Hand-painted clothes that bring art to your wardrobe

Close-up detail of paint-patterned clothes on the catwalk
Colm Dillane’s KidSuper spring/summer 2023 show saw models wearing items that referenced the designer’s artworks . . .  © Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

A male model strides on to the catwalk in a jacket painted in a checkerboard pattern
. . . which were auctioned off during the presentation © Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Though art and fashion have long rubbed shoulders, at the Paris Men’s Fashion Week in June, American brand KidSuper combined the two in a way that felt like both a satire of the art world and a love letter to painting.

Designer Colm Dillane’s brightly coloured oil works on canvas were sold off, while models wearing items that reference the artworks walked through the centre aisle, many carrying paint brushes and palettes. Some of Dillane’s paintings were reworked as prints; others, including a black leather jacket with three blue figures across the chest (later worn by American rapper Jack Harlow), were painted directly by Dillane and his team.

Guests with paddles emblazoned with “Superby’s” placed bids between looks, with one painting selling for $210,000. For the finale, two art handlers placed an oil painting on the stage as a model stuck her painted face through a cut-out and stepped through the frame to wear the artwork like a poncho.

KidSuper’s maximalist combination of disciplines and materials could be the apotheosis of a fashion trend that has been years in the making. From Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí, with their custom-painted lobster dress for the Duchess of Windsor, to Keith Haring’s elaborately painted leather jackets, fashion has long sought to draw on the cachet of celebrated painters to create unique items.

A female catwalk model in a dress splattered with paint
A model walks SR Studio’s show in Florence in 2019 © Getty Images

Marni and buzzy young brands such as Sterling Ruby’s SR Studio, Eckhaus Latta and Bode have made hand-painted embellishments a key part of their design language, and a search for “painted” on Ssense turns up hundreds of products.

A robot arm spray-paints clothes worn by a catwalk model
Model Shalom Harlow is spray-painted by robot arms during Alexander McQueen’s SS99 show © Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Other luxury designers have used paint to undo traces of preciousness, defacing clothes that would otherwise feel too perfect or neat. Stylist and creative director Nico Amarca has always been drawn to designers who use paint as a countercultural gesture. “For me it harks back to the DIY ethos of punk and post-punk subcultures; the idea of tailored originality and defiling your clothes through customisation,” he says. “There’s an exclusivity attached to it, and the odds of someone else owning or wearing the same creation are slim.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, avant-gardists embraced this power: Martin Margiela, who quit fashion to become a painter, slathered leather Tabi boots in cheap white gesso paint as if they’d just emerged from a studio, while Alexander McQueen famously used robotic arms to spray paint a dress as the showstopper to his spring 1999 collection.

Graffiti and street art have long been part of the streetwear aesthetic, which in recent years has been brought on to the catwalk. In hiring street artists and bootlegger GucciGhost to spray-paint “Real” across its autumn/winter 2016 handbags, Gucci used the destructive power of paint as the ultimate shrug of indifference.

A young man in a fashionable white jacket over a patterned black T-shirt
Trouble Andrew, also known as Guccighost, was enlisted by Gucci in 2016 to spray paint handbags with the word ‘Real’ © Getty Images North America

Today, thousands more independent designers can be found proffering their hand-painted wares, including Small Talk Studio, Serena Nickson and Juliet Johnstone, with styles ranging from Jackson Pollock-esque drips to vintage cartoons to photorealistic renderings.

Tony Shirtmakers makes wonderful linen shirts with hand-painted stripes and drips — the slightly wavy lines combined with the visible brush strokes create an effect that feels artisanal, but will still go nicely with wide-fit chinos or faded jeans ($755, tonyshirtmakers.com). Meanwhile The Slum Studio, a Ghanaian brand that paints over second-hand garments to create one-of-a-kind colourful abstractions, makes wearers look like a walking Basquiat — in the best way possible.

A cream shirt and pair of trousers with black swirly painted patterns hang from a wooden trellis
Tony Shirtmakers’ signature linen clothing with hand-painted stripes and drips

As with art collecting, fakes and unlimited editions are not the move. “It’s like filling your house with objects made to look antique,” says Turner Allen, a men’s personal stylist based in New York. “It may appear nice, but upon closer inspection, it will look cheap and contrived.” Badly vectored brushstrokes and overpriced faux-splatters should be avoided.

Allen also believes it’s better to work with small brands rather than big names because “you often collaborate directly with the designers” who are actually doing the painting themselves. “Whereas with big brands, you’ll most likely be customising a garment with a selection of pre-made design templates and the help of a sales representative.” Like getting a tattoo, a good painter/designer should be able to steer you away from your worst impulses and help you create a garment that feels like a unique expression of whatever you’re into. And should your interest fade in say . . . Super Mario, remember that a shirt isn’t permanent.

Some intrepid readers may be tempted to pick up the paint brush themselves. Having attempted to paint some emerald stripes on to an old white shirt a few months back, I can say from experience that it is more work than it seems, but also more fun. I used some fabric paint from the hardware store and a bit of painters tape to line up the stripes. Washing wasn’t an issue, but I didn’t throw it in with any light colours to avoid my wardrobe turning the colour of the Hulk.

The most important thing is to choose an item you don’t mind ruining. If your hand is shaky, lay down this newspaper to stop the paint dripping on to anything valuable. Or if you’re feeling lucky, you can just hand over a Birkin to your infant child, like Kim Kardashian did, and hope for the best.

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