Modern masterpieces: Designers turn to the art world for inspiration

This season, a host of designers looked to high art and homespun crafts for inspiration, says Stephanie Hirschmiller

From the work of artists and photographers to skills such as glass painting and tuffetage (an embroidery technique), this season  designers have both turned to the art world for inspiration and harnessed some artisan techniques that pack a serious creative punch.

It was the abstract daubs of Catalan artist Joan Miró that inspired the bold brushstroke prints of Michael van der Ham – realised across signature collaged concoctions, while Paul Smith’s clean asymmetric graphics took their cue from the work of seminal French image maker Jean-Paul Goude – incidentally, the creative brain behind Kenzo’s recent ad campaigns. Roksanda Ilincic fused the rigid graphics of artist Josef Albers with the organic contours of Bohemian sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle for a Seventies-inflected collection that felt thoroughly modern.

But leave it to Louis Vuitton’s Marc Jacobs to up the artistic ante to new levels. Alongside the house’s own Damier check canvas, the work of  conceptual artist Daniel Buren, the man behind Les Deux Plateaux, the giant grid of liquorice-like columns in Paris’ Palais Royal courtyard, proved a key contemporary reference – not only for the graphic looks but also  extending to the monolithic stage set.

Buren himself was enlisted to create the site-specific installation: four  “columns” of escalators via which models both entered and exited a  catwalk of giant glass squares.

Craftsmanship too made a huge impact this season. Jacobs’ assimilation of the house’s artisan DNA was evident in minaudières of painted glass –  hand-constructed by a Venetian  mirror-painting specialist – while the tuffetage check of the Speedy Cube was borrowed from a traditional carpet-making technique. When it comes to creating butter-soft woven leathers, fashion-insider favourite and label to watch, Martina Spetlova, eschews more new-fangled laser-cutting techniques for a chisel because “the edges are clean and sharp without the residue or burn you get when laser cutting. I use light colours and soft leathers which are  easier to burn,” she explains.

Peter Pilotto and Christopher de Vos chose to embellish their signature digital prints with corresponding decorative motifs inspired by Indian beadwork they encountered on holiday in Kolkata. However, the inimitable Henry Holland appropriated a rather more contemporary craft: “Tie dye was one of my fondest memories of Nineties bad-taste fashion,” he laughs. “We  updated the technique by tie-dying ultra-fine leather and making it into stronger more structured pieces.”

While they may not have been moved by Balearic rave culture, Dolce & Gabbana’s Sicilia collection proved the season’s most inspired ode to traditional holiday handicrafts. Trapeze silhouettes were rendered in sackcloth fabric with raffia trims, hourglass versions emblazoned with Caltagirone heads from local ceramics, and a plethora of vibrant prints featured the puppet soldier protagonists of the region’s street theatre. Even sculptural midollino or rush bustiers and the cage-like framework of their finale gown were inspired by woven Sicilian baskets.

However, alongside these century-old skills come thoroughly contemporary, yet equally labour-intensive adaptations on man-made materials. Alongside the waffle effect of Christopher Kane’s origami hand-pleated pastel silks came intricate overlays that may have resembled paper but were actually vacuum-cast polyurethane. And as for the lurid-hued lace effect seen at Erdem? Hand-embroidered PVC. “It gives this wonderful illusion of lace,” enthused Erdem Moralioglu. “I developed it with a Swiss embroidery company who use traditional couture techniques from the 1950s.” Pure modern artisan.