Fashion is a platform for the new, the daring, the changing, the ugly. What happens in fashion, specifically more commercial brands, is a recycling of similar concepts – ones that work, ones that have been held for years – but, on occasion, something new slips in. In an old way. And something that has maybe been happening for a while has just faced an overhaul: UNIQLO’s partnership with MoMA.
Now, there’s nothing really new about UNIQLO’s latest line of MoMA-inspired clothing. Pollock printed on a grey T-shirt, Warhol’s signature along a pant-leg, etc. This is an old concept. Since the birth of the pop art movement in the early 1950s, people have jumped at the kitsch, the collage, the new. You’ve seen Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych reproduced and rethought again and again. Ironic millennials rejoice. But this time, it’s for good reason. That’s right: ironic millennials are appreciating a good thing.
UNIQLO, a Japanese casual wear designer, manufacturer, and retailer, is what H&M might be one hundred years from now. It is everything of the future. Think dystopian chic. Orwellian-inspired haute couture. Yes, work it, 6-0-7-9. You look so good, 6-0-7-9. The modern aesthete sports UNIQLO in an artless, urban jungle. It’s supposed to be ironic, of course.
About a year ago, the Museum of Modern Art received a signal boost from one of its corporate sponsors, UNIQLO: a line of clothing inspired by Pop artists. Here is a sliver of their mission statement regarding the MoMA line: “It is a joy to encourage people to discover art through T-shirts. We wish to make art more accessible through casual clothing and other items from the SPRZ NY project.”
It’s fun, edgy, artsy, wearing artists on T-shirts. But herein lies the danger of commodifying art — the cultural context is lost, right? Without a firm frame of reference, this art totally loses its meaning, right? No one could possibly understand a Warholian painting without extensive research and an in-depth knowledge of Marilyn Monroe. UNIQLO has minimized and depreciated art. These bold, neutral colors on a cotton canvas play into a shallow appreciation of a vast array of different artistic cultures and movements. Right?
Well, no, actually.
Before getting caught up in the easy counterarguments, UNIQLO’s use of these artists to complement their already plain, modern aesthetic is actually quite fitting. Pop art is accessible, not original. When we put Warhol on a T-shirt, we lose nothing. By its very nature, pop art is an appropriation of itself, a commentary on the commercialization of art – kind of a big joke in a way. Whether or not all wearers understand this, from an artistic point of view, this movement in fashion is sensible. It might even be groundbreaking. The appeal here is not intellectual. UNIQLO’s appeal is its universality and stark accessibility. Don’t think because you’re sporting a Pollock-inspired sweater you have any more artistic knowledge than the guy with a plain black T-shirt from H&M. In essence, they’re the same article of clothing.
Pop art does this weird thing where it exists as a reflection of what was already there in culture. And this reflection is constantly changing, but such is the nature of our postmodern culture today. By wearing these clothes, no statement is made, other than the one that was already made — by you. Ironically. Does that make sense? It shouldn’t.
Basically, what’s unique about UNIQLO is not unique, and that’s the point. These clothes are far-reaching in their plainness, perhaps representative of a new perception of art, a shift in the way we look at it. Modern art is, after all, a you-could-have-done-that-but-you-didn’t playing field. This is an incredibly important development in the intersection of commercial fashion and art. Every time UNIQLO puts Warhol or Pollock or whomever else on a factory-made T-shirt, we get yet another angle from which to view pop art — in all its kitschy glory.
It’s quite easy these days to be overly critical of anyone who claims that they have made “art.” Whether or not you agree with or support this direction of the progression of art in our society, that of popular, if not disposable art, it’s undeniable that UNIQLO’s clothing gives it great momentum. Maybe their mission was not achieved in the way it was initially supposed to, but finding Warhol on a T-shirt nevertheless changes art in an unexpected way — it really does enhance it — and not ironically. Commercialization and pop art go hand-in-hand and, somehow, give us more art to talk about. That’s the beauty of this.