collaborating with valentino, art vs. commerce and country life: a conversation with artist esther stewart

What a time to be the young Australian art star.

by Courtney DeWitt
10 December 2015, 4:40am

Ben Thomson

In January Maison Valentino kicked off Paris fashion week with a bold menswear collection comprised of geometric shapes in a rich colour palette that extended beyond the runway and throughout the plush carpets of the historic Hotel Salomon de Rothschild. Ahead of the show Maison Valentino's creative directors, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, revealed that their inspirations for the collection were ballets russes, futurism, cubism and 27 year old Australian painter, Esther Stewart.

As the runway music faded out, the international fashion media were alerted to the presence of Stewart, sitting in the audience, watching her once 2D geometric paintings float past in 3D wearable form.

The Paris debut kicked off a huge year for the young artist, who spends most of her time in her country Victoria studio, creating art works preoccupied with abstract and geometric shapes that experiment with perception, form and oft result in an optical illusion effect.

As she prepares for her first show of 2016, i-D caught up with Esther Stewart in Melbourne to reflect on her year and talk international artistic collaboration.

2015 has been both a remarkable and busy year for you. As the year closes are you just now having a chance to finally process it all?
It's been a busy but exciting year. I have worked with a lot of new people and travelled a lot. I don't spend a lot of time reflecting generally as my mind is normally busy thinking of what's next but I am happy with how the year has rushed by.

The Valentino collaboration was a glorious pairing and has kind of endured in the months since the collection showed. How and when did the collaboration first come about?
A designer in the menswear team at Valentino, Maura Cianfriglia, saw an online review of my 2013 show "Makin' Plans" at Utopian Slumps. It wasn't until mid last year that Valentino approached me and proposed that we work together.

The Mime Bag Esther Stewart x Valentino autumn/winter 2015

What was the collaborative process like? Were you working from Australia and just sending work over or was there travel back and forth?
There was a lot of discussion early on in the process about what they were hoping to do with my works and how they wanted to use them. For me it was important to feel comfortable that they respected my artistic practices and I tried to show them the same respect by allowing them the freedom to interpret my works into their range. They took so much care to be faithful to my works and I couldn't have been happier with the result. It was amazing to see my works that are 2D and very flat becomes something so tactile, well crafted and moveable.

While the range was being developed I remained in Australia as I had two solo shows I was developing and making at the same time. I went to Paris in January for the launch of the range and then Rome in July to see my collaboration in the Valentino flagship store.

How did it feel when you saw the runway show with your work all over the clothing, accessories and that glorious carpet?
I had butterflies for months thinking about seeing the show. I was overwhelmed by the attention to detail and the care that was taken with my works when transforming them into garments and accessories. The highlight for me was being immersed in the catwalk experience at Hotel Salomon de Rothschild and being overwhelmed by the movement, lighting and music.

Esther Stewart x Maison Valentino autumn/winter 2015 via @esther_stewart

Do you have plans to work with Valentino or any other fashion houses again?
One clothing collaboration is enough for me at this stage. I want to focus on making my work for the next little while.

Does this type of collaboration prove it doesn't matter where you live in today's 'artworld' or is still difficult being based in Melbourne?
I don't really know, a bit of both maybe. Melbourne is a great place to be making art. There is a really strong community of artists, galleries and all the other people that help support the art industry. It is a small community that is supportive, creative and critical. I think the real disadvantage is geography. It is such a long way to other major art cities. Even though a lot of exhibitions are seen online now, I think it is still important to see work in the flesh. Often through documentation, key elements of the work are lost. First hand experience with artworks enables you to gain an understanding of material, context and the scale of the works. I also think it is important to meet people face to face to make real connections. For me it's important to live somewhere that I can enjoyably make work and can afford to travel a lot from.

Are you planning to remain in Melbourne?
I am not sure. I currently live in Daylesford, in country Victoria, Monday- Friday and in Melbourne on the weekends. I have been working from my studio in Daylesford for almost two years now. I share the studio with my boyfriend Oscar Perry. It's been great to have such a lovely place to make work. For some reason making work here seems to give me more time. We don't have specific plans to move overseas but it is something we would both like to try at some point in the future.

What is next for you in your own practise?
I am currently working on a show for next April at Sarah Cottier in Sydney. I'm developing works that will form an installation. Thinking in 3D again has been really enjoyable.

What is your relationship like with your gallery and collectors? Is art and commerce still incredibly difficult to navigate?
Having highly regarded relationships with the people I work with is incredibly important to me. I have found that having a good relationship with the galleries I work with provides me with support and advice that I wouldn't normally have access too. I tend to leave all art commerce conversation for my gallery to discuss with collectors. It's a conversation I prefer to not be a part of.

My works are normally very labour intensive so once I finish and exhibit them I don't really think a lot about them. I tend to reflect more on the body of work rather than the physical individual pieces that made up the show. I don't really think about where they go after the exhibition is taken down, for me the exhibition is the end point.

Still shot of Esther Stewart from 'Artistic Invention' a film by Valentino

What are you listening to right now?
I listen to lots of podcasts, Bad at Sports, The New York Out Loud and Here's the Thing are my current go to's!

Best art show of 2015?
I have been to lots of shows this year. Being in Daylesford during the week means I am more organised and see a lot more Melbourne shows on the weekend. I was also lucky enough to see Art Basel and the Venice Biennale this year too so it's hard to have a favourite. I've discovered a lot of new artists this year while travelling so I am just letting all the new works I have seen bubble away in my mind.

What does 2016 look like for Esther Stewart?
Ha! I am still working out 2016, after this year I have tried not to book in too much. I have my show with Sarah Cottier in April and then a few more projects I am waiting to confirm. It's such a good feeling to have room to move. 


Esther Stewart x Maison Valentino backpacks autumn/winter 2015 via @esther_stewart


Text Courtney DeWItt
Photography Ben Thomson