Muse flash: why Valentino fans will be wearing Australian painter Esther Stewart’s art on their sleeves this season

Australian artist Esther Stewart pictured in her Daylesford, Victoria studio
Australian artist Esther Stewart pictured in her Daylesford, Victoria studio. Stewart's ‘very structural and formal’ geometric compositions were adapted to feature on sweaters, jackets and coats for Valentino’s A/W 2015 menswear collection.
(Image credit: Pierre Toussaint)

Valentino creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli have framed their A/W 2015 menswear collection with optical precision. Sharp silhouettes are ablaze with graphic patterns, taking the current print trend to a conceptual level. Geometric motifs form the essence of the collection, appearing on everything from jackets to backpacks. Chiuri and Piccioli drew inspiration from the abstract paintings of 27-year-old Australian artist Esther Stewart. After reading a review of her 2013 Melbourne exhibition, Valentino menswear designer Maura Cianfriglia requested a catalogue.

The Valentino team was drawn to Stewart's interplay between strict forms and idiosyncratic colour combinations that create the illusion of space and depth. They challenged themselves by 'translating her works within the structure and construction of clothes'. Five exhibition pieces were selected to inform clothing designs, with a palette matching the artist's own. Warm and functional shades of burgundy, brown, camel, black, navy, olive and grey were balanced with radical injections of cherry red, canary yellow, sky blue and orange.

Chiuri and Piccioli experimented with scale and perspective, and early sketches were sent to Stewart, but it wasn't until she was flown to Paris in January this year to meet the Valentino design team and view the whole collection - from model fittings to the debut runway show at the Hotel Salomon de Rothschild - that Stewart fully grasped the extent of her influence. It incorporated set design and the show's invitations (miniature replicas of three of the chosen artworks). Her signature patterns were literally rolled out in every room of the private mansion, adorning the runway carpets throughout.

Each piece in the collection was based on the composition of one selected work. 'Some are quite literal adaptations, where strict shapes and lines determine the design,' Stewart says. For example, large triangular shards in one painting dictate the angular panels of long double cashmere overcoats with a vertical black zip serving as the seam between them. 'My paintings are very structural - they're about honouring hard- edged lines. So the designers' interpretation was really satisfying,' the artist says. Other pieces focus on a singular element of a work, rearranging shapes harmoniously into patchwork and intarsia patterns. Wool sweaters marry bold bands with triangles and semi-circular motifs, while bright geo-puzzle T-shirts feature the titles of selected works: It's My Time, On My Mind Again, and We're Through Forever (Until Tomorrow). Several pieces feature repetitious pattern play. Coats and jackets are adorned with a kaleidoscopic effect but, says Stewart, 'the relationships of shapes to one another always stayed the same as those in the paintings. They honoured my work, but achieved a very different result.'

The team never discussed production challenges with Stewart, but she marvels at the precision of colour-matching on different materials. 'I hadn't thought of this technical side until I was able to see and touch the entire collection. It must have been so tricky to mirror exact tones in the different fabrics,' she says.

Stewart was flown to Rome in July to celebrate the debut of the new David Chipperfeld-designed Valentino flagship store in Piazza di Spagna. Then it was back to her studio in the quiet country town of Daylesford, near Melbourne, to prepare for an upcoming show at the Sarah Cottier Gallery in Sydney. The working relationship with Valentino was, Stewart believes, mutually beneficial: 'Fashion is so fast-paced; introducing a slower artistic practice gives a collection a less commercial touch,' she says. 'Artist collaborations can add credibility to a brand and new ideas to play with.'

Originally featured in the September 2015 edition of Wallpaper* (W*198)

Muse Flash

The artist’s signature blocks of colour were also turned into a catwalk carpet for Valentino’s Paris men's show

(Image credit: Pierre Toussaint)

two of Stewart’s works on fabric, 'Flag 2#' and 'Flag 3#', 2015.

On the left, two of Stewart’s works on fabric, 'Flag 2#' and 'Flag 3#', 2015, to be shown by Station Gallery at the Spring 1883 art fair in Sydney in September. Right: a sweater from the A/W 2015 collection, inspired by one of Stewart’s works

(Image credit: Pierre Toussaint)