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Gustav Klimt: the designer's muse


Austrian painter Gustav Klimt has long been an inspiration for fashion designers. Josh Sims reveals the latest names to draw on the artist’s gilded works

Josh Sims,

Look at a languid, willowy model wearing one particular dress from Alexander McQueen’s new spring/summer resort collection and, for those whose leanings are towards galleries as well as catwalks, a specific painting might spring to mind. In 1905, Gustav Klimt painted Fulfillment, one of his most celebrated works, showing a couple embracing. The figures are a vehicle for the artist’s characteristic layering of bold, frequently geometric, kaleidoscopic or nature-derived decoration, often in tones of bronze and gold, accented with colour and monochrome contrast. Look back at the McQueen dress – a gold pattern repeated over black – and one can see where the idea might have come from.

Nor is Alexander McQueen alone: this season, gilding is a key trend, and Rick Owens also directly references Klimt. The likes of Nina Ricci, Givenchy, Valentino and Anna Sui have all produced pieces that seem to take their cue from the artist’s work, while Matthew Williamson has credited him as an inspiration.

Golden age
Klimt was a Viennese artist who painted panels on the interior of the city’s Burgtheater and who found acclaim in his so-called ‘golden phase’, which lasted from 1898 until his death in 1918. Last year was the 150th anniversary of his birth, so Klimt is enjoying a new moment, one that has been building since 2006 when the sale of his portrait of Viennese socialite Adele Bloch-Bauer for a reported €85m broke world records; decorative Impressionist and modern masterworks are the current hot tickets in art sales, achieving ever higher prices.

While gilded ostentation may seem at odds with fashion’s current minimalism, referencing Klimt has more subtle implications – it allows designers to tap into the longer-term trend for digital prints while retaining a more artisanal, even intellectual sensibility.

Canvas to catwalk
Klimt’s distinctive visual signature has popped up on the catwalks repeatedly, especially over recent years: last year puff-sleeved, scoop-necked, boldly printed dresses from Hermès echoed works such as Klimt’s Portrait of Emilie Flöge; in 2011, Aquilano Rimondi nodded to Klimt’s most famous work, The Kiss, for prints on short-sleeved shirts and knee-length, thigh-revealing shirts; and in 2008 Christian Dior’s couture collection included a floor-length tunic encrusted with randomly placed golden appliqué panels that was decidedly reminiscent of Klimt.

Art and fashion fusion
Of course, Klimt is not the only artist to have provided inspiration for fashion designers. Sometimes such collaborations have resulted in a working relationship. Elsa Schiaparelli, whose designs were often surrealist, collaborated with Salvador Dalí on items that share both of their signatures: a lobster hat and a shoe hat, for example. Yves Saint Laurent took an obvious cue from the Dutch geometricist Piet Mondrian in his 1965 shift dresses, which were clearly inspired by the artist’s grids and block colour, while Mary Quant’s monochrome prints nodded to Victor Vasarely and Bridget Riley’s op art pieces (Riley even attempted to sue one fashion designer of the period for copyright infringement).

In 1991 Gianni Versace created a collection featuring Andy Warhol’s prints, including those of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, on skirt suits and long dresses. And, more recently, Louis Vuitton has teamed up with latter-day pop artist Takashi Murakami, while last year Rodarte looked to Van Gogh’s characteristic bold brush-strokes and motifs such as sunflowers and night skies for its prints. Paul Smith has spoken of the inspiration of Henri Matisse on his use of colour.

Maximum impact
Klimt lends himself most obviously to inspiring maximalist fashion design perhaps simply because so much of his work was based around the figure and focused attention on elaborate decoration, especially the tunic-like swathes of fabric his figures were draped in – in keeping with the art nouveau period’s rebellion against restrictive womenswear. Klimt painted in a period in which decadence and opulence was celebrated and his work was perhaps an especially artful form of proto-fashion illustration. Maybe it is no coincidence that Klimt’s partner Emilie Flöge – his brother’s widow, and often a subject for his paintings – was a couturier for whom he often designed textiles; textiles for, as a Viennese newspaper put it in 1909, his vision of ‘the new Viennese woman … charmingly immoral, delightfully sinful, enchantingly perverse’.

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