Throughout history, fine artists have collaborated with one another, as well as with creatives from different disciplines, from textile design and printmaking to weaving, tailoring, and manufacturing. It’s not hard to see why: the act of collaboration itself not only brings individuals together on a social level, but also brings about a creative collision of ideas, influences, and inspirations. In their weird and wonderful unpredictability, the end results of a collaboration may occasionally prove controversial, but at their best, they’re innovative, engaging and uplifting.
Collaborations between artists and fashion designers are arguably some of the most beautiful examples of these, producing textiles that stand out in a sea of homogenous offerings, and attracting renewed interest in both parties’ crafts. In short, clever collaborations create textiles that truly stand out, especially when it comes to fabric sourcing.
But endeavours like these don’t just ‘happen’. It takes one individual to reach out to another to broach the idea of collaboration and requires the other to agree to take risks and experiment. Fashion buyers who have done just this have often sparked a creative flame that has truly set imaginations on fire. They have also, on occasion, provoked controversy by subverting expectations and creating innovations that are genuinely startling. Either way, it’s the meaning that lies behind the design that sets true fashion apart from simple articles of clothing.
Early innovations in textile design
Of course, many individual artists have brought different disciplines, and sources of inspiration, together within their own work. William Morris, dubbed the father of progressive pattern, revolutionised interior design by making a break with tradition and taking his inspiration for wallpaper and textile motifs from British wildlife. His approach was groundbreaking, and his inspiration was far-reaching. Not only did he bring pattern and printwork to the fore, but Morris also shone a spotlight on the whole concept of product design.
William Morris, examples from William Morris Gallery, London, 2015. Writer Lilian Marino’s personal collection.
“Morris believed passionately in the importance of creating beautiful, well-made objects that could be used in everyday life, and that were produced in a way that allowed their makers to remain connected both with their product and with other people,” explains the V&A Museum. His impact on the Arts and Crafts Movement was significant. A reaction against what they saw as damaging industrialisation, the movers and shakers of the Arts and Crafts Movement also sought to radically alter the value that Victorian society placed on how things were made and how they were experienced: early advocates of what we would describe today as sustainable fashion.
Advocating sustainable fashion
Given the situation in which many of those working in textile design and fabric sourcing find themselves today, this may sound strikingly familiar. With a rise in mass-manufactured clothing, using low-quality materials and poor design, a contingent of buyers, designers and fashion houses is fighting back in a bid to craft or source beautiful textiles using ethical means. They are responding to growing consumer interest in sustainable fashion in an ever more environmentally conscious market – and one that is always hungry for meaningful innovation.
Something of a visionary, Morris also strove to break down barriers in a society he felt was fundamentally unjust and to abolish the elitism he witnessed, especially in art. Across Europe, the next generation of artists saw textile design as a means of making art accessible to the masses. From pre-war French Modernist artists Sonia Delaunay and Raoul Dufy to Russia’s Liubov Popova and Vavara Stepanova, there was a deliberate movement that sought to bring the worlds of fine and applied art together through textile design. Some of the most impressive examples of their work were featured in the 2014 exhibition Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol at the Fashion Textile Museum, London.
From left: "Spring Rain", Salvador Dalí, Schiffer Prints, 1949. "Ice Cream Sundaes", Andy Warhol, screen-printed cotton fashion textile, c.1962, designed for Stephen Bruce of Legendary New York café/restaurant Serendipity 3, New York. "Farmers Dinner", Joan Miró, Fuller Fabrics, 1955. Bold Picasso designs for Bloomcraft Fabrics, 1963. | All photographs were taken from the exhibition Artist Textiles - Picasso to Warhol, at the Fashion and Textile Museum, London, 2014. Writer Lilian Marino’s personal collection.
This was a period of experimentation for many prominent artists, including the pioneering weaver Anni Albers, who became head of the Bauhaus weaving workshop in Germany in the early 1930s. Albers had set out to be a painter but quickly discovered that her real passion was for weaving. She found that, perversely, the strict grid of the loom gave her the structure and stability to be creative compared to free painting. Her extraordinary textile designs saw her become the first textile artist to be given a solo exhibition at MoMA, and she later began experimenting with printmaking at which she also excelled. Curious and confident, Albers’ fearless experimentation was a source of inspiration to many textile designers who followed in her wake.
