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Are artist collaborations the new designer collaborations?

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Fashion, Grace Howard

Are artist collaborations the new designer collaborations?

Artists have long lent their creative hand to designer brands – think Yasumasa Morimura collaborating with Issey Miyake, Stephen Sprouse with Louis Vuitton and, going way back, Piet Mondrian with Yves Saint Laurent. Of course, like everything that takes place in the upper echelons of luxury fashion, it was only a matter of time before high street brands decided to pinch the idea.

When Art Basel kicked off on December 1st, so did the launch of H&M’s new collection in collaboration with artist Alex Katz. Women’s and men’s clothes, along with a selection of homeware, were given a dose of life with Katz’s colourful prints all over them. The artist told Vogue he was delighted to team up with the high street giant. “It is exciting for me to work with H&M to make my art more accessible to more people,” he said.

H&M’s grown-up, ‘big sister’ brand, COS, has slowly garnered a reputation for collaborating with artists and even interior designers; just look at its current (and hugely popular) collab with Danish design brand HAY, and its collection inspired by artist Agnes Martin. Elsewhere, & Other Stories has managed to get a wealth of creative minds – like musician Lykke Li and illustrator Alyson Fox – on board as collaborators.

It’s not only Hennes & Mauritz-owned brands that have shown an interest in creative talent beyond the realms of fashion design – Uniqlo has worked in partnership with the MoMA for a while. The Uniqlo at the MoMA collection was released in 2014 – offering ‘wearable art’ pieces featuring prints from the likes of Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock – and the fashion brand’s Free Friday Nights scheme has long offered everyone the opportunity to immerse themselves in the MoMA’s vast art collection. Over in the States, even budget fast fashion retailer Forever21 has succumbed to the artistic touch, having recruited graffiti artist Alec Monopoly to doodle on its t-shirts.

We all know that the high street loves a good collab. Whether it’s Alexa Chung for M&S, Marques’Almeida for Topshop or Orla Kiely for Clarks, cheap clothes designed by popular names are adored by the public – and then usually resold on eBay for a great deal more than the RRP, such is the power of having a certain name on a label. And therein lies a flaw within the artist-high street collaboration model: as momentous as their talent might be, do many people actually know who these artists are? There’s no doubt that Balmain’s success at H&M has a lot to do with both the Kardashian stamp of approval and the ubiquity of the brand’s creative director, Olivier Rousteing. Compare Balmain with someone like Alex Katz. There’s no prize for guessing which name is better cemented in the general public’s consciousness.

Art collaborations with the high street will certainly sell better than art on its own does – it’s definitely more appealing, and cheaper, to wear a piece of modern art than to hang it on your wall at home – but it remains to be seen whether these interesting partnerships really make sense from a commercial point of view. The high street is mass-market, not niche, which places it in direct contrast to the lofty, more subjective world of art.

What do you think of artists collaborating with the high street? Pointless or brilliant?

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