Matisse in fashion

Henri Matisse’s deliciously enchanting artworks have long captivated those with a certain visual sensibility. His intoxicating use of colour, distorted perspectives and patterns create a dreamlike world into which many have been lured, and it’s an attraction that certainly hasn’t escaped the pages of fashion designers’ sketchbooks.

The French artist pioneered a fierce and free use of colour that became known as Fauvism, a wild approach to painting that helped overturn a new way of seeing. Disregarding traditional planes of perspective, shadow and depth, Matisse confirmed that artists were no longer obliged to imitate the external world faithfully.

Yet some of his most famous works are from the final chapter of his artistic career, after he’d put down the paintbrush. In the 1950s, no longer able to paint due to ill health, he developed a new technique known as the paper cut-out. He called it “painting with scissors,” a new medium characterised by bold, simplified shapes and pure, bright colours.


The current MoMA exhibition, “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs,” has awakened the public once more to the genius of the French artist. The New York installation has in fact been so successful, bringing in over half a million visitors since its opening in October, that it’s been extended through February. When word got round that the cut-outs would be displayed together for the first time in over 40 years, fashion designers were ready for the storm. 2014 saw a colourful explosion of collections that openly referenced Matisse’s renowned masterpieces; an artistic trend that’s already continued into the next season.

But the fashionable fascination with his dramatic use of colour and bold shape is nothing new. Matisse’s work has long been an influence upon the fashion world, speaking directly to many designers’ imagination. We only need to look at Cecil Beaton’s Matisse-inspired shoot for the 1949 spring issue of Vogue. Models Jean Patchett and Carmen Dell’ Orefice pose elegantly against a powerful backdrop of cut-out shapes in the era’s latest designs and chicest ensembles.

British designer Paul Smith was one of the first to incorporate the artist’s vision into his own designs. Referring to Matisse coolly as “the boss of colour”, he focussed on the extraordinary ways in which Matisse combined bright, clashing hues within a single canvas. Enthralled by this, Paul Smith began applying the same effect to his early creations, throwing colours together dramatically in a time when trends were faithful to more classical colour combinations.

Smith isn’t the only fashion designer to be inspired by Matisse’s innovation. Yves Saint Laurent’s 1980 fall-winter haute couture collection featured a stunning black velvet and moiré faille evening dress, its multicolour satin appliqué leaves straight from the cut-out The Sheaf (1953). A year later, his 1981 autumn-winter collection arrived, named “La Blouse Roumaine” after the painting of the same name. A homage to Henri Matisse, many of the designs were themed around the painter’s famous canvases and sculptures, and the Romanian peasant wear of the painting was appropriated straight onto the catwalk.

But last year, when MOMA announced the brightly glowing treasures behind its doors, the art-fashion collaboration truly took off.

Lulu Guinness turned to the cut-outs directly as inspiration for her AW 14 collection. “I’m proud to introduce my AW14 Collection inspired by one of my all time favourite artists, Henri Matisse. From abstract cut-outs to rich and deep winter hues, this is a collection of fun and fabulous accessories to see you through the autumn/winter season and beyond.”

Christian Dior followed suit with an autumn-winter collection that flashed Matisse from every dramatic angle. His bold colour blocking and sharply sliced designs strutted along in purposefully jarring colourways. Grass green met electric fuchsia while red sizzled beside sky blue folds, and it all popped deliciously, just like Destiny (1947.)

London designer Issa’s 2014 autumn-winter collection brought a splash of bold, paintbox hues to the catwalk that were just oh so art house chic. Fragmented slices of colour stretched across the designs, recalling the choppy shapes of Matisse’s gorgeous Memory of Oceania (1953). Her 2015 spring-summer collection has taken a step back from the artist’s signature brights, focussing instead on the form and shapes of his cut-outs with a delightful flurry of bold, wavy black and white patterns.

Putting a spring in our step (one step closer towards MoMA?), Serbian designer Roksanda Ilincic’s gorgeous 2015 collection adds a sweet pastel spin to the trend, her simple shapes and fresh colours recalling cut-outs such as Beasts of the Sea (1950.) But for those who definitely can’t make it to MoMa within the next month, Tata Naka’s 2015 Pre-Collection is perhaps the next best thing. Featuring an array of Matisse-inspired shapes, the design duo’s creations look ready to blend seamlessly into the gallery walls. To become fully immersed, South African graphic designer Diana Moss has created a fabulous mash-up of designs with Matisse backdrops.

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