An Intimate Canvas

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Lingerie designers turning to art world for inspiration

By Richard Vincente

“I have always liked painters. It seems to me that we are in the same trade.”
 French fashion designer Paul Poiret

Art and fashion have been inseparable ever since the first caveman decided to decorate his animal-hide wrap with a few charcoal stick figures.

But even the French couturier Poiret — whose affinity for artists and illustrators of the early 20th Century is well known — probably couldn’t have envisioned the way art (and artists) are influencing contemporary lingerie design.

In case you hadn’t noticed, artistic inspirations are showing up with increasing regularity in lingerie collections these days. Just what you need to feel like a living masterpiece.

Some established brands have been long admired for a painterly flourish that elevates their designs above boilerplate printmaking. I’m thinking of Natori’s exotic couture robes; the exquisite slips from Marjolaine; and even the floral wonderland that is Claire Pettibone‘s world — to name just a few.

More youth-oriented labels like Black Milk and Ed Hardy borrow heavily from pop art classics, while the new California brand Private Arts has a clever idea: creating undies that look like vivid urban graffiti.

Even mass-market brands are turning to the art world for ideas. A couple of years ago, Etam‘s resident model/muse Natalia Vodionova created a wonderful capsule collection based on folk art from her native Russia. And this year, Hanky Panky produced a print alternately known as the Matisse or the Impressionist. It doesn’t really look like anything Matisse painted, but its colorful swirls could be borrowed from his palette.

All of this suggests the awakening of a new sensibility in lingerie fashion, as designers (and their customers) experiment with new styles, colorways and prints that are meant to be savored and appreciated as artistic works in their own right.

And whether it’s coincidence or not, several design labels have found inspiration recently in the worlds of art and architecture, resulting in the creation of memorable hybrid garments that are like living canvases.

Spanish corsetiere extraordinaire Maya Hansen used digital reproductions of Renaissance portraits for her remarkable 2011 collection Queens of Spain, while the stylish British designer Nichole De Carle created bodies, bras and briefs that mimicked the graphic lines of great European cathedrals. Closer to home, Zinke created an original zigzag print (above) as the centerpiece of its new swim collection. If you look closely, you’ll see echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright and other art deco masters in the hypnotic pattern.

And then there are the truly unique modern hybrids that result from culturally inquisitive designers looking to make a personal statement — and push the boundaries of both fashion and art.

Teo Griscom, who owns the experimental New York label Unforeseen Circumstances, created original prints for her latest collection that are a tribute to the late primitivist painter Cy Twombly, whose abstract scrawls polarized the American art scene through the latter half of the 20th Century. Her efforts (see top photo) were made more poignant by the fact that Twombly himself died shortly before Griscom’s collection made its debut.

Arielle Shapiro of Ari Dein didn’t borrow an artist’s print for her spring 2012 lingerie collection; she immersed herself in the life and wanderings of Peggy Guggenheim, the quixotic heiress who assembled one of the world’s great modern art collections in the post-war years of the last century. Ari  channels Peggy’s spirit with a delicate collection in colors inspired by Venice, where the heiress spent most of her life.

The Romanian designer Ruxandra Gheorghe speaks volumes with deceptively simple graphic patterns in the latest collection from her Ludique label.  The pattern above was inspired by the iconic monuments of the great Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, whose Column of Endless Gratitude (right) was an homage to his country’s heroes from the First World War. (Although the shape on the brief looks like a diamond, it’s actually a clepsydra, a kind of ancient water clock.) That reference might be lost on Ludique‘s foreign customers, but for women in Romania these pieces make an impactful political and artistic comment.

And probably no label comes closer to marrying the worlds of lingerie fashion and modern art than The Lake & Stars, the super-brainy line adored by smart girls everywhere. You need a catalogue to keep track of the esoteric references and inspirations in their inventive designs, but one print from their spring collection really stands out.

The Superstudious original print shown above (right) was actually designed by New York artist Francesca DiMattio, whose surreal canvases (think M.C. Escher meets Picasso) involve layered, complex explorations of architecture and geometry — which is probably a fair description of The Lake & Stars‘ aesthetic, too. Is it any wonder that designers Nikki and Maayan call Francesca “their muse”?

What’s most exciting about all this is that the possibilities of such creative cross-pollination are endless … and probably just beginning.

Art bleeds into everyday life in innumerable ways; in fact, it’s an essential part of our experience. Your fashion choices are an expression of your engagement with the world around you. Is there any reason your underwear shouldn’t be part of that dialogue?

Of course, those of us who celebrate the artistic aspirations of lingerie design look forward to the day when this mixing of media doesn’t seem so unusual. And can the first gallery or museum exhibition of modern masterpieces in intimate wear (sorry, last year’s Gaultier exhibition doesn’t count) be far off?

Maybe not. Last weekend, during the alternative fashion week known as Fashion Art Toronto, Canadian artist Karey Shinn created a shredded bodysuit (above) for a runway performance piece called Cosmetic Green. It was, she said, a tribute to the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson‘s eco-bible Silent Spring and was, like so much else these days, heavily influenced by Alexander McQueen‘s radical mashups of fashion, art and culture.

“I am inspired to do this hybrid fashion event,” Karey said, “at a time when fashion designers, in their capacity as artists, are driving more people through the doors of art galleries around the world than conventional art shows. … This is a wonderful time to be an artist doing fashion.”

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