Jean-Michel Basquiat’s outfits were a permanent composition of opposites. How the young artist became the muse of fashion designers and a role model for numerous other artists – to this day.

It is that curated nonchalance. As though the wearer had fumbled around in the closet containing his parents’ discarded clothes, thinking to himself: Let’s see what comes of it. Maybe dad’s faded blouson jacket and mom’s baggy jeans made from at least 2-cm-thick denim, carelessly stuffed into yellowing tennis socks. And to go with them the worn white sneakers. The wild mix of second-hand clothes as an expression of masterful casualness and creativity has long since evolved into street style, from clothing to hairstyle. Moreover, for several years now the “undone look” has been touted in fashion magazines – and more recently even on hair gels.

Early photos of Jean-Michel Basquiat from the 1980s however must be looked at with an eye for detail. Indeed, he not only mixed figures, colors and symbols from various contexts on canvas; his style was likewise a curated blend of new, classic designer brands and no-name clothes from the second-hand store, frequently in the typical oversize look of the 1980s. Basquiat worked on and wore Armani suits, several of which he himself owned at the end of his life, with the same esteem and nonchalance as a stretched-out Adidas T-shirt or unbranded clothing.

Basquiat as muse and fashion icon

In 1987 Basquiat swaggered down the catwalk for Comme des Garçons. One of his first exhibitions was held in the store of Patricia Field, the fashion designer for “Sex and the City.” Outfitted by Field, in her role as Carrie Bradshaw, Sarah Jessica Parker danced through downtown Manhattan in a pink tutu and Manolo Blahniks. Beyoncé shopped at the fashion designer’s store even as a teenager. Jean-Michel Basquiat, by contrast, treated Patricia Field’s clothes like canvases, painting sweatshirts and jumpsuits with the same delight he took in spattering his suits with paint while working.

Jean-Michel Basquiat on the runway for Comme des Garçons, 1987, Image via:

To this day Basquiat is cited as a major icon and muse of numerous fashion designers. Last year Kim Jones, men’s clothing designer for Louis Vuitton, named him alongside Julian Schnabel and Andy Warhol as the inspiration for his fall/winter collection 2017. Armani still goes into raptures when asked about the great artist. Less sophisticated brands such as Uniqlo, Reebok and Supreme have likewise long since signed deals with the Basquiat Estate and print Basquiat’s crown or portraits of the artist on T-shirts, sneakers, hoodies and shirts.

Fashion as performance

The casualness and nonchalance with which Basquiat staged himself were both part of a performance of opposites. And it was not only in his works that Basquiat had these opposites collide; it was also reflected in his appearance and in his life. In his paintings he staged his often black idols, as well as himself, as a saint, as a king with a crown on his head. Yet, in daily life, he repeatedly found himself confronted with racism. For that very reason he was often having trouble hailing a taxi. 

Edo Bertoglio, Jean-Michel Basquiat wearing an American football helmet, 1981, Photo: © Edo Bertoglio, courtesy of Maripol, Artwork: © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2018 & The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Licensed by Artestar, New York

As a socially critical artist and as a fashion icon, Basquiat advanced to become a role model for numerous contemporary African-American artists. In 2014, Jay-Z, one of his fans and a collector of his works, went to a Halloween party dressed as Basquiat. In his song “Picasso Baby” the rapper made a direct reference to the artist, singing “I’m the new Jean-Michel.” He is unlikely to be the only one to have that pipe dream. To this day, Basquiat’s (life)style is for many people the epitome of perfected coolness and a moment of empowerment.

Jean-Michel Basquiat at Area, New York, 1984, Courtesy Jennifer Goode