Louis Vuitton is a brand famous for its (occasional) willingness to collaborate. Over the years, the French luxury house has tapped everyone from Yayoi Kusama to Supreme to Stephen Sprouse, allowing various disparate visions to become part of the Louis Vuitton story for a season or two.
Not only have these joint collections sparked various debates, they’ve produced some seriously iconic pieces and added a touch of color to the strictly regimented luxury fashion industry. Last week, the brand made headlines again with “Masters,” a collaboration with American artist Jeff Koons.
Based on Koons’ series of Gazing Ball paintings, the capsule collection takes some of the most famous images in art history and superimposes them onto scarves, wallets and handbags. From Van Gogh to Da Vinci, the most adored artists in the world can now be bought and worn – if, of course, you have a few thousand euro spare.
He might be one of the world’s most expensive artists but Koons has an extensive celebrity fanbase and has made an impact on the worlds of music, streetwear and mainstream culture over the last few decades. Everyone from Jay-Z to Supreme has name-checked him over the years, whereas his standard weekend could easily involve lunch with Kim and Kanye.
If you don’t know him yet, you will now – here’s a brief breakdown of why you should care about Jeff Koons.
He Turned Ads Into Art
Like some of the world’s best pop artists, Koons rose to prominence by incorporating advertisements into his work. His Luxury and Degradation series back in the 1980s was the first hint of a fascination with pop culture that went on to define his later work; stainless steel sculptures of cocktail trays were shown alongside a series of ad slogans created by various alcohol companies.
The idea was to blur the lines between high and low culture, an ethos which still bleeds into his work. In some ways, the “Masters” collaboration with Vuitton carries on this theme – Koons has literally reprinted priceless artworks and made them available to be mass-produced and consumed.
Brands like Supreme have adopted this mentality – one of the skate brand’s famous vintage ads riffed on Warhol’s soup can, again bringing art history into commerce. It’s this idea of making art accessible which has seen Koons labeled as one of the founders of a Neo-Pop Art movement which is still influencing the luxury fashion industry today.
He Painted Porn
Koons may be best-known for his sculptures and installations, but for a few years he turned his artistic gaze on himself and his soon-to-be wife Ilona Staller. The result of this relationship was a series entitled Made In Heaven, a selection of explicit portraits which took porn clichés and brought them into some of the world’s most famous galleries.
Staller had acted in porn films herself – she was also known as La Cicciolina – but was a also a provocative political activist challenging corruption in the Italian government. She was approached to pose with the artist in what was originally intended to be a billboard ad for a new exhibition – things quickly escalated, and soon a series of paintings which depicted the couple mid-penetration were on the walls of galleries for the art elite to see. Not only did the project result in some of the world’s most expensive porn, it heavily influenced the kitsch, sexed-up visuals for Kanye West’s “Bound 2” – a work of art in its own right.
Your Streetwear Heroes Love Him
It’s unsurprising that Virgil Abloh cites Jeff Koons as a key influence. When explaining the decision to name his hugely successful brand “Off White” in a 2014 interview, he said: “I’m defining a grey area between two things; not necessarily opposites. For example: street and high fashion; kitsch and credible; men and women.” This explanation ties directly into Koons’ mission to blur the lines of art and commerce, whereas Abloh’s own background in architecture and ability to work in various mediums reveals a conceptual mentality which aligns him closely with the artist.
Furthermore, one of Abloh’s most recognizable designs is a Caravaggio painting screen-printed onto the back of a hoodie. Now, one of Koons’ most recognizable designs is the Mona Lisa emblazoned a bag – the duo share the same ethos and create the same effect, but merely show to different audiences.
He Pissed People Off
For some reason, one of the biggest insults that can be possibly be thrown at an artist is that they’ve “sold out.” By stating his mission to blend high art and mass media from day one, Koons should theoretically be immune from this critique. A cursory glance at reviews proves otherwise.
In a review of his 2014 retrospective, The Village Voice wrote: “If Koons’ objects could sing, they’d belt out the ‘Macarena’ and the ‘SpongeBob Squarepants’ theme song,” whereas another publication simply wrote: “Avoid the Whitney Museum. Art is elsewhere.”
