Now, 33 years after Jean-Michel Basquiat’s passing away, the new-expressionist prodigy’s influence in the realm of fashion and pop culture is only getting more prominent.
A few days ago, Big Bang’s T.O.P was seen seating with Yusaku Maesawa, the high-profile Japanese entrepreneur, in front of a large-scale Basquiat’s Untitled (1982) that Maesawa sold at Phillips last night (May 18th, 2022) for $85,000,000. Maesawa is also the owner of the most expensive Basquiat painting that he acquired from Sotheby’s in 2017 for a record-breaking 110.5 million dollars. Alongside Maesawa, Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, is also an astute collector of Basquiat. In 2021, after acquiring Tiffany & Company, LVMH controversially used a rare Basquiat painting “Equals Pi” to promote the jeweller’s new campaign. Jay-Z was also featured in that Tiffany campaign, he is also a Basquiat collector and used to dress like Basquiat at a Halloween party. Among the millennials, K-pop group Pentagon had a song titled “Basquiat” with lyrics goes like: “We will be a new Basquiat”. And fashion influencer Luka Sabbat also got his style inspired by Jean-Michel to be featured in GQ Spain.
What Artists Wear Can Be A Tool
For Jean-Michel Basquiat, people’s interest in him is not limited to his artworks, but also to his personal style. “What artists wear can be a tool in their practice. Their clothing can tell of their desire for another mode of living or, sometimes, their conscious subscription to the status quo”, said Charlie Porter, author of What Artists Wear. Basquiat’s intuitional approach to his artwork echoes the way he dresses. While expressing himself on the canvas, Basquiat’s wardrobe also plays a role in shouting out messages.
Basquiat is known for wearing designer labels like Armani as his workwear while doing paintings. Karen Binns, Jean-Michel’s friend and a stylist, recalled:
He dressed in the most expensive clothes with paint all over them. Constantly. Most of the time he wore Comme des Garçons, with loads and loads of paint, and also loads of joint burns……The shirt would be twisted round, a scarf would be thrown from somewhere else. It was the most natural look that I’ve ever seen.
Basquiat’s approach to fashion, especially the way he stained those expensive clothes with paint, can leave people with the impression that he does not care how he looks. However, That carefree attitude, in the essence, is a sophisticated nonchalance driven by Basquiat’s subtle expression of a rebellion against the system while craving recognition from it.
Born in an upper-middle-class family, the environment of Jean-Michel’s upbringing was quite bourgeois. At age of 15, as Jean-Michel’s relationship with his father deteriorated, he decided to move out of home and live a bohemian lifestyle on the street of New York. Downtown Manhattan in the late 70s was a magnet for creative people, along with criminals, homeless people and prostitutes. Basquiat started to hang out with milieus including Madonna, Keith Haring, and Debbie Harry. Actually, at that time, there are hundreds of young artists gathered in downtown Manhattan, they were into myriad disciplines from modern dance to fashion design. That dynamic art scene with plenty of young artists communicating, experimenting, and secretly competing with each other was called “Downtown 500”. Perhaps that’s when Basquiat picked up his fashion sense.
Jefferey Deitch, the art dealer and curator who was close to Basquiat since his earlier years once commented: “He was blessed with astonishing sophistication, as a teenager, he understands exactly where to position himself, at age 18, he was already at the absolute epicentre of the most advanced music, art in the world.” The creative energy in early 80’s New York was unbridled, among the other hundreds of artists, Basquiat stood out. In 1981, by the age of 21, Basquiat has already completed his transformation from a graffiti street artist to a gallery artist, and his work had already been exhibited internationally winning global attention from Zurich to Tokyo.
In Feb 1985, at the epic of his meteoric career, the 24-year-old Jean-Michel got on the cover of New York Times Magazine. In that cover photo, he was smartly dressed in a striped suit and tie, but not wearing shoes. There’s an anecdote that the editor of the magazine had sent the photographer back and forth many times to persuade Basquiat to put shoes on, they even called his art dealer Mary Boone for that particular request, but ended up with that iconic Basquiat portrait in bare feet.
Style and Shadow
“He (Basquiat) had a great taste and a great eye for quality in all different fields”, said Bruno Bischofberger, the Swiss art dealer. His friends remembered him being a gourmet with all the expensive Champaigns and Caviar in the fridge. Even before he was rich and famous, he would spend all the allowance from his art dealer Annina Nosei to buy expensive groceries and croissants from Dean & DeLuca.
In 1981, while the young Jean-Michel is taken New York by storm, Kawakubo and Yamamoto made their first debut in Paris Fashion Week and swept the fashion system with asymmetrical cuttings, black fabric, and Avant guard concepts. Jean-Michel was usually spotted wearing a geometric Issey Miyake optical in archive photos, and a great proportion of his wardrobe was composed of Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto. In 1987, Kawakubo Rei invited Basquiat to model for Comme des Garçons fashion show in Paris. He agreed: “I spend a hundred grand a year in that shop anyway”, Basquiat said to Binns.
As an artist, Basquiat is highly observant of the sociocultural environment. In his oeuvre, he repeatedly used the signs of copyright and trademarks that reflect capitalistic values, together with text and images alluding a diverse political, historical and social events. And of course, the hypersensitive black artist also pinpointed the race issue in his works. Irrefutably, there is a dichotomy between the way Jean-Michel was embraced in the art society and the way he was treated in the world outside the bubble.
In an old article about Basquiat written by Anthony Haden-Guest in 1988, art collector Maggie Bult shared a fantastic story of her night out with Basquiat:
The party （Bianca Jagger’s birthday party ) was at Nell’s. “As soon as we walked in, he became very paranoid”…Within five minutes, Basquiat was whisking her off for dinner at Barbetta’s. “He was greeted very ceremoniously,” Bult says. “So we sat there, and he ordered only the best of the best. Champagne, and baby lamb, and on, and on. Poor thing! The bill was over $300. He loved to spend, but he shouldn’t have been spending that sort of money.” It was almost, she feels as if he felt guilty.
The way he shopped was extravagant, and the way he ordered only the finest food in the finest restaurant was epicurean, but no one would know to what extent Jean-Michel’s excessive shopping manner was aimed to earn homage from that biased society. Ironically, no matter how much he spends with luxury retailers, he can’t get a taxi on the street of New York. Bult remembered that night after dinner, “Several (taxies) went by, two of the drivers were black, but nobody would take him. Jean-Michel turned to me and said, You know why nobody is taking us? It’s because I’m black. Can you get a taxi?” Bult swiftly got a taxi. She remembered what Basquiat was wearing that night standing by the street: “a floppy black suit from Yohji Yamamoto, an open white shirt, a straight-brimmed black hat.”