Since taking on the role in 2007, Dior Homme Artistic Director Kris Van Assche has consistently demonstrated his grasp on the power of association. With celebrities as disparate as Robert Pattinson and A$AP Rocky fronting the brand’s campaigns, Van Assche clearly believes in using art and creativity to empower fashion design.
Summer 2017 is no exception, featuring legendary 1980s pop star Boy George in campaign imagery, dressed in Dior Homme’s familiar dark, guarded aesthetic. A closer inspection of the badges that adorn his suit, shirt and hat are particularly interesting, featuring work by the Japanese artist Toru Kamei, whose unique combination of disparate artistic styles forms a perfect complement to Dior Homme’s soft-spoken, gothic aesthetic.
Born in 1976, Kamei has been creating artwork for most of his life and has become well-known in his home country for a style that combines classical painting techniques with surrealist and post-modernist concepts. Beautiful, ornate oil paintings of arranged flowers, mermaids and butterflies are combined with greek mythology and the human anatomy to create unsettling, otherworldly artworks.
Think of bouquets of roses with petals concealing eyeballs that stare out of the frame; nude dancers whose hair transforms into a snake made of insects; a constant interplay of blooming flowers, fruit, and melting skulls.
So, what draws Van Assche and Dior Homme toward Kamei? For one thing, just as Dior Homme brings contemporary elements to classic menswear design, Kamei employs a similar intertextuality to create artwork that both continues classical artistic styles but also reinvents them entirely.
To understand Kamei’s work, it’s important to understand its historical roots in Vanitas, a classical artistic theme that was prominent in the 16th and 17th centuries. Named from the Latin word for “emptiness”, vanitas art is heavily concerned in the futility of earthly pursuits; a belief that human endeavor is ultimately pointless in the shadow of inevitable death.
Vanitas artwork often presents still-life paintings of objects such as books, musical instruments, globes and other symbols of human conquest, with objects that carry a heavy symbolism of death’s inevitability; flowers, rotting fruit, empty shells and, most importantly, butterflies, an insect whose life is defined by a gradual transformation into a beautiful form, but whose fate is nonetheless the same as any other living being.
In his own work, Kamei boils these elements down to their rawest, most imposing forms. Flowers symbolize life, skulls symbolize death, and butterflies symbolize the slender thread that separates those two states.
Where Kamei pushes this conflict further, however, is in scenarios where flowers grow out of the skulls themselves; roses blooming out of eye-sockets or gardens growing in the ribcage of a skeleton suggest that these two concepts operate in tandem – that one cannot exist without the other.
The 20th century surrealists were inspired by the significance of dreams and the subconscious mind; early surrealists such as André Breton and Joan Miro practised ‘automatic writing’ and ‘automatic drawing’, techniques where they would allow their hand to write or draw without thinking or imposing conscious thought on the process, believing this would unlock deeper meanings.
Other artists like Giorgio de Chirico and Rene Magritte used surrealism to create other-worldly environments that disrupted traditional understanding – Magritte, in particular, was fascinated with making the familiar unfamiliar, painting a ship as the water on which it’s floating, or a shadowy house at nighttime with a bright blue sky above it.
In this context, Kamei’s vanitas influences become doubly significance, as a fatalistic view of the real world is coupled with a fascination with dreams and escapism. Kamei’s placement of human eyes and veins within fruit and flowers inject still-life paintings with signs of actual life, and inanimate objects obtain a strangely human quality. It’s perhaps this dichotomy of reality & unreality that attracts Kamei another influence…
Though it’s perhaps less prominent in his work than other themes, Kamei often incorporated elements of Greek mythology into his paintings – particularly creatures whose forms blend human and animal elements such as centaurs, mermaids and the snake-haired Medusa.
Many of the strange, fantastical creatures in Greek mythology symbolized particular beliefs or moral tales, so in this sense, they share a thread with the work of the surrealists; using abstraction and defamiliarization to explore the real world and the self.
But where Greek mythology eventually brings the audience back to reality and their own society, Kamei’s images – of mermaids battling with eels, or a fawn surrounded by dancing woodland creatures and fully-formed horned animals – create only further detachment.
Van Assche’s use of Kamei’s artwork in Dior Homme’s Summer 2017 collection is, in some ways, totally in keeping with traditional elements of fashion design. Flora, fauna, and skulls have long been incorporated into design both through direct reference and references to their form. But by working with an artist so heavily concerned with vanitas, it could be argued that Van Assche is making a playful commentary on the transience and futility of fashion – after all, fashion collections fade much like fruit and flowers every season.
By weaving Dior Homme’s high-fashion aesthetic with the Kamei’s gothic artwork – a style that dances between real life, real death and something altogether more unreal – Van Assche takes familiar fashion tropes and makes them unfamiliar once again. And does anything encapsulate the spirit of vanitas more than the act of creating something beautiful every season only to move on before the models have even left the runway? If the fashion world hadn’t been paying attention to Kamei before, they certainly will be now.