On the night of June 25, prominent figures of the Paris fashion world flocked to the famed Hôtel Costes where Lacoste was presenting its 2010 Holiday Collector’s series, featuring two polo shirts designed by Chinese artist Li Xiaofeng. The latest collaboration between Lacoste and contemporary artists, Li's contribution consists of one polo shirt made from 317 porcelain shards and one cotton polo shirt bearing a print of the artist’s porcelain-shard digital collage. At the sight of such bold design, the audience was no doubt left wondering what the company's founder, Rene Lacoste, would say about this radical interpretation of the 77-year-old brand.
A graduate of the Central Academy of Art and a Chinese porcelain aficionado for years, before this collaboration Li had already started incorporating authentic porcelain shards dating from the 14th to the 19th centuries into his work. Notable porcelain installations have included Military Parade, Playing Chess, and The Glorious Time.
Intrigued by Li’s project, “The Culture of Linked Porcelain Fragments,” the brand invited the artist to contribute to its new series, leading Li to design patterned porcelain shards, which were produced in the historic porcelain town Jingdezhen. To establish a conceptual connection between China and Lacoste, Li created a pattern that features the traditional Chinese floral motif the “Four Gentlemen” (which are the plum blossom, the orchid, the bamboo and the chrysanthemum) and Lacoste's signature crocodile logo. And surprisingly, although it weighs in at 33 pounds, the porcelain-shard polo shirt turns out to be wearable.
The production process for this shirt mimicked that of the ancient Chinese “Jinlv suit,” for which small jade plaques were sewn together with gilded thread. Beginning with design drawings, the artist then selected porcelain fragments for their shapes and patterns. After being honed, the fragments were sewn together with silver thread before reentering the kiln. The making of the porcelain polo shirt, which now ranks as the most expensive in Lacoste’s polo line, cost the artist three months of laborious work including several rounds of readjustment.
The other cotton shirt takes cues from the blue and white Guan-ware typical of the Qing dynasty’s Kangxi era, historically known as the golden age of Chinese porcelain art and craftsmanship. The print on the shirt depicts the happy early life of the artist's fellow baby boomers, a scene selected to convey a sense of happiness, youth, and abundance.
Lacoste plans to release an edition of 20,000 of this cotton shirt at Barney’s New York, Lacoste's worldwide stores, and on its Web site, in October.
How did the collaboration come about? Why did Lacoste invite you to design for this series?
Initially, my porcelain works caught the eye of a director at Lacoste. They believed that my work would be able to channel traditional Chinese culture and the dynamic culture of fashion today, so they invited me to design for the new series, which is an attempt to transform their brand.
What was your impression of Lacoste prior to working with the brand? As an artist, why did you decide to collaborate with a commercial fashion label?
It is not exaggerating to say that I had little knowledge of the brand. The only association I had was a polo shirt my friend once gave me as a gift. But it is really comfortable to wear. As an artist, I did feel a little bit wary at first when they offered me the commission. After getting to know the history of the company, however, I became aware of the brand's rich past — and then came the collaboration.
On top of that, I’d really like to see people all around the world wearing polo shirts bearing symbols of Chinese culture. Then I came to realize that contemporary art, rather than being territorial and rigid, should be open to all creative possibilities. And the world will get to know more about me through my collaboration with Lacoste.
I painted the images of the crocodile, the brand monogram, as well as the Chinese patterns on the porcelain shards before they were glazed and fired. Then the fragments of Lacoste’s logos and monograms were placed alongside those of the “Four Gentlemen” and other Chinese cultural symbols. The finished polo piece embodies a dialogue between an ancient civilization and modern western commercial culture.
Also painted on the porcelain polo shirt are the Chinese characters for “cold” and “hot”? What was your motive for doing that?
I came up with the idea when I experienced a sudden temperature change in the shower, which made me think about the relationship between clothes and temperature.
You were trained as a mural artist in the Central Academy — what inspired you to create installations featuring blue and white porcelain fragments that were sewn together?
I am a lover of blue and white porcelain-ware and started collecting porcelain back in 1997. Beginning in 2000, the wave of urban real-estate development gave rise to a series of unexpected excavations of ancient porcelain fragments. I bought 10 bags of these fragments from a construction worker in 2004 and dug some from the site myself. I subsequently came up with the idea of creating a 10-meter-tall Mao sculpture made of these fragments. But due to a lack of materials and funding, I ended up creating a Chinese “Zhongshan suit,” which Mao was always seen wearing, instead.
What is the difference between the porcelain polo series and your previous porcelain shard-made garment installations?
The only difference is that the polo shirt carries the Lacoste logo, which stands out among my other works for its heritage of Western commercial culture. I personally think it evokes a child of mixed Chinese and Western descents. You see, there are English letters, Chinese floral motif, and blue and white patterns characteristic of the Kangxi era of the 17th century Qing dynasty.
Would you consider working with other brands in the near future?
I doubt that other brands will come to me because Lacoste has already taken the porcelain concept, which is at the core of my artistic style.
In your understanding, what is the relation between art and fashion?
Art can utilize the power of commerce, and vice versa. I think contemporary art is inseparable from contemporary life, which includes war, politics, and fashion. They are interconnected.
According to Women's Wear Daily, you will be having a solo show at Beijing’s Red Gate Gallery that will include the two Lacoste porcelain shirts. What other works will be on view at the gallery?
I’m still thinking about it. I haven’t made the final decision to exhibit these two Lacoste porcelain shirts alongside my other works. I’m concerned about the possibility that my non-Lacoste works will be conceptually mislabeled as commercial product in my viewers’ minds.