how fashion gave queer art its renaissance

From Supreme to Coach, queer art is having a moment in fashion.

by Joe Bobowicz
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16 October 2019, 7:00am

Queens, leather daddies and peroxide boys paraded the streets of Soho during London Pride. On the corner of Brewer and Wardour Street, Jonathan Anderson and his team stood, armed with a blue plastic bag full of cans of lager handing out keyrings outside what’s soon to be the location of Jonathan’s namesake brand’s new store. Behind them, on what will become the storefront, was a technicolour homoerotic mural.

The artist responsible for it, Pol Anglada, has fond memories of the day. “We hung out around the building, getting together with everyone, and then people started taking pictures in front of the kissing image,” he says. With sex shops, casinos and conglomerate coffee chains on every corner, Soho’s footfall is diverse. “Kindness and respect is a universal message,” he says. The campaign reached those familiar with queer art, and those who weren’t.

Fashion is inherently queer. You just need to revisit the last Met Gala, themed Camp: Notes on Fashion, if you need further proof, or look at the defining fashion moments of the past half decade: Louis Vuitton dabbled in harnesses; Gucci put out leather jockstraps while Moschino made t-shirts emblazoned with the Playboy logo, transforming its instantly recognisable moniker into ‘Gayboy’ instead. Fashion is becoming increasingly progressive, and queer art history is finding a place in the industry’s new ecosystem.

Designers like Jonathan are putting queer art into a hugely public sphere, and in his case, it feels genuine. “Since I’ve known Jonathan we’ve shared a passion for queer imagery and documentation – from unknown self-published fanzines and anonymous authors, to the key figures in the history of queer art,” Pol explains, citing Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Bruce LaBruce and Peter Hujar. Like many of his queer peers, Hujar’s recognition accelerated posthumously. The good news is that fashion, with its global platform and reliance on references, can spotlight those who were ignored.

This was the case with Hujars’ close friend, David Wojnarowicz, known for his scathing portrayal of homosexual life in the 80s and 90s. In 2018, Anderson oversaw a Loewe — where he is also Creative Director — collaboration with Wojnarowicz’s estate, resurrecting his work through a new lens. Emblazoned on a T-shirt was a collage from 1990, known informally as ‘Untitled (One Day This Kid..)’. The collage depicts a young Wojnarowicz, wrapped in columns of text not dissimilar to those of tabloids decrying homosexuals during the AIDs crisis. Typewritten is the bleak future he faces as a homosexual: electric shock, conditioning therapies and violence.

Given that violence against LGBTQ people is still a living reality, this kind of imagery is undeniably relevant. The UK, where Jonathan Anderson is based, has no shortage of issues. In June, Anderson posted a graph on Instagram showing the rise in homophobic hate crimes across the capital. Add to this what’s happening in Poland, where anti-LGBTQ rhetoric intensifies, and you can see why the fashion world might be an ally. “Loewe is an international brand sold in countries where homophobia is prevalent,” remarks Wendy Olsoff, who represents the artist’s estate. And it’s in this way that fashion can spearhead progress, where perhaps art, its exclusive counterpart, cannot. “We believe that this partnership increased awareness about David’s work in a way that can’t be replicated by museums and galleries,” she adds.

But with a wider reach comes an increased risk of exposure to ignorant communities, as evidenced in the reaction to Supreme’s collaboration with Nan Goldin. The spring/summer 2018 collaboration, which spawned some pieces portraying two opulent queens Misty and Jimmy Paulette, was met with a mixed response. The collection sold slower than most other drops; comment sections on Reddit and streetwear sites were littered with trans- and homophobic comments. “Nan mentioned it a year or so before but I didn’t realise the magnitude. I thought just a [photo for a] skateboard or something,” Jimmy, now a world renowned hair stylist tells us.

Still, there is good news yet. Supreme’s next foray into queer art has proved less divisive. The streetwear brand’s firmly rooted status amongst New York creatives brought the Chinese-American queer artist Martin Wong to grail status amongst hypebeasts. The painter, known best for his skewed representations of social realism, was a major figure in the New York art scene, before he died of an AIDS related illness in 1999. At present, Supreme hoodies bearing his famous ‘8-Ball’ painting -- which had an original RRP of £156 -- are listed on Grailed at prices ranging from £385 to £648 after US to UK conversion, largely thanks to a co-sign from KAWS. “KAWS came into contact with PPOW Gallery and Wong in the early 90s when he would come into our Soho space to look at Wong’s paintings,” Wendy Olsoff, who represents the estate of Wong, recounts. “Martin’s work is extremely coded and speaks to a multiple of communities.” Perhaps, in being less explicitly queer, this collaboration has been better received? A depressing thought, partially alleviated by the response of his OG fan base.

When done properly, one T-shirt design can carry more meaning than a whole collection. The genderqueer intersex artist Vaginal Davis knows this. Before collaborating with Rick Owens on an illustration for a T-shirt for Participant (a non-profit arts space), Davis and Owens had cultivated memories and a mutual understanding of what the fashion world needed more of. “I modelled Rick’s first collection in Los Angeles when he was selling out of Charles Gallay.” Vaginal recalls her past memories with Owens, including the first time she saw his wife and creative partner Michele Lamy. “She was barracuda femme and a total top."

Davis, whose mother inspired her drag persona, sheds light on her drawing used in the 2017 collaboration. “I come from a black Creole mother born in Louisiana, whose mother was a Choctaw Indian raised on a reservation. My father was born in Mexico and his parents were German immigrants to that country. Rick and I share this mixed background,” she says. The drawing she donated to the collection, a bald head connected but also separated from a dotted wig, examines her intersex, mixed-race identity and in doing so, crystallised what Owens appreciates in her.

That’s what the boundary-blurring London brand Art School did for the queer sculptor Richard Porter too. Their latest collection, an homage to the late Derek Jarman, featured Porter’s exquisite clay accessories, reminiscent of the shingles found in Jarman’s garden. "We love the referencing behind Richard’s work, so with this season being so about the sea and Derek Jarman, it felt the right time to start collaborating,” says Eden Loweth, one half of the non-binary fashion label. Considering that Loweth and design partner Tom Barratt have looked to Jarman since their graduate collection, the homage was a long time coming, even though Art School has been a stronghold for the queer community since its inception.

Sometimes the prestige or niche world of high fashion wards off hatred. When Raf Simons sent Robert Mapplethorpe’s hyper-gay imagery down the catwalk, there was no kickback. With erect dicks and a groin-fondling Mapplethorpe descending on the runway, the spring/summer 17 collection was well received. But was he preaching to the already converted? Maybe so. Still, it’s a testament to progress. Less than 30 years ago, the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center was taken to trial for displaying Mapplethorpe’s work. If Simons can show it on luxury clothes then hopefully fashion’s trickle-down effect will work its magic on the streets.

The fashion world is bringing the work of our queer forefathers back into our consciousness. Those works find new meaning in new contexts. As David Casavant, the go-to Raf Simons archivist, notes, “when the artist isn’t alive anymore to create new work, it's interesting to re-appropriate their work, to keep it alive.” Even today, in a society shaped by anti-LGBTQ rhetoric everywhere from daytime television to the Oval Office, designers like Raf, Rick and Jonathan remain dedicated to pushing a more positive representation of queer art into the mainstream – regardless of how palatable it might be to those revellers pushing through throngs of people in central London on a Saturday afternoon.

Tagged:
camp
Keith Haring
Art School
nan goldin
Raf Simons
Ropert Mapplethorpe
queer art
jonathan anderson