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Prada SS08 campaign, illustrations by James Jean

Meet the artist behind some of Prada’s most iconic prints

Taiwanese-American artist James Jean opens up about his prints for Prada Resort 2018 – and his working relationship with Mrs P

Last month saw Miuccia Prada present a stand-alone runway show during Resort, unveiling what she deemed a “Modernist” collection in the glass-walled Fondazione Prada Osservatorio exhibition space that tops Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The collection also heralded another return: that of Prada collaborator James Jean, the Taiwanese-American artist whose fairy-filled Trembled Blossom print adorned Prada’s SS08 collection.

“Mrs Prada’s design language traverses many areas, and perhaps my work becomes relevant when she wants to evoke a sense of fantasy,” Jean tells us. “I think the lyrical quality of my lines is a nice counterpoint to the construction of Prada’s designs.” This was certainly the case for Resort 2018, where Jean’s fluid prints – depicting Art Nouveau-esque lilies and characterful rabbits – wound their way across lightweight dresses, smocks and trousers, and onto bags and cuff bracelets. Like the various crystal embellishments and pastel-coloured feathers punctuating the collection, Jean’s handiwork lent an opulent air of whimsy to Mrs Prada’s new vision of sports luxury. 

Jean, who also contributed graphic drawings to the SS18 menswear set and collection, began his career as a DC comics artist. He then focussed his attention primarily on painting, and first met Mrs Prada in 2007 when she commissioned him to create a wallpaper mural for the Prada Epicenter store in New York. “Prada was at the top of my list when I started my career, and it seemed so serendipitous that it actually happened.” Immediately after, Mrs Prada enlisted the artist to create another panoramic image for the SS08 runway show in Milan, deciding to incorporate his fantastical drawings into the collection at the very last minute. “And thus was born the fabled Trembled Blossoms collaboration,” Jean says. Much like Mrs Prada herself, Jean’s practice employs myriad references, both historical and contemporary, with entirely unique results.

Here, we catch up with the Los Angeles-based artist to find out more about his working relationship with Prada and the story behind the Resort 2018 prints.

When did you first know that you wanted to become an artist?

James Jean: I had no choice but to become an artist. I was drawing constantly when I was a child, and I’ve only become more obsessed over the years.

Who or what would you say have been the biggest influences on your work?

James Jean: In general, my biggest influences range from comics to woodblock prints to ethnographic art. But if I had to choose a specific example, I would say Takashi Murakami is certainly an amazing person, and I’ve been very fortunate to work with him a bit and to show with his gallery in Tokyo.

What do you enjoy most about your partnership with Prada?

James Jean: I have complete freedom to create what I want, based on inspiration points that Prada provides, and then they take the work and adapt it however they need. With the first mural for the New York Epicenter, for example, Mrs Prada gave me a few key words like ‘romantic’, ‘sci-fi’, ‘non-linear’, ‘architectural’, and I made a long, scroll-like image that spanned a city block and was filled with surreal imagery. It’s very cool to see how it mutates and evolves. We also have to work very quickly, so there’s no time to be precious – usually, I spend a lot of time and effort polishing my work, so this fast-paced collaboration forces me to loosen up.

Talk us through the design process when working on a collection... 

James Jean: I have no idea what the clothing looks like, but that allows for more accidents and collisions of design along the way. Sometimes too much intent destroys the genius of the accidental. We discuss key themes, but even those original themes are frequently discarded and new ideas are discovered along the way. Sometimes we’ll go back and rediscover a small idea in my sketches that will spawn a whole new direction.

“Sometimes too much intent destroys the genius of the accidental” – James Jean

What were the prevailing concepts and reference points behind the Resort 2018 prints? Did Art Nouveau serve as a key inspiration?

James Jean: Certainly there is an Art Nouveau aspect inherent in my work, but the concept was new Liberty in terms of creating patterns for this collection. Some of the original reference points Prada assembled were recent works I had posted on my Instagram: patterns of swirly, saturated colour and flowers embedded with geometric designs. However, after a few iterations, the designs evolved into something more transparent and light, with an element of fantasy. Basically, Mrs Prada preferred the energy of the rough sketches over the fully fleshed out, polished work that I usually make.

What's it like seeing the final outcome of your work on a collection?

James Jean: It’s incredible to see it all come together at the runway show. To see the work adapted in a physical space, by collaborators who work at the highest level, is a huge surprise and delight. And then the public response is amazing as well. I’ve been lucky to have a large and loyal following over the years, but working with Prada takes it to another level, as having my work on their clothing seems to affect and move people deeply.

What projects have you got coming up? 

James Jean: I just painted a movie poster for Darren Aronofsky for his upcoming movie, Mother!, and I’m working on a poster for another major feature film right now. I was also recently awarded a special, permanent mural project from the public design commission in Portland, to be completed this fall: my art will wrap around an entire building, including the roof. Then, my next solo show will be at the Kaikai Kiki Gallery in Tokyo in spring 2018. 

Watch the full 2018 Resort show below.