Try to imagine another artist whose life and work lend themselves more naturally to a clothing line than Andy Warhol. It’s impossible. A style icon in his own right, Warhol’s coolly classic look was only one facet of his dazzling aura. His universe was a constantly evolving spectacle that embraced the highest highs and the lowest lows, the chic and the freak, often within the confines of a single space, the Factory. Likewise, Warhol’s art knew no limits; he was equally inspired by the giddiness of a flower; the incandescent glamour of a Hollywood star; the stark artlessness of a mug shot; and the “buy me” brilliance of supermarket packaging.
For clothing designer Adrian Nyman, creator of the Warhol Factory X Levi’s range launched in Spring 2006, it’s the juxtapositions and the unexpected narratives that are most rich. Given access to the Warhol archive, Nyman didn’t want to fall into the trap of leaning on the artist’s bold graphic sensibility and Pop palette, creating barely wearable pieces with “giant prints” all over them. From day one, his goal has been to hone in on the Warholian images and ideas that resonate most today, and to explore them through clothing that also honors the Levi’s legacy.
In other words, Nyman was thinking deeper than a Marilyn T-shirt or loud flowered pants. For Fall ‘06 a pair of seemingly plain white jeans was printed with ultraviolet scenes from Warhol’s Last Supper that were only visible if the wearer was under black light, while a small silver pin on the lapel of a tailored black suit was a replica of the bullet fired by Valerie Solanis in 1968, and the suit’s vest was modeled on a bulletproof design Warhol began wearing after he was shot. Spring ’07 featured subtle prints like a gray-on-white dot that mimicked photographic halftones, and a collage of time capsule ephemera was silk-screened inside a pair of 501s. Fall ’07 mined Warhol’s abstract shadow paintings from the early ‘80s, playing with geometric patterns one normally doesn’t associate with his work.
“I love the idea that you’re sneaking this subversive narrative in there and the wearer gets to discover it,” says Nyman. “There’s a component that’s a simple jean with a nice finish and then there are components that are very avant garde. There’s always a segment of the line that I think more conceptually about. I like to turn it on its side but still have its connection to its heritage and its authenticity.”
Caroline Calvin, Levi Strauss Senior VP of Global Creative Design, agrees. “Adrian does surprise and delight the consumer with the little nuances he plays with,” she says. “You see how he’s been able to truly leverage the 501 and the Levi’s brand as a blank canvas to express the history and beauty of Andy Warhol and his philosophy and spirit. And the actual product innovation he delivers to the collaboration is pretty phenomenal as well. Even if it’s not 100% made out of denim – like, he’ll do some great T-shirts or a great woolen jacket – it still feels like Levi’s.”
A northern California native who got his start in fashion designing clothes for his fellow skateboarders, Nyman began working for Levi’s as a freelance designer, and helped the company to develop the initial Factory X concept. When the range got the green light, Nyman was hired as creative director.
It was the Factory X Fall 2006 shooting-themed collection that caught the eye of Damien Hirst, a Warhol collector and, arguably, the Warhol of his day. Hirst, a fan of edgy designers like Libertine, discovered the line at Barneys and was so taken with it he purchased the store’s remaining stock. When Nyman found out that Hirst had then contacted Levi’s and acquired the whole collection, he decided it was worth dropping a line and casually inquiring about a collaboration.
As he recalls, the characteristically ebullient Hirst’s response was something along the lines of “fucking awesome,” and thus Warhol Factory X Levi’s X Damien Hirst was born. The artist and the designer began a dialogue about the strongest intersections between Hirst’s and Warhol’s work, noting recurring themes of fame and love, as well as an obvious passion for color and a similar approach to the art production process. But for Nyman, the most fertile territory was their mutual explorations of life and death and mortality – Warhol most famously in his Death and Disaster series from the early ‘60s, and Hirst most infamously in the work commonly known as “the shark,” which is actually titled The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.
“That’s really the synergy I’m playing off,” explains Nyman. “It felt like the most natural way to fuse these two worlds together, and the beauty of the work is you can pull so much out of it. Death is a really easy vehicle to explore the meaning of life – the eternal questions: Why are we here? What happens after we die?”
Fittingly, the collection’s touchstone was a skull. Warhol did a series of skull paintings in the late ‘70s, including some Hamlet-style self portraits, and of course Hirst’s most recent work, the $100 million diamond-encrusted skull For the Love of God, brings the death’s head motif full circle.
The Spring 2008 Warhol Factory X Levi’s X Damien Hirst collection features classic 501s – Warhol’s jeans of choice – cut from Japanese milled denim and adorned with crystal skulls in homage to Hirst’s piece. The glittering design is also on the back of a chic black trench and a women’s denim jumpsuit that hugs the body like a glove. Zippered bondage trousers in black and indigo are lifted from Hirst’s closet – specifically, a pair of bondage jeans fashioned by his wife from two pairs of 501s, following a sketch by Hirst.
Nyman remembers, “When Damien and I first met he gave me the bondage jeans, and that provided a stylized direction. The content was very dark, and I felt like that was a nice emblem. And since Damien is obviously living and Andy isn’t, the collection needs to reflect Damien’s fashion taste as well.”
Playing with this S/M undercurrent, the iconic Trucker jacket is rendered in slick patent leather with Warhol’s silver crosses screened on the back panel, while demure secretary blouses are subtly patterned with Warhol’s knives. Black-and-white Factory stripes – a recurring design in every collection – are given a new wave twist in body-skimming, double-knit jerseys for men and women. Fine cotton tees provide a forum for a conversation between the two artists: Warhol’s electric chair meets Hirst’s spot paintings; Hirst’s crucified skeleton meets Warhol’s crosses; and eerily similar images of a human heart and a skull are layered with quotes from these two deeply philosophical artists.
“I really like the literary aspect of both artists,” notes Nyman, who finished seams and lined pockets with fabric printed with Hirst’s lengthy titles and Warhol’s quotes – again inserting a narrative beneath the surface. Playful details like pill-shaped zipper pulls in homage to Hirst’s Pharmacy works aren’t immediately noticeable, nor are the suicide jumpers inside the jeans, or the silk jacquard skull print that runs down a pair of 501s like a tuxedo stripe.
Keenly attuned to pop culture, Nyman knows that skulls as a “trend” may have run their course. “But it’s not about that,” he says. “It’s about these two artists. If you strip everything away it’s the purest icon. So I just have go, fuck the trends. If I can lace the narrative strong enough and tie it all back to each other enough times, it will have the wherewithal to stand up to scrutiny. There’s always gonna be people who don’t like things, or have preconceived notions. Oh, another skull, right? I think that people who really know the context of the work will know the relevance of that iconic imagery.”
Hirst, for one, has been working on a new series of spin paintings with skulls at the center, and he has produced a limited edition of spin-painted jeans. His active involvement has inspired Nyman to reach beyond the scope of fashion. “When this project started to come together,” the designer recalls, “I really wanted to take the fashion component and the art component and push those up to each other. Much in the way that Damien and Warhol challenged people to redefine what they consider art, I love the idea of this project doing the same thing for fashion.”