He took some persuading. But in a rare collaboration, the artist translates his magic-realist paintings from the canvas to the catwalk.
In August last year, Dior approached the artist Peter Doig to collaborate on its autumn/winter 2021 men’s collection alongside artistic director Kim Jones. Jones’s tenure at the house has been punctuated by bold art partnerships, while his personal collection includes works by Matisse and Bacon. Doig’s response to the flattering offer was swift and definite. “I think my immediate reaction was no,” he says via a video call, smiling.
Which is perhaps understandable. At 61, Edinburgh-born Doig is resolutely unconcerned with the commercial, working each of his paintings with his own “clumsy hand” (his words) and eschewing the production-line approach of teams of assistants helping to create work in profitable volume. Nor are his paintings licensed to mass editions, like “sunflowers on a biscuit tin or something like that”, he says. He has created limited print runs and etchings, but few. It’s not a strategy, rather it’s about integrity. Yet it has undoubtedly helped contribute to Doig’s standing as one of the world’s greatest living artists.
“I would put him down as one of the most significant painters of the last 30 years, across the world,” says Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Britain. He is including a number of Doig pieces in the institution’s upcoming show, Art from Britain and the Caribbean, focusing on the artist’s work in Trinidad, where he has lived since 2002. Jean-Paul Engelen, deputy chairman and worldwide co-head of 20th-century and contemporary art at Phillips, agrees: “If you see the influence that he has had on this entire generation of figurative artists working today, it is truly remarkable.”
Farquharson describes Doig’s work as “magic realism”, referring to the hallucinatory colours and unexpected juxtapositions found within his canvases, created from found imagery and cinema stills, twisted and reimagined. Their scenes may include a lion roaming a city street, as in the 2015 piece “Rain in the Port of Spain (White Oak)”; or the incongruous, archaic ceremonial costumes of the figures of his 2002 painting “Gasthof” — actually, a dual self-portrait. His richly textured brushstrokes are compared to the “hand” of figures such as Bacon, Klimt and Cézanne — which makes them remarkably tricky to translate to fabric and then tailor into a bunch of different sizes.
Growing up, Doig moved between Scotland, Trinidad and Canada, and his father was an accountant and amateur artist. Arriving in London in the 1980s, he studied first at Wimbledon School of Art, then Saint Martins and finally Chelsea School of Art. “You didn’t really think of a career at the end of it,” he says. Shortly after graduating he won the Whitechapel Artist Prize in 1990 and staged his first solo exhibition there in 1991.
He has never been swayed by art-world trends. During the Young British Artists wave, favour shifted to conceptual pieces by the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Doig doggedly stuck to painting. In 2017, an early canvas of a snowy Canadian manor sold for $28.8m (£22.14m) at Phillips New York; at the time, it was the highest price ever paid for a living European painter. Doig remains one of only a handful of artists alive today whose work has exceeded $25m at auction. Engelen, who oversaw that sale, compares the Doig-Dior collaboration to the idea of a fashion house working with Lucian Freud.
Art-fashion collaborations, though increasingly common, are still somewhat snubbed by the fine-art establishment. When the American artist Sterling Ruby launched a fashion line in 2019, dealers and collectors begged him to reconsider, citing potential damage to his work’s credibility. Doig agreed to the Dior collaboration only after meeting Jones — he wanted to ascertain what art the designer liked. He was swayed too by the fact that Christian Dior himself ran a Parisian gallery in the 1920s and 1930s.
Doig and Jones also share friends, including milliner Stephen Jones, whom Doig met at St Martins. “Peter was always hanging out with us,” says Stephen Jones. Doig’s late first wife Bonnie Kennedy worked with the London label BodyMap; Doig wore its clothes and partied with the designers. Fashion has always been on his periphery.
I wonder if Doig had any concerns, even fears, about collaborating with a fashion house. “No,” he shrugs. “I took it as a challenge. Somebody even said to me, ‘Ha, Sterling Ruby’, as a kind of... as a slight.” He pauses. “I had to, in a way, put the blinkers on and not think about recent collaborations. Not because I’m slighting them, but just because I wanted to try and think of it as a unique thing.” And the intensity of Doig’s involvement was noteworthy. “You didn’t want it to be token. [I wanted it to have] integrity... but also, if possible, to have the whole collection be tainted by my work, my world.”
There was no shortage of material: Doig’s interest in appearance — he eschews the label “fashion” — is present in his art. He began the Dior project by compiling a portfolio of garment details in his existing artworks, including a figure in “Two Trees” (2017) wearing a camouflage sweater and a hockey helmet, in part inspired by that year’s riots in Charlottesville. “The figure [from ‘Gasthof’] wearing the Napoleonic waisted jacket with buttons and embroidery came from a time when I was working at the English National Opera, and a friend and myself dressed up in the costumes that the dancers were wearing.” In fever-dream hues, the result seemed unmistakably Doig.
So too did the techniques, mimicking that all-important “hand” of the artist through embroidery, jacquard weaves, print and knit — fuzzy mohairs emulated diffuse watercolours, handknits referenced thickly daubed oil paint — while Doig made new works and offered new versions of existing pieces. (His 1989-90 “Milky Way” was abstracted to just its star-speckled sky.) Looks directly referenced his paintings: the figure from “Two Trees” walked the catwalk, his magic realism brought into reality. “Another thing that both Kim and I share is things that are actually wearable. There was nothing you really couldn’t wear, nothing that just looked stupid,” he says.
Commercialism is an interesting topic to address with Doig. He is disdainful of the huge sums his work can reach on the secondary market. “I had to justify the commercial aspect of doing something like this, the fact that so many people have access to it... It’s not so easy to buy a work of art even if you have the money. There’s a whole process. It’s not straightforward. [But] you can go into a shop and buy a jacket.”
Painting is, of course, what Doig is known for and a series of bowler hats and berets have been created with Stephen Jones, many painted with the lions that often prowl Doig’s paintings.
Eight out of 15 of the hats will be for sale, each hand-painted, signed and dated by Doig. Occupying a strange hinterland between art and fashion, prices approach those for his art. The bowler hats are each €150,000; the berets €70,000. They’ll be sold not at Dior stores, but via appointments with clients on a one-to-one basis closer to that of contemporary art pieces. A solid investment? “It gives a great opportunity to own a unique work, hand-painted by Peter Doig,” says Phillips’ Engelen. “We know how rare an artist he is. This is the first time I see a real difference, somebody who doesn’t run a larger studio but is still established,” he says. “It’s out of the comfort zones of both. Of Dior trying to do something with somebody who doesn’t work with a big team — and definitely for Peter.”
Doig says, “The hats had that awkwardness, in a way, that maybe felt closer to me than clothes.” He then smiles, broadly, and a little incredulously — at the idea of a Dior hat, hand-painted by Peter Doig. “There was a bit of a ‘Can we get away with this?’”