Jean-Michel Basquiat Was The Art World's Greatest Style Icon
With a retrospective of his work opening this month, the New York artist is still in fashion.
BY Teo van den Broeke | Sep 15, 2017 | Fashion
Name an artist who doesn't have great dress sense. You probably can't. David Hockney, for instance: no one can toe the ragged seam between a primary-hued knitted tie and a pastel rugby shirt with the dexterity of our national colourist. Joseph Beuys was another one: the Fluxus artist pulled off the tricky field-jacket and fedora combo with Germanic aplomb. And few could team turned-up selvedge jeans, worker jacket and half-smoked cigarette with the pebble-dashed panache of Jackson Pollock. The artist to beat all others in the style stakes, however, was Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Image by Getty
First "discovered" by Andy Warhol in a New York restaurant in 1980, the dreadlocked painter won the respect of the art world with his retina-searing neo-expressionist paintings, the hearts of his peers with an unapologetic approach to his work (he's famous for saying, "I don't listen to what art critics say. I don't know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is"), and the eyes of the fashion world with his inimitable personal style.
Basquiat never received any formal artistic training (he cut his teeth with the graffiti collective SAMO) and the wilful naivety of his work was reflected in his wardrobe. He'd wear the button-down collars of his preppy Oxford shirts unfastened and finished with wonky, peanut knot ties. He'd paint, barefoot, in the oversized suits he bought from high-end tailoring brands. Smart Ivy League blazers would be thrown over scruffy gym T-shirts. He wore threadbare great coats that would have drowned another man of his stature but somehow made him look like a rock star. Basquiat bedded Madonna, was mates with Keith Haring and could regularly be found draining Champagne cocktails at Manhattan hot spot Mr Chow. When he walked for Comme des Garçons in 1987, the two outsized grey suits he was dressed in would have looked silly on anyone else, but on him they were elegant.
From L - R: Blue/red plaid silk tie, £75 (*SGD134.60), by Gant; Pale cotton blue shirt, £80 (*SGD143.58), by Gant; Grey wool jacket, £285(*SGD511.50), by Gant
Basquiat was a contradiction — part urbane sophisticate, part wastrel-upstart. He was intimidatingly cool, entirely stylish and, according to the author, journalist and broadcaster Peter York, he knew exactly what he was doing.
"The look of Basquiat was obviously good," says York. "He was a very sophisticated person playing a sophisticated game. Though he played the part of a guy from the Bronx, he was completely middle-class — his dad was an accountant. Basquiat had a very sophisticated understanding of how sophisticated people see unsophisticated things, and that included himself. Basquiat knew how to play an interviewer or a situation.
"When downtown was downtown and uptown was uptown in New York, there was a very different social geography to the one that exists now," York says. "If you were a downtown artist like Basquiat, you'd do Tom Wolfe's idea of the 'Apache dance' for the uptown people and say, 'I spit on you capitalists and society people and your art galleries, I reject your values.' And then, in brackets, you'd be saying, 'Take me.'
"You go on doing the Apache dance until you absolutely weren't doing it anymore and you're going to every gallery opening going," laughs York. "The way Basquiat acted, the way he dressed, the whole thing was very thought-through."
Image by Getty
John Dunn, the Emmy-nominated costume designer who created the wardrobe for Julian Schnabel's 1996 film Basquiat (which starred Jeffrey Wright in the title role and featured an inspired turn from David Bowie as his mentor Andy Warhol), describes the late artist's style as: "Retro meets hip-hop, meets preppy, meets divine inspiration.
"[Basquiat had] a deceptively childlike fascination with pattern and colour, worn with total confidence and cool," Dunn says. "I think Basquiat was transfixed by fashion and used it constantly to define and expand his vision. It was a whole other medium for him and he could be his own canvas."
From L - R : Grey cotton polo shirt, £80 (*SGD143.58), by Polo Ralph Lauren; Grey/yellow wool-cashmere sweater, £1,130 (*SGD2,028), by Brunnello Cucinelli; Navy jacquard wool-cashmere cardigan, £595 (*SGD1,067.85), by Pringle of Scotland
Basquiat died aged 27 in 1988 from a heroin overdose. Since then, his art has commanded increasingly enormous sums. In May this year, Basquiat's "Untitled" 1982 painting of a skull sold for $110.5m (£85m) to a Japanese e-commerce billionaire, making it the sixth-most expensive painting ever sold at auction — others in the all-time top 10 include Modigliani's "Nu Couché" for $170.4m (£113) and Edvard Munch's "The Scream" for $120m (£74m) — not bad for the untrained son of a suburban accountant.
Opening at the Barbican Gallery on 21 September, Basquiat: Boom for Real features more than 100 of the artist's raw, energetic paintings, including the cobalt-soaked "King Zulu", the California sunshine-drenched "Hollywood Africans" and a reconstruction of Basquiat's first body of exhibited work from the 1981 watershed group show New York/New Wave. Sell the scruffy gym T-shirt on your back for a ticket.
From L - R: Black cotton T-shirt, £70 (*SGD125.63), by Sandro; White/black cotton 'UFO' T-shirt, £250 (*SGD448.68), by Gucci; Red cotton T-shirt, £30 (*SGD53.84), by adidas
*Denotes translated price
From: Esquire UK