The Second World War brought about a fundamental shift in attitudes towards art, and one that would have delighted the likes of Morris. No longer seen as the hallmark of wealth and status, ‘art textiles’ were made accessible to anyone and everyone, particularly through commercially produced clothing. This was an exciting era of collaboration, with all kinds of partnerships being forged between textile manufacturers and renowned artists, from Edinburgh Weavers producing shawls designed by Marino Marini and Victor Vasarely to British firm Ascher Ltd working with Henri Matisse and Henry Moore.
Slightly later, led by disruptive visionary Reeves Lewenthal, owner of the Associated American Artists (AAA) gallery, New York-based Fuller Fabrics produced its celebrated ‘Modern Master Prints’ collection, featuring textiles from Dufy, Chagall, Miró, Léger, and Picasso. In a bid to keep materials affordable, Lewenthal and Fuller Fabrics decided to use roller printing rather than the more costly silkscreen method.
From fabric sourcing to revolutionary textile design
The freedom to ‘play’ by combining art and textile design has continued to inspire artists ever since. The early 60s saw pop artist Andy Warhol turn to textiles too, with a range of food-inspired prints, some of which have only recently come to worldwide attention. Styled by Design, an exhibition curated by fashion illustration company Gray M.C.A. in 2017, sought to celebrate “the revolutionary relationship between the modern artists and textile manufacturers of the 20th Century post-war period”. It featured everything from 40s silkscreens by Hepworth with Ascher Ltd and William Scott’s bold 60s jacquard pieces to silk scarf squares by Patrick Heron and pieces by Vivienne Westwood.
Sleepwear collection, Florence Welch and Liberty London Collaboration, 2018, Liberty London. Photographer: Alex Bramall.
One could argue that one of the reasons that Liberty’s of London has retained its iconic status for over 140 years has been its buyers’ bravery in inviting the leading artists, and brands, of the day to work in collaboration on limited edition collections. Fred Perry, Dr. Martens, Supreme, The North Face, Florence and the Machine, Nike… the list goes on. Many of these projects have gone to show that partners working in collaboration need not hail from the same backgrounds and that, actually, a ‘clash’ of cultures is aesthetically more exciting.
Giving a refreshing twist to fabrics that make up our ‘everyday’ casual wear, it’s these kinds of creative collisions that spark the imagination and, ultimately, drive sales. In the same vein, the artistic collaboration between Vans and the Van Gogh Museum saw popular artwork transformed into ‘wearable masterpieces’, and the collection was quickly snapped up by delighted consumers.
Vans X Van Gogh Museum Collection collaboration, 2018, Sneaker News.
Other instances of collaboration have proved more controversial. Famously, Supreme and Louis Vuitton teamed up to produce a limited edition fashion range in 2017 and the outcome verged on hysteria. The edgy ‘street’ brand joining forces with a high-end fashion house was dubbed by some to be ‘the ultimate fashion partnership’, while other Supreme devotees were disgusted at what they saw as a betrayal of the brand’s identity. One thing’s for sure – it’s a project that got people talking about design, artistic collaboration and experimentation in a way that the ‘everyday’ simply doesn’t.
Collaboration Supreme x Louis Vuitton Collection, 2017. Credit: Jonathan Sawyer, High Snobiety.
The exclusivity of capsule collections like this is perhaps a key ingredient to any collaboration’s success. Jumping in and demonstrating such artistic bravura doesn’t come without risks, but by applying it just to a small percentage of a collection, those working in fabric sourcing can afford to take them because the parameters are clear. Small, ‘test’ production runs not only promote exclusivity, piquing consumer interest, but they also lend themselves to promoting sustainable fashion. By producing fabrics using quality materials, the value of artistic, and sometimes artisanal, practices stand a chance of being restored, bringing us back to Morris’ preoccupation with the process as much as the outcome.
Fabric sourcing and trade fairs provide fantastic opportunities not only to be inspired by the fabrics that are out there but also to reach out to suppliers and strike up the kinds of conversations that can result in meaningful collaboration. And it needn’t stop there, thanks to online channels of communication that allow buyers and suppliers to develop relationships wherever they may be, at any time of day or night, in real time.
One thing’s for sure: technology is revolutionising the process of design, allowing individuals as diverse as materials designers, fabric manufacturers and tech researchers or scientists to come together, to see if a brand new material can actually be originated through the process of collaboration.
And perhaps you could be next!
Try free platforms that help you find just the right creative for your next textile design project. Sign up and reach out to others who you could forge a collaboration with. It all starts with a conversation, and who knows, your next partnership could prove just as innovative and exciting as the many fashion collaborations we have seen throughout history.