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Fashion Designers: Inspired by Art

Fashion and art have always found inspiration between one another and designers often look to paintings for creative inspiration. The first UK exhibition dedicated to the work of French couturière, Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel, is opening in September 2023 at the V&A Museum in London. 


Explore our archive below as a visual guide to understand how designers have been influenced by parallel art movements and historic events.


1. Coco Chanel Modernism

Left: Chanel No 5, 1960s (print) / Bridgeman Images. Right: Composition with Blue, Red and Yellow, 1930 (oil on canvas), Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images
Left: Chanel No 5, 1960s (print) / Bridgeman Images. Right: Composition with Blue, Red and Yellow, 1930 (oil on canvas), Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images

Coco Chanel, the iconic fashion designer, had a notable relationship with modernism. Chanel, known for her revolutionary approach to fashion, embraced the principles of simplicity, functionality, and clean lines, which resonated with the aesthetics of the modernist movement. 

Inspired by the avant-garde spirit of the early 20th century, Chanel incorporated elements of modernist art into her designs, resulting in groundbreaking creations that challenged traditional norms. By reducing shapes and lines to their essence, Chanel proved to have a similar artistic vision to Piet Mondrian's, whose abstract geometric compositions are characterised by bold primary colours and intersecting lines. 


2. Alexander McQueen – Victorian art 

 Left: Ivory silk organza evening dress with appliqué bodice and panelled skirt embroidered with miniature eagle motifs, by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, Autumn/Winter / Fashion Museum Bath
Right: Critics on Costume, Fashions Change (oil on canvas) by John Callcott Horsley (1817-1903), Private Collection © Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts, New York

Ahead of the race, Alexander McQueen comes in first place for pushing the boundaries of fashion with his fierce and fragile fashion designs. He was said to be an artist in the romantic tradition. Passionate about fine art, McQueen started every collection with an idea or a concept for the runway presentation, reminiscent of avant-garde installations and performance art. After the concept, he would have a complex storyboard with various references from art, film, and music.

His collections explore themes in art, including the Romantic Gothic collection, portraying his love of Scottish history and London, combined with his interest in the Victorian Gothic, or his Romantic Exoticism collection which explores his interests in other cultures such as Japan and China, as depicted in his kimono designs and prints. He was a pioneer among designers, for he saw beyond clothing’s physical restraints.

3. Elsa SchiaparelliSurrealism 

Left: Woman’s Dress, February 1937 (silk organza & horsehair) by Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973), Philadelphia Museum of Art
Right: Elsa Schiaparelli dressed as a Radish, March 24th 1949 Photo © AGIP

Elsa Schiaparelli was a flamboyant Italian fashion designer who made her mark in Paris from the late 1920s to the 1950s. Schiaparelli’s collaborations with artists, who were also her friends, resulted in some of the most renowned works of twentieth-century haute couture.

An evening coat forming an optical illusion of a vase of roses which transforms into two faces in profile was designed with Jean Cocteau and Schiaparelli’s ‘Lobster Dress’ was a collaboration with Salvador Dali. This connection with the growing art world moved Elsa Schiaparelli into a new realm. She was not just concerned with beauty or transient fashion trends, but with art, culture, ideas and innovation. Ultimately, Schiaparelli was distinctive in her activities with the wider intellectual world, her eccentric chic style proving inspirational to later designers including Muccia Prada.

4. Versace – Pop Art / Greek Mythology 

Left: Cat suit, 1991 (silk) by Gianni Versace (1937-97) / Indianapolis Museum of Art, USA
Right: Andy Warhol (1928-1987) in 1984 in London

Gianni Versace’s Spring 1991 collection featured outfits printed with Andy Warhol‘s brightly coloured, silk-screened portraits of Marilyn Monroe and other famous icons. Along with modern art, Gianni Versace had other sources of inspiration including African tribal and ancient Greek art.

The influence of Greek mythology was conveyed in Versace’s use of the medusa head as its logo which embodied female power. A glance at medusa would turn one into stone: she stunned people with her domineering look and snakes in her hair with which she ended up having had this inflicted on her by Athena subsequent to her affair with the sea god, Poseidon. 


5.  Louis Vuitton – Takashi Murakami
A set of four limited edition black monogram multicolore Alma, Pochette, Speedy 30 & Sharleen GM by Takashi Murakami (b. 1962), 2003, 2004 & 2014 (leather), Louis Vuitton / Private Collection / Photo © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images

Louis’s Vuitton’s multi-coloured Takashi Murakami monogram was made famous across bags and accessories. The collaboration between the artist and the French house made public in 2003 was the invention of former Vuitton director Marc Jacobs. It was one of the first marriages of high art and luxury that have now become pivotal in an age of extreme wealth.

Murakami’s collaboration extended even further: he began featuring the LV monogram in his paintings, and established a Vuitton boutique in his retrospective at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

6. Missoni the Futurists

Left: Ensemble by Missoni, 1974 (wool); Fashion Museum, Bath. Right: Sea dancer, 1914, (oil on canvas), Gino Severini (1883-1966) / Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, Venice, Italy / Photo © Stefano Baldini / Bridgeman Images

The Missonis’ designs were inspired both by the natural environment and by their own collection of art from Europe’s Modernist era including the work of Tancredi, Matisse, Sonia Delaunay, Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini (1883-1966), whose vibrant images of dancers reflect close parallels with the geometric patterns of Missoni fabrics.

The Futurists’ vision that all aspects of life should be elevated from providing a simple, functional role to being a vehicle for the highest artistic aspirations led to their growing interest in clothing during the 1920s and 30s. This resonates with the Missoni aesthetic of striking museum pieces that have a functional use as clothes.

7. Sonia Delaunay – the Fauves

Left: Sonia Delaunay and her matching decorated Citroen, 1925 / French Photographer/ Bridgeman Images. Right: Deux Anges (oil on canvas), Kees van Dongen (1877-1968) / Private Collection / Photo © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images 

Influenced by the vibrant palettes of the Fauves, Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) was an abstract artist through and through. She invented orphism with her husband Robert Delaunay which they developed out of Cubism in the 1910s, and played a central role in the story of modern art in the 20th century. She was the first living woman to have an exhibition at the Louvre and is a prime example of an artist turned fashion designer, who worked with her husband to explore the dynamic power of colour and movement. Delaunay also worked with designers and ballet impresarios, such as Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) for the design of dresses. 

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