"High fashion, style and glamour!" Kenny Scharf exclaims when asked what Dior means to him. It was a looping question that was implied by DJ Honey Dijon's combined remix of Deee-Lite's 'Pussycat Meow' and 'What Is Love?' for the Dior Men fall 2021 show. "How do you say 'delicious', 'delovely', 'delectable', 'Diorrr'," croons vocalist Lady