One of the highlights of going backstage at a fashion show is the electric energy – the hustle and bustle of models and fitters and make-up artists, and the thrill of knowing that, for a few brief minutes, you are one of only a handful of people in the world who knows what’s about to be seen on the catwalk.
Of course, as a menswear journalist, the reason I was one of the privileged few allowed behind the velvet rope (or, more usually, hastily tacked-up plastic tarp) to get the inside scoop on the creative director’s inspiration for the collection – a challenging prospect in a crowded, noisy space that I can only liken to a trading floor in a 1980s stockbroking movie, just with better hair. While waiting, I would scour the area for any additional clues as to the designer’s thought process in putting the collection together, inevitably drifting towards their moodboard.
Seen in most backstage areas, this often human-sized pinboard transposed from the designer’s studio shows the evolution of the collection from inception to execution, filled with swatches, quotes, models’ polaroid’s, sketches and, inevitably, a few pictures of stylish men from history that have served to spark his or her imagination. Frequently, these stylish men were artists: Basquait, Warhol, Hockney, Haring, Pollock. During his heyday at Burberry, Christopher Bailey dedicated an entire collection to the style and aesthetic sensibility of Henry Moore – a line that was inspired as equally by what the sculptor wore in his workshop as it was by the undulating works he produced.
There’s a reason why the way artists dress continues to inspire designers, as well as mere mortals like you and me. Artists have all that rebelliousness and devil-may-care attitude of a rockstar, but there’s an added layer of vulnerability and honesty to the way an artist dresses. Often the way they dress is a direct reflection of their view of the world – a continuation of the canvas they’re working on. For example, Jean-Michel Basquiat frequently crops up on male style icon lists for his penchant for painting in expensive Armani suits.
Yes, the man was interested in the fashion world (he even walked in a couple of Issey Miyake shows in the late 1980s), but the reason he chose to wear expensive European designer suits went far beyond aesthetics. As a black American graffiti artist from humble beginnings selling to a moneyed, overwhelmingly white audience, these suits were also a comment on how he was having to present himself to gain favour in an art world that was non-black and Euro-centric. His suits were a comment on his experience of race in America and the world beyond – something the art and poetry he produced also heavily focused on.
However, herein lies the problem when a man who’s not an artist tries to dress like an artist. The way an artist dresses inherently reflects their work. Without that authenticity of purpose, it can all seem a bit hollow. So, what’s the alternative? It’s dressing not like the artist, but like their canvas. And, quite frankly, there’s never been a better time to try it. With the sun ever more of a presence in the sky, the transition from April to May is always a joyous time of year here in the UK.
Couple that with a year of lockdowns and a severely restricted social orbit, and I’m seeing that people on the street are positively giddy about being out and about once again – I’ve already seen men in shorts in my local park and the weather’s still in single figures. Rather than fight it with trademark British cynicism, I say it’s time to embrace this slightly bonkers start to the summer, and the best way to do it is with a shirt inspired by your favourite artwork.
Whether you’re a long-sleeve or short-sleeve guy, surrealist stan or photography fan, there’s a summer shirt out there for you this season. While streetwear brands might lead the way with pastels and big, bold landscapes (see: Neigborhood), what’s really surprising is that we’re seeing painterly prints and graphic inspiration across the board.
Take Dolce & Gabbana’s paint-striped short-sleever or Marni’s pink-splattered graffiti number or Jaquemus’s Haring-vibing brushstroke motifs. Even big brands like Club Monaco are producing sketchy floral shirts this season, not to mention workwear brands like Oliver Spencer and Albam, whose patchwork shirts nod to the current quilting craft revival on the art scene. There’s plenty of joyful designed out there to choose from, whatever your sartorial or artistic preference, so all that’s left to say is get on it. Forget about the world being your catwalk: right now it’s your canvas.