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When street art meets runway style

By Mo Alabi, Special to CNN
November 26, 2013 -- Updated 1318 GMT (2118 HKT)
Jean Paul Gaultier featured graffiti-inspired looks in his Fall/Winter 2012 fashion show. Jean Paul Gaultier featured graffiti-inspired looks in his Fall/Winter 2012 fashion show.
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Fashion and street art
Fashion and street art
Fashion and street art
Fashion and street art
Fashion and street art
Fashion and street art
Fashion and street art
Fashion and street art
Fashion and street art
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The fashion industry is influenced by high and low art
  • Artist collaborations allow designers to explore edgy new influences
  • The exposure is profitable for artists and creates a wider conversation

(CNN) -- Street artists typically train their unconventional eye on gritty palettes: They scribble on the edges of city streets, paint elaborate murals on brick and lay down subtle sidewalk graphics. These urban masterminds have a knack for showcasing their work on surfaces that wouldn't otherwise catch your eye.

But with a string of recent collaborations, they are now aiming their spray cans a little closer to home — your closet. First stop: the runway.

Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton and Levi's are among the fashion brands that have embraced the edgy aesthetics of street art by partnering with well-known artists for limited edition products. These collaborations allow designers to explore new artistic territory while sparking welcome chatter among the press and the public.

Takashi Murakami: Manga, hip hop and high fashion

"Street art today has come into its own. It's not about graffiti or rebellion, but creative expression," wrote fashion trend expert Tom Julian in an e-mail. As a director at retail consulting company the Doneger Group, Julian watches the fashion industry for market trends and confirmed that the bold culture of street art has made its way from the sidewalk to the catwalk.

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"Industry experts believe that a good portion of fashion is more inspired by the street today than the runway," Julian added. "With so much available to us via technology, Web, 24/7, the most ingenious ideas get expressed from the street then get transferred to the deluxe avenue."

Julian spotted many artists at the menswear trade shows for Spring 2014 in New York this past summer. They were there to decorate the venues with their art as well as partner with brands.

Celebrity fashion stylist Phillip Bloch has seen this trend in action, but notes that it's nothing new.

"Fashion a lot of times comes from the street," he said in a phone interview.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art displayed through last month a punk fashion exhibit that has been featured in Vogue magazine. Bloch noted that many designers also showed punk-inspired pieces in their fall 2013 fashion shows. Fresh inspiration is the lifeblood of fashion.

"Especially in the creative worlds, it's necessary for survival," Bloch said. "They need a new spin."

The growing series of fashion designers collaborating with street artists comes from a long history of fashion interacting with art — high and low. Bloch cited collaborations between artist Robert Pruitt and fashion brand Jimmy Choo, and noted a historic collection by designer Yves Saint Laurent that pulled clear inspiration from the color blocking seen in Piet Mondrian's iconic artwork.

Louis Vuitton is known for embracing the art world and has collaborated with contemporary artists including Stephen Sprouse and Takashi Murakami. In recent seasons, the brand has collaborated with well-known international street artists for a series of high-end scarves called "Foulards D'artistes."

Lady Aiko, a street artist from Japan, said the collaboration with Louis Vuitton presented another venue to express creativity and build bridges.

"I designed this scarf for everyone, even audiences who are not familiar with graffiti and street art," she noted in a Louis Vuitton press release.

"Personally, it was not about passing graphics in exchange [for money] and celebrity," she wrote in an e-mail to CNN. "They provided me with an interesting assignment." The project also gave her an opportunity to travel to her native Japan and seek inspiration.

Before you can say "sell out," note these artists tend to be well-established in their craft and find that collaboration leads to creative opportunities they could not have previously imagined.

Bloch laughingly noted that artists have to pay their rent, too.

See also: When fashion and reality collide

Craig Costello of Krink New York traveled his own path from street artist to professional creative career. Before establishing Krink, an art supply and creative projects company, he was known as graffiti writer KR.

"It was organic," he said in a phone interview about his transition from artist to entrepreneur. As a native of Queens, New York, Costello grew up with graffiti as a visual culture and saw it as something he had free reign to participate in.

Costello started creating his own ink after being dissatisfied with available art supplies. It then became popular with other artists, and soon KR's ink (origin of the name 'Krink') was a top seller in New York art store Alife.

Soon, requests for collaborations rolled in and Krink established itself as a company that produces art materials, and often collaborates with established brands to create limited edition items. Buyers will find the dripping paint effect that became KR's signature on products such as markers and bookmarks for Marc Jacobs, purses for Coach and sneakers for Nike.

But Costello's days as a graffiti writer are long behind him. "I work on creative projects, but they're all legal," he said.

Despite the success, these collaborations are not without controversy.

The switch from rebel to mainstream creative career may signal the maturation of an artist to some, but one graffiti writer lives by a different philosophy, denouncing the fashion and retail giants. He calls himself "Kidult," explaining that he is an adult who embraces the freedom of being a kid. Kidult videotapes himself spray painting high fashion storefronts without permission.

A quote on his website reads, "All these retail outlets have once used graffiti as a commercial tool to get more money and be 'cool' without knowing anything about the culture. I didn't simply say 'hello' to them. If they really like graffiti, I just gave them what they love."

Such stunts have led to a public battle of wits between Kidult and designer Marc Jacobs, who used images of Kidult's spray paint attacks and printed them on hats and T-shirts and sold them.

Kidult could not be reached for comment.

It's a question worth exploring: Does commercialization detract from an artist's authenticity?

Jeffrey Deitch, former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, would argue no. "Art evolves," he said.

In 2011, the museum showed a well-known exhibit named "Art in the Streets" that looked at the global development of graffiti into street art throughout history. "This is one of America's big cultural exports. You go all around the world and see echoes of 'Wild Style,'" said Deitch, who was the lead curator of the exhibit.

Slums to cities: Street art's Pied Piper

He believes that artists represent the voice of a generation, and by including street artists in museums, galleries and clothing, artists are given a platform to show their talent and innovation.

The popularity of these collaborations might present an annoyance to those who view street art as pure vandalism. While Deitch says he understands the anger of a shop owner who has to remove graffiti from a storefront in order to maintain business, he notes that street art is bigger than that -- it's often an expression of social and economic unrest.

"A lot of the important art forms are started by renegades,' he said, noting jazz music in speakeasies and rock music that "made the neighbors angry."

"This is where culture starts."

Street art-inspired styles will likely make their way into your local retailers within as early as the holiday season, said Julian, the trend forecaster.

Deitch championed the lines' promise of accessibility: "Not everyone can afford a $10,000 painting, but almost everyone can afford a $15 shirt."

From graffiti to galleries: Street art vs. public art

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