Yayoi Kusama, a 1960s Fashion Visionary, Comes Full Circle

A Happening and fashion show at Kusama's studio in New York, 1968
(© Yayoi Kusama/Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.)

Yayoi Kusama’s art — massive polka-dot-filled installations, vast “Infinity Net” canvasses, bulging phallic sculptures, and nude anti-war happenings in the 1960s — made the 83-year-old Japanese artist famous, earning her comparisons to the likes of Andy Warhol. But what Kusama isn’t known for is her foray into fashion during the early stages of her 60-year career.

Last week Kusama, shrouded in her signature spotted patterns, made a triumphant return to New York, the city she once called home. Her comeback to the Big Apple included the opening of her retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art and an outdoor installation in her honor at Hudson River Park. On top of that the exhibition’s sponsor, Louis Vuitton, debuted its dotted capsule collection from the artist last Tuesday at two New York locations, the first of seven worldwide pop-up shops.

The Louis Vuitton and Yayoi Kusama Collection fused Vuitton creative director Marc Jacobs’s clean silhouettes with Kusama’s cheerful polka dots for a luxurious range of trench coats, handbags, shoes, dresses, and more. The bold line is among the proliferation of fashion and art collaborations that have been rolled out each season in recent years.

This year alone, German artist Anselm Reyle put his neon camouflage on Dior handbags, Swiss artist Olaf Breuning transferred his bursts of bright coloring to Bally Love #2 accessories, and British artist Liam Gillick placed his darting lines on knitwear for Pringle of Scotland. On the lower end of the spectrum, street artist Parra transferred his bold graphics on T-shirts for Stüssy, and Shepard Fairey’s Obey line merged Keith Haring and Fairey’s art on a jacket, tank tops, T-shirts, and more.

For Kusama, mixing fashion and art isn’t anything new. The artist, who is known as the Princess of Polka Dots, began merging her art with dresses in the 1960s when she lived in New York, pioneering the Japanese avant-garde fashion aesthetic that’s now famous thanks to designers like Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons’s Rei Kawakubo. Kusama added quirky elements to clothing, tie-dying tent-like hooded dress and making pants that were translucent. She fashioned dresses made for two that resembled a sleeping bag long before Norma Kamali started creating coats based on the camping essential in 1975. Kusama even launched her own fashion label in 1968.

“I was window shopping and found some dresses that looked like my creations,” Kusama told Index magazine in a 1998 interview. “So I went to the company that manufactured those dresses to show them my work. I said, ‘I’m making these dresses which look exactly like yours.’ I ended up establishing a company with them.”

In her autobiography, “Infinity Net,” Kusama said she found $50,000 in financing to mass-produce her garments, “which were sold in 400 stores and boutiques across the United States.”

The artist ventured into retail in the late ’60s, opening a boutique on Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street in 1969 and a pop-up shop of sorts – called Kusama Corner – at Bloomingdale’s. “An evening gown with holes cut out at the breast and derriere went for as much as $1,200,” she wrote in her autobiography, while a party dress that fit 25 people went for $2,000. The Homo Dress, which had a cut-out at the butt, was a bargain in comparison, selling for $15.

Several of her designs, like the See-Through and Way-Out dresses, were popular with the ’60s jet-set circle, which she referred to as “the Jackie O. crowd” in her book. Kusama also staged fashion shows in the United States, Italy, and the Netherlands to display her curious creations, which reflected the more open attitude towards sexual freedom that was emerging at the time.

More than 40 years later, the fashion world is paying attention to Kusama in a big way — of course, it doesn’t hurt that her name is associated with one of the industry’s biggest luxury labels. For its July 2012 cover, Vogue Brazil featured supermodel Gisele Bündchen in a red and white Vuitton-Kusama scarf worn as a bandeau top. The piece was paired with black, yellow, and white spotted pants.

Throngs of fashion journalists from around the world showed up at Kusama’s Vuitton pop-up shop opening on Tuesday, eager to get a glimpse of the artist. She was in attendance wearing a neon-red wig and Vuitton ballet flats. Numerous articles about the collaboration have appeared in magazines and on the Internet.

With the Louis Vuitton and Yayoi Kusama Collection the artist has come full circle, returning to the world of fashion a half-century after she first entered it. When the buzz fades, fashion historians will hopefully credit the artist for being a fashion visionary — for fusing fashion and art before it became a popular commercial venture, for her unusual pop-up retail spaces, and for her inventive designs.

Click on the slide show to see images of Yayoi Kusama fashion pieces from the 1960s and today.