Fashion appropriation igniting backlash from art sector

News of wearable collections which exploits working-class labour and lack artwork authorisation prompts deeper questions into the increasing crossover between fashion and art.

Recently, two controversial news stories overseas have highlighted the issues surrounding blatant appropriations of artworks, and in one case, arts workers, as streetwear crosses over with art, a growing trend of collaboration targeted at millennial collectors.

It’s no surprise that Christies jumped on this trend with the establishment of Department X, a dedicated department of streetwear, sneakers and collectibles.

In a collaboration with media company Highsnobiety, the billion-dollar auction house released a collection of streetwear with the title ‘Art Handler’ on sweatshirts and tote bags, prices ranging from US$50 – $125.

With Art Handlers being one of the lowest paid jobs in the sector, Christies immediately came under fire online, criticised by art handlers as ’glamourising our lifestyle’ when many aren’t even offered a living wage, reported by The Art Newspaper.

While the nature of streetwear often encompasses a rebellious spirit, building an image upon exploitation is neither stylish nor ’woke’.

The wearable line was shortly removed from the website and Christies released a statement in apology, saying, ‘Christie’s art handlers are valued members of our global team – dedicated, skilled and hard-working’.

But streetwear brands re-appropriating working-class culture is barely new, and consulting for sensitivity barely an afterthought to deal with backlash that often don’t last until the next collection drop.

Also in deep waters is fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier for his use of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in a recent capsule collection. The Uffizi Gallery, which oversees the copyright for the painting, is suing the designer for reproduction without authorisation.

Read: Starter’s guide to fashion contracts

The case could exceed EUR€100,000 in damages according to Italian Cultural Heritage Code – which states any use of the country’s publicly owned art to sell merchandise requires permission and payment of a fee – even though the work has long surpassed 50-75 year mark often held for artwork copyright, reports The Guardian.

But what is even more unsettling, is that the fashion house choose a black model to don the Botticelli pattern (a dress at USD$650, tank top at USD$370), which exemplifies the epitome of white beauty, while other commentators said it’s a missed opportunity to collaborate with living artists instead.

At the end of the day, what is frustrating is how easily avoided these issues can be if more consideration was given. Though perhaps the only way to get all eyes on the prize is with a little controversy.

On a more optimistic (or equally satirical) note, the New York’s Art Handlers Alliance (AHA) said that since this ordeal began, Christie’s president in America Bonnie Brennen has started following the group on Facebook.

And in the midst of this whole fashion usurping art space, Stuart Semple has launched his own artist t-shirt campaign with HIT and RUN, turning the tables and riffing off street cool – watch the video.

Celina Lei is an arts writer and editor at ArtsHub. She acquired her M.A in Art, Law and Business in New York with a B.A. in Art History and Philosophy from the University of Melbourne. She has previously worked across global art hubs in Beijing, Hong Kong and New York in both the commercial art sector and art criticism. She took part in drafting NAVA’s revised Code of Practice - Art Fairs and was the project manager of ArtsHub’s diverse writers initiative, Amplify Collective. Celina is based in Naarm/Melbourne. Instagram @lleizy_