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STYLE NOTEBOOK

Dead art icons live on, in a fashion

Designers cut deals with estates of such stars as Warhol, Mapplethorpe.

December 16, 2006|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

LVMH, the luxury conglomerate with Vuitton and Dior in its stable, announces that it will build a contemporary art museum in Paris. MAC cosmetics serves up burlesque glamour girl Dita von Teese at a swank dinner at Art Basel Miami. And suddenly, dead artists are at the center of a major holiday campaign and a luxury designer product launch.

The mutual admiration between art and fashion is turning into a full-on love fest.

For the holidays, Barneys New York launched the ultimate art-meets-fashion marketing blitz working with the Warhol Foundation on Pop Art windows, shopping bags, a special pair of Levi's, even actual cans of Campbell Soup, at $12 each. Portraits of the artist by schoolchildren are being exhibited and sold in stores to benefit local arts programs.

"Increasingly I noticed that everyone has been talking Warhol -- two documentaries, skyrocketing auction prices, the imminent Edie Sedgwick movie -- it was the perfect year for us to have a Happy Warhol-iday," says Simon Doonan, the store's creative director.

Still, it's not like we're in the middle of a 1960s moment on the runways, or in interior design for that matter, so why Warhol now?

"Everybody wants to be cool and groovy, and there is this nagging feeling that nobody was more cool and groovy than Andy," Doonan offers. "He invented it. Every few years a new generation discovers him and then all the old geezers like me get reminded of how great he was ... and funny." One of Doonan's favorite Warholisms? "Employees make the best dates: You don't have to pick them up and they are always tax deductible."

Marketing Warhol's work is almost too easy, as fascinated as he was by conspicuous consumption. But what do you do with an artist whose medium was photography and whose oeuvre included not only flowers but crosses and phalluses too?

The Robert Mapplethorpe Estate is turning to Chrome Hearts, the L.A.-based rock 'n' roll luxury brand designed by motorcycle enthusiast Richard Stark and his wife, Laurie.

In February, several limited-edition items will land in Chrome Hearts boutiques and in museum stores, including Hermes-quality silk chiffon scarves ($620) with a kaleidoscopic print intertwined with Mapplethorpe's cross, flag and nude torso imagery, and black leather JJ Dean leather jackets with the scarf lining (women's $6,160; men's $6,765). There's also jewelry -- dog tags in silver with pave diamonds ($935), and crosses in silver and gold with and without diamonds ($715 to $46,250).

"We have been very conservative about licensing, limiting it to paper products like calendars and note cards, and not many of them," says Michael Ward Stout, the lawyer who administers Mapplethorpe's estate and heads the foundation. Stout has also handled the estates of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, among others.

"Robert on the other hand was very enthusiastic about licensing products. One reason he hired me is that I was Salvador Dali's lawyer, someone who had the licensing empire of the world."

Until now, the foundation didn't even allow Mapplethorpe's images to be cropped or written over for postcards or posters, Stout says. So allowing his work to be reinterpreted by a fashion designer is quite a departure.

"It's hard to make decisions about what an artist would have done, but it's important to keep an artist young, to keep people interested," he says. "That's why in the exhibition world we are having Mapplethorpe exhibits curated by other artists, like Catherine Opie did in L.A. Then younger people write about it."

The idea for the collaboration was hatched last year over a casual dinner in Sao Paulo. Stout and Sean Kelly, the gallery owner who represents Mapplethorpe in New York, were in Brazil for an exhibition and they got talking; someone in the group mentioned that if Robert were alive today he would be wearing Chrome Hearts.

Started by Stark in 1988, Chrome Hearts is known for handmade jewelry, leather clothing and accessories, sunglasses and wood furniture with gothic motifs, long before gothic motifs were everywhere. It's a favorite with Lenny Kravitz, Cher and the Osbournes.

The Starks already owned two Mapplethorpe works (Laurie is a photographer in her own right), so they were thrilled with the idea. Over the last year they have been submitting, fine-tuning and retooling designs. Transferring the images onto fabric was so involved, that alone took several months.

"We had to go through a lot, putting it in front of the board. And it's never going to be a big money-making thing," Stark says at his factory on a leafy street in Hollywood, where craftsmen work in the back making wax molds for jewelry and cutting patterns for leather jackets. "Maybe we'll be surprised, but it's more about creating awareness in the art community. They're collectible pieces."

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