A Portrait of the Artist as a Fashion Designer

Artist Guy Yanai is collaborating with the Band of Outsiders fashion brand in the United States, and the Israeli doesn't care about the snobs who say he's making a mistake.

Last week, Israeli-born artist Guy Yanai was in Boston for an exhibition of his paintings at the city’s La Montagne Gallery. It was his first solo exhibition in Boston, where he had lived from age 7 to 22, so he was pretty excited.

In recent weeks, however, his name has often appeared in the fashion columns of magazines from Vogue to Women’s Wear Daily. His work is the focus of the Resort 2014 collection by the U.S. fashion brand Band of Outsiders that was introduced in New York last month and will reach stores toward the end of the year.

Yanai had been trying for years to collaborate with fashion designers in Israel and elsewhere, including Sybil Goldfainer of the Israeli brand Comme Il Faut, but nothing worked out. “Then out of nowhere came an email from Scott Sternberg, the founder of Band of Outsiders, with an interesting offer,” says Yanai.

Actually, Sternberg’s proposal didn't come out of nowhere. It was preceded by Yanai’s participation in the Printed Matter art book fair in Los Angeles. Among the visitors was Sternberg’s friend Bettina Korek, who runs a website called ForYourArt, which promotes dialogue between artists from different disciplines. Korek knew that Sternberg was looking for a young artist whose works jibed with those of David Hockney, and seeing Yanai’s paintings of pools and vegetation got her thinking about putting the two in touch.

Speaking from his studio in Los Angeles, Sternberg notes how Yanai’s paintings were perfectly suited to the main idea of the Resort collection, which focused not on a vacation on an exotic beach but in the backyard of a private house. “Guy's subject matter fell right in line with that approach,” Sternberg says.

This isn't the first time Sternberg has collaborated with artists and graphic designers. In his fall-winter 2013 collection, he used images of American artist Sam Durant. This time, Yanai's strong sense of play and humor were also an attraction.

Two of the three paintings Sternberg selected to process into samples were already done; the first was “Splash on Failed Painting.” It's Yanai’s 2012 homage to Hockney’s 1967 painting “A Bigger Splash” – Yanai replaces the sprays of water in the center of Hockney’s pool with three blue stripes in the graphic language that characterizes his work. The second was a drawing of a plant from the series “Leaving Europe.”

The third painting, focusing on a colorful parrot resting on a branch, was painted by Yanai at Sternberg’s request, “based on the old Pappagallo bird from the 1970s. Pappagallo [parrot in Portuguese] is a [clothing] brand from my childhood, so I guess it was a nostalgic choice,” Sternberg says.

Innovation without innovation

It's easy to sense the affinity between Yanai’s painting style in recent years and the aesthetics of Band of Outsiders, which was founded in 2004 and is named for Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 film “Bande à part.” Yanai has embraced the past. The vacation mood Sternberg referred to in Yanai’s work is evident in the fashion collection; for example, in a short skirt accompanied by a red biker jacket and a striped shirt on which Yanai’s painted parrot appears. Another sweatshirt breaks Yanai’s pool painting into an angular array of colored spots.

“I think what he's doing with fashion is similar to what I'm doing with art,” says Yanai, explaining Sternberg’s interest in his work. “He takes the texture of everyday life and puts it on the highest-quality clothing. There’s something in the simplicity of his work that’s incredibly accurate; it doesn’t try to innovate, and in this lies its innovation. I'm not trying to change the world with my work, either. I paint, which is the most primitive work there is.”

But Yanai isn't satisfied with just cooperating with fashion designers. Last year, for example, he mounted a joint exhibition with sculptor and industrial designer Arik Levy at the Alon Segev Gallery, which represents Yanai in Israel.

“I like to collaborate with artists from different fields, and this isn’t at all common in the local art scene,” Yanai says. “For some reason, there's still a perception that once you get involved with something commercial you’ve sold out, that you lack seriousness as an artist. When I exhibited with Arik Levy, everyone came down on me – ‘How can you do an exhibition with a designer? He’s not an artist, it’s not suited to the world of art.’ This attitude is totally irrelevant to how the art world conducts itself nowadays.”

Yanai certainly wasn't deterred by the criticism. When the managers of the New York fashion brand Woodpoint & Kingsland asked him to design a skateboard to be sold in a limited edition, he embraced the challenge.

“When I was a kid I made skateboards,” he says. “This time I painted in oil on a pair of separate panels, which, when you place them side by side, form the image of a plant.” (The image comes from a painting of his called “Ahad Haam.”)

So will he now be open to other cooperative ventures?

“In principle, I always like to say yes,” Yanai says, listing other fashion designers he’d be happy to work with: Très Bien and Our Legacy, two brands with a simplicity and accuracy he appreciates. Then there's Kitsuné, a French label that combines fashion with electronic music.

“And I also love Marni and Proenza Schouler, and if Phoebe Philo from Celine would design a men’s line I'd buy everything. She’s brilliant,” Yanai says, remembering the man who sparked his passion for fashion.

“If I had to choose one person to work with, it would be Helmut Lang. He was among the first who collaborated with artists and the first to take the style of the street and turn it into high fashion.”

Alon Segev Gallery and Band of Outsiders