Stella McCartney

State of the Art: When Stella Met Ruscha

Ed_Ruscha_for_Stella_McCartney_Stellacares_fashion_editorial_Harley_Weir_Winter_2016.jpgStella McCartney’s F/W 2016 Campaign

This season, Stella McCartney teamed up with legendary artist Ed Ruscha on her Fall 2016 ad campaign. Shot by Harley Weir and starring Amber Valetta, the ads showcase the label’s core tenant of cruelty-free fashion, with Ruscha’s unmistakable typeface spelling out “No Leather, Feathers, or Fur,” “Veg Out,” and “Meat Free” across the images. This brilliant collaboration sets McCartney apart from her luxury rivals and lower-tier imitators as the undisputed queen of “vegetarian” fashion, and gives her heavyweight artistic credibility, when her famous friends and celebrity clients can sometimes overshadow her importance as a designer and fashion innovator. The campaign is also an unprecedented project between designer and artist that spawns a new chapter in the fashion-as-art debate: can fashion advertisements be art?

The collaboration was born when Ed Ruscha and Stella McCartney appeared together on an episode of Sundance’s Iconoclasts. The two are very different at first glance: Ruscha is a 79-year old Oklahoma-born American Artist whose text-centric art routinely passes through the doors of major auction houses, and is synonymous with a wry west coast cool; while McCartney is a British fashion designer forging a Kering-backed empire of sustainable fashion, and spawn and pal of celebrity. But the two come together seamlessly on the desire to communicate a large, important idea in a pithy and accessible way. Stella has the message, and Ruscha has the medium.

Fashion label-contemporary artist collaborations are nothing new, and the list of ventures is long and varied. Typically, however, we see artist collaborate on the design of a piece of apparel or accessory –  like Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince, and Stephen Sprouse for Louis Vuitton; Sterling Ruby for Raf Simons and Dior; and, most recently, Alex Katz for H&M. This territory is not new for Stella McCartney, who collaborated with Jeff Koons on rabbit pendants in the mid-2000s, which are now going for a pretty penny at auction.

The McCartney-Ruscha partnership, however, as an ad campaign, is a different animal. The closest thing to this kind of collaboration was when David Lynch photographed a campaign for Christian Louboutin in 2008. No other major artist has engaged in the advertising process so explicitly, and so adjacently to his own canon: the McCartney collaboration is an interesting extension of Ruscha’s work as a pop artist, and as an artist concerned with consumer culture, Hollywood, and, in fact, advertising itself.

McCartney’s label was one of the first ‘environmentally friendly’ labels when it was founded in 2001, eschewing the use of leather, fur, and feathers, and promoting organically grown fibers and sustainable fashion. Today, that message tends to be overlooked, and Stella McCartney is seen only as a British luxury label favored by celebrities and Team GB. With sustainability becoming a much-discussed topic and high priority within the fashion community, now is the perfect time for McCartney to remind the fashion world and its consumers of her pioneering status in the field and capitalize on the industry’s priority shift. The best way to remind conscious buyers of the brand’s tenants is visually, which is where the collaboration with Ruscha comes in. Ruscha’s paintings typically feature a word or phrase in a signature blocky font. His deadpan works frequently play on the tension between the opaque and the obvious, and modern life and nature, as many of the words are set against a landscape.

In the McCartney ads, however, the message is nothing but clear and not in the least ironic – Ruscha spells out the line’s ethos and reminds viewers of the label’s status as the only “vegetarian” luxury brand. This explicit visual reminder does wonders for repositioning McCartney as a model for companies seeking to create ethical fashion, and as the crown jewel in the Kering stable in terms of sustainability, which is one of the conglomerate’s biggest corporate goals. It also lends the label gravity and serious artistic credibility, and situates it as unique among labels as a pioneer in the advertisements-as-art field. This is also an interesting opportunity for Ruscha, allowing him to play in the advertising medium for a worthy but ultimately commercial cause, instead of lending tongue-in-cheek critique of consumerism from ultra-expensive paintings.

I’m of the opinion that fashion advertisements are art. They’re a perfect distillation of a brand’s meaning in a few photographs, and thus often more narratively full and than an editorial photograph. The McCartney-Ruscha partnership is the first of its kind, and I imagine an important milestone in positioning advertisements in a more artistic, and less commercial, light. I hope to see more to come – how about Tracy Emin for Gucci?

 

 

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