The meaning and magic of Basquiat’s clothes

An investigation into the wardrobe of Jean-Michel Basquiat and what his sense of style says about the iconic painter, poet and post-punk prodigy

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1987
Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1987via tumblr.com

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a fashionable man. He walked the Comme des Garçons runway for their SS87 collection and favoured the long, slim cut, slightly militaristic jackets of Issey Miyake. Biographers and friends recall the stories of Basquiat setting up tabs at his favorite clothing boutiques, trading canvasses for clothes. And the photos don’t lie. From his meals at Mr. Chow, to his last art show and all of the capture moments in between, Basquiat managed to express through his clothes the originality and intensity that radiate from his works.

“He loved clothes,” recalls J. Stearns, the silkscreen printer that Basquiat used from 1983-1984 during his time in Los Angeles. “I was a bit of a clothes horse in those days too, and so we’d often talk about it…he loved all the big names, Armani, Issey Miyake, you know…whenever he came into L.A., he always shopped at Maxfield, Bloomingdale’s, Rodeo Drive, you know, the big names. Jean-Michel never did anything half-way.” The “big names” remained firm favourites throughout his life and are a part of the myth: tales of Basquiat painting huge canvasses wearing paint-splattered Armani Jackets and the smart sunglasses: first classic Wayfarers and then later geometric designs by Issey Miyake.

But, what did he want those clothes to say about him?

There’s a great deal of information to unpack in how he used clothes. Like all of us, Jean-Michel Basquiat used fashion to communicate, and he did so in his own unique dialect. A 1985 interview with the artist offers an insight into his guarded nature. The interviewer asks Basquiat, if they, the press, had turned on him at any point and he replies, “Here and there…here and there.” The artist was quixotically closed off and shy in interviews, and the few that he gave reveal an adorably soft and nervous stutter. It isn’t the most ridiculous reach to imagine that he wouldn’t be very comfortable speaking to most interviewers, and would have preferred to “speak” visually through his canvas and fashion. Yet fashion is also theatre and thrives in part because of an audience. We are left to wonder – what was Basquiat performing and for whom?

“He loved all the big names, Armani, Issey Miyake... Jean-Michel never did anything half-way” – J. Stearns

The answer to that question shifts with Basquiat’s career stages. In the nascent years of his career, Basquiat was very much “becoming” and the clothes of that period reflect that too. Basquiat frequented the Mudd Club as a regular of New York’s punk and post-punk scene of the late 70s and early 80s. Photos of the teenage-barely-18 Jean-Michel Basquiat taken by Nicholas Taylor in January 1979 (see below) reveal the “dinosaur foot-print mohawk” that was part of his look pre-fame. Surprisingly, the rest of the look isn’t counterculture at all; his white jacket, and polka-dot shirt look very late-70s disco. It is in essence, quite ordinary, which for an artist, can be death to the creative brand. Also, this tells us that in 1979, his audience was not yet the Chelsea art gallerists that he soon after blitz marketed with his SAM© graffiti or serious art collectors, but instead was very peer and Lower East Side-art-scene centered.

But he was thinking about his next audience. A year or so before this photo was taken, Basquiat had already begun seriously thinking about fame. About that time, he said,  “Since I was 17, I thought I might be a star. I’d think about all of my heroes, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix... I had a romantic feeling about how these people became famous.”

Which is to also say, that the styling of romantic poverty, especially that of his idols, might have also appealed to the burgeoning artist. Although Jimi Hendrix used a relaxer and more or less set rollers in his hair at night, his fashion choices of bandanas and dishevelled velvet suits – along with his music – were considered by most black people as having very little to do with mainstream black America and its experiences. For Basquiat, the fashion of “romantic poverty” had a double-edged sword. On one hand, he may have felt that he needed that filter, because there wasn’t a precedence for a black artist like him. Basquiat wasn’t formally trained and was coming from the then totally disrespected graffiti scene; fashion became a necessary weapon and performance in the constant tension of being sui generis and “primitive”, to employ a frequently used adjective to describe his work.

“Fashion became, for Basquiat, a complicated and situated site of bleaching and being black AF”

Even after Basquiat had money, performing the idea – or expectation – of an artist that “looked poor but thought rich” (to paraphrase Andy Warhol) would have helped relay Basquiat’s commitment to his career and bona fides as an artist. The Armani suits were a wealthy analogy to distressed and ripped jeans. Expensive European designer suits also helped Basquiat to communicate an understanding of the aesthetic value system that privileged the West and Eurocentric beauty standards. And that is complicated and in no ways meant to be a general, expansive statement. But what it does mean is that Basquiat knew that it was important that the larger, and mostly-white art world be able to find a common ground with him and his work, especially since his work featured and situated itself so explicitly within blackness. Accordingly, in order for Basquiat’s work to be digestible or “credible” for a white audience, the critic Dick Hebdige wrote that Basquiat “…had to be…bleached of his (b)lackness and delivered into the right foster parents.” Fashion became, for Basquiat, a complicated and situated site of bleaching and being black AF.

And the optics of Basquiat’s fashion choices helped Basquiat block attempts by the press and the art world to silo his work and legacy to black artists such as Romare Bearden and Bob Thompson. It also helped him situate his work within contexts and conversations about Pablo Picasso, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol. Basquiat wanted his work to compete with recognized canonical greats; Basquiat did not see a black precedence for that. Though fashion may have helped convey and strengthen Basquiat’s message of not wanting to be stereotyped, it also distanced him from the very audiences that he on some level had hoped would embrace his work. During Basquiat’s lifetime, it was said that he felt hurt by the rejection he felt from black audiences, or lack thereof.

“...the optics of Basquiat’s fashion choices helped Basquiat block attempts by the press and the art world to silo his work and legacy to black artists such as Romare Bearden and Bob Thompson”

“He had to live up to being a young prodigy,” said Keith Haring in a New York Magazine interview about Basquiat a few months after his death. And it could be that being nattily dressed as a transient bohemian was part of the costume design of an exhausting performance for which the curtain never dropped. “(It was) a kind of false sainthood,” Haring said. And a taxing one. Though Basquiat dressed in Commes des Garçons clothing and wore Kenneth Cole shoes, he struggled to get a cab and often had to wait for three or four cabs before one would stop for him. According to Basquiat’s late last girlfriend Kelle Inman, store clerks followed him around in department stores and was once flat out barred from entering an exclusive boutique, until he went back days later with Inman in tow.

So many questions remain, especially about the role of fashion in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s life and work. This article doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the scholastic inquiry one can make about Basquiat’s relationship to clothes – and we need that. That information can tell us more about not only Basquiat as an artist and person, but that scholarship can tell us more about our past, and even who we are. Why do we use clothes to perform? In what ways do we today still use clothing to survive and shine through oppressions that are bigger than us? The ferocity and determination of Basquiat’s spirit is something that, nearly 30 years after his death, we still learn from. And some of his most spirited statements are still waiting to be discovered, in his clothes.

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