Even aside from the floral pieces, his collection was sprinkled with neon accents, like acid yellow piping or splashes of electric blue; delicate shapes with a distinctly modern, manmade touch.
The influence of the visual arts upon fashion is always strong and the relationship is not a purely aesthetic one. However you view art you can’t ignore its power to provoke thought and raise questions, even to challenge the status quo or ignite social or political movements. In this sense, art and fashion can both be forms of rebellion.
At Valentino, Pierpaolo Piccioli was debuting his first collection as sole creative director and his rebellion of choice was punk – not so much as a movement, but as he described “a way of thinking that accepts and accentuates contrasts and imperfections instead of erasing them.” Models wore long, dagger-shaped earrings with dreamy pink dresses and flat velvet sandals, or luxurious brocade trousers that slouched boyishly under billowy white shirts. In the realm of high fashion, punk is a subjective term.
But if the punk influences didn’t come across too obviously in Piccioli’s designs, perhaps that’s just because he’s exceptional at subtlety. His other main inspiration was medieval art – specifically the unholy weirdness of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights – but even that was handled with a light touch.
“A new beginning demands a certain forgetfulness,” says Piccioli in the official collection materials. “In order to rewrite history one should forget about it and retain the essence, moving quickly and irreverently to explore the pleasures of metamorphosis.”
True to his word, the prints in Piccioli’s Spring/Summer collection for Valentino are distant echoes of Bosch’s most famous work. They feature invented flora and exotic foliage, borrowing more from Bosch’s heavens than his hells. There are no sin-eaten bodies or twisted creatures, no depraved acts signalling the end of mankind. Indeed, there are no humans here at all. Piccioli’s method is confirmed: he studied the triptych then forgot it, keeping only the idea of creating a strange and fantastical world.
The great contradiction of this is that Bosch’s triptych would be nothing without the people. It’s the human acts that turn the garden into a paradise or a fallen civilisation. In their absence the Valentino gardens are sanitised, untouchable. But then again, what would Rondinone say about introducing humans to the landscape?
Over at Céline, the art references were taken literally. White dresses were splodged across the torso with the blue imprints of breasts, stomachs and thighs, as if to call attention to the forms underneath. Designer Phoebe Philo chose a quote by contemporary artist Dan Graham to add context to her designs: “I want to show that our bodies are bound to the world, whether we like it or not.”
For Philo, gender is a big part of that idea. The prints – reproductions of Yves Klein’s Anthropométries series – recall primitive effigies of full-bodied fertility goddesses; impressions of the female form at its most elemental.
When Klein created the original artworks they were wildly avant garde. In a 1960 piece of performance art that sent ripples through generations, he had naked models smother their torsos in blue paint and press themselves against canvasses while an audience of civilised Parisians looked on. Whether this project was degrading or empowering to women depends on who you ask. Klein’s models were instruments, directed by his cleanly-gloved, male hands from afar. But they were also rebels, women in a more repressive time boldly using their naked bodies for an artistic, rather than sexual, purpose.
Given Philo’s penchant for minimalist shapes and unsexualised femininity, one assumes she aligns with the latter view. In her hands, Klein’s artworks are more than an abstract imprint of the female form: they are a vibrant celebration of it.
As for how to interpret spring’s art obsession yourself, you could always take a leaf out of Mary Katrantzou’s book. For her collection, she looked introspectively to her home country of Greece, taking classical Greek art and reworking it in a surprisingly psychedelic way. Horse-drawn chariots and Minoan priestesses take their place between sweeps of trippy, optical illusion prints; meander borders and wave motifs find their way onto shimmery metallic tunics.
Katrantzou’s ability to plunder from two completely different time periods – Ancient Greece and the 1960s – to create something fresh proves just how limitless art is as a source of style inspiration. It’s no wonder the fashion world goes back to it time and time again.
Loosely drawn or literal, classical or avant garde, steeped in meaning or exalted purely for their aesthetic value, the abundance of artistic references leaves at least one thing clear: if indeed our bodies are bound to the world, we might as well cover them in art this season.