He’s called tasteless and shameless by some, a subversive genius by others; an archive interview series with i-D showed that Koons has several designer fans including Walter van Beirendonck, Gareth Pugh and Jeremy Scott, whereas one viral op-ed described him as the “Kanye West of the art world.” His willingness to shake the foundations of an elite industry puts him on par with the likes of Supreme, YEEZY and Vetements – brands whose presence and profitability have forced the fashion world to rethink its aesthetic and connection to youth culture.
Koons’ huge financial success has also led to a series of high-profile lawsuits, some of which have yielded brilliantly scathing comments – when Koons tried to sue a San Francisco bookstore for supposedly ripping off his Balloon Dog sculpture, lawyers responded with the opening line: “As virtually any clown can attest, no-one owns the idea of making a balloon dog.”
“That” Michael Jackson Sculpture
Few celebrity friendships are more endearing than the famous bond Michael Jackson shared with his pet chimpanzee Bubbles. The pair traveled everywhere together (apart from countries averse to letting primates through customs, that is) and even met the mayor of Osaka in one of the weirdest political scenes in history. The iconic duo were immortalized in porcelain by Koons way back in 1988, resulting in a unique piece of both art and cultural history which is still arguably his best-known piece.
Despite its colossal retail value – one of the three statues created (four including the artist proof) sold in 1991 for $5.6million – fans were quick to criticize Jackson’s porcelain skin, painted lips and black-lined eyes. Whatever you think of the famously controversial work, it’s emblematic of Koons’ ability to seamlessly blend fine art and pop culture.
He Loves Bootlegging, Just Like Streetwear Brands
Until recently, it was considered controversial to show hoodies on the catwalk; now, streetwear is all that many youth-driven fashion publications want to cover. In the same way that Koons brought mass-market advertisements to hallowed gallery walls, countless streetwear labels have remixed film posters, campaign slogans and appropriated logos to create an obsession with bootleg culture which is now, ironically, being re-appropriated by brands like Gucci.
Supreme is arguably the best example; their archives are filled to the brim with designs inspired by everything from the Goodfellas’ title screen to ex-President Barack Obama. Koons even collaborated with the skate brand a decade ago, creating a series of skateboard decks emblazoned with his colorful Monkey Train artwork – depending on where you look, they’re now impossible to buy for less than several thousand dollars.
His Work Has Been Vandalized by Lady Gaga Fans
Jeff Koons doesn’t collaborate often but, when he does, the results resonate worldwide. In 2013, he teamed up with global megastar Lady Gaga to create a series of artworks, the most notable of which was a sculpture of the musician that wound up on the cover of her album ARTPOP. The idea was to blend high art and pop music; an idea which extended to the artRave, an album launch event which allowed the general public to dance, drink and twerk amongst the sculptures.
Sound like a bad idea? Unsurprisingly, the famous sculpture was vandalized by fans – live footage of the event sees Gaga, dressed in an inflatable white suit complete with mask, casually take a drink off of the statue’s base in the middle of her performance, throwing it to the ground.This is why we can’t have nice things.
His Louis Vuitton Collab Hints at a New Direction
So far, the response to Koons’ Masters series has been divided – hardly surprising, considering his unique ability to simultaneously piss off critics yet gain critical acclaim. Some have compared it to Marmite, others have called it “fashion terrorism.” This is obviously extreme – the barriers between streetwear and high fashion aren’t exactly being terrorized if nobody can afford to buy into the vision.
Back in 2014, Koons did deliver on his promise to blur high and low with an H&M collaboration which saw his Balloon Dog make its way onto an affordable handbag. His other fashion collaborations have involved a rabbit pendant for Stella McCartney as well as a $5,000 snowboard designed for Burton, but Masters marks his most extensive crossover to date.
Over the years, a series of streetwear giants have continued to incorporate his ethos of accessible art into their collections – it may not be name-checked, but the Koons blueprint has been all over the runway for years. This latest collaboration marks his first high-profile contribution to fashion in years and could open the floodgates for more. After all, with fans like Virgil Abloh and Gareth Pugh, anything is possible.
- Writer: Jake Hall