“Is it an artwork or an everyday object with an artwork on it? Ultimately, art and fashion are not so different,” says artist Nicholas Hlobo in a Q&A with Louis Vuitton about their 2019 project that pieced together a limited edition iteration of the cult handbag — the Capucines. It’s proven to ring true for other South African artists and international luxury fashion brands who have collaborated similarly to create wearable art or unique brand campaigns.
The love affair has a long history which has seen these and many more fashion designers work with artists: Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali (1936), Comme des Garçons and Cindy Sherman (1994), Longchamp and Tracey Emin (2004), Alexander McQueen and Damien Hirst (2013), Yeezy and Vanessa Beecroft (2016), Stella McCartney x Ed Ruscha (2016).
And in the last three years, this liaison now includes South African artists. One of the most recent is Zandile Tshabalala, a 23-year-old who says she’s been interested in fashion since childhood and once thought she would become a fashion designer. She says, “I always try to find ways to include this passion in my paintings and use it as a tool of communication”.
It’s resonated with Italian luxury fashion house Bottega Veneta who contacted her on Instagram last year, through an agent. After being introduced to the team in Italy, it took several virtual briefings and meetings over six months, and a shipment of items to be used as references for the collaboration to be completed.
The project was imagined as an artist’s interpretation of their new season’s offering, the Wardrobe 03 Collection, which would be Daniel Lee’s last as creative director for the brand. Her work picked up on the dopamine green which he’d turned into a cult colour loved by influencers even as the brand divested from all social media platforms.
“The collaboration felt more like a continuation of what my work already is,” says Tshabalala. Looking at the gender fluid pieces from the collection, she settled on using a composition which revisited one she’d done in 2019. She describes the final work as “a single figure seated assertively with her gaze to the viewer, adorned with striking textures and colours that compliment her skin, a pattern as the background that contrasts the figure and brings about movement to the eyes, emphasis of the lip and nails through the use of red, [with] an effortless seduction coupled with androgyny”. The background pattern appears in another work used for the store opening in Soho New York.
Busy with one local and one international solo exhibition in June and July, Tshabalala feels that the project has helped her become more aware of the different ways she can work as an artist with a message to share, which is the inclusion of diverse representations of what it means to be a black woman.
Before her, two other young black woman artists who also explore themes of identity and representation were invited to work with luxury fashion brands — Tony Gum with Chloe — in a series dubbed 'Cart Blanche Campaign: Klo Way’ (2020) and Lunga Ntila for Victoria Beckham.
Twenty-seven year old conceptual photographer Ntila, who uses self-portraiture, fashion photography and collage, says the head of content and social media for Victoria Beckham reached out to her on Instagram too. “They invited a few of us female creatives to create two pieces of content inspired by the PAW2020 Victoria Beckham Collection, the first one in your personal style and the second one, a self portrait in that collection,” she says. Playing a little out of her comfort zone by using illustration, which she doesn’t work with typically, to invigorate the brand’s classic silhouettes, she also used the clothes to allow herself to articulate different personas.
Currently part of a group exhibition at the Format Festival 22 at QUAD Gallery in Derby, UK, which runs until the beginning of July, she says she’ll be featured in another one at the Trent Gallery in Pretoria curated by artist Tatenda Chidora. Ntila says besides the checked suit gifted by the designer, she treasured the collaboration which opened up her eyes to the many ways she can use her creative style to work with other brands and people.
Athi-Patra Ruga, a performance and visual artist, and fashion graduate of the Gordon Flack Davison Fashion Institute in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, also found the match uncomplicated. When approached by Christian Dior to recreate the fourth edition of the iconic Lady Dior handbag, his first design was magnetised by a stay in Hogsback which he has now made his home with his partner Malibongwe Tyilo, a multimedia journalist and editor, and the second, his own work — The BEATification of Feral Benga. The undulating valleys and hills of the Amatola Mountain, on which Hogsback sits atop and from where Ruga sketched his design for the first bag added layers to his homage to the to the house founder’s scalloped 1949 Junon gown, which has influenced his own relationship with textile. Then touching on the politics of representation and the culture of extraction, the second bag became a jewelled self-portrait that was a conversation with Dior about a mutual respect of craftsmanship by their respective studios.
Just finished with a solo at the Galerie Eva Presenhuber in New York, he’s been busy with an exhibition here entitled ‘Athi and Irma’ following a summer-long residency at the Irma Stern Museum to “unpeel her work, work on certain interventions on the archive, explore the power dynamics of portraiture, and interrogate the studio tradition and still lives as an erotic display”.
Ruga says that he chooses projects that change him technically and with similar considerations of new (or old) ways to work with shape, form, material, colour, context and subject, it’s easy to see why other fashion designers and artists have been such loose-fitting bedfellows.
The latest collaboration
Cinthia Sifa Mulanga X Gucci 2022
Along with other artists from around the world, Cinthia was invited to reinterpret a range of Alessandro Michele's designs. She celebrates the Gucci Diana tote bag in a "collaborative digital project" with work that "focuses on beauty constructs, as well as their psychological and physical impact on African women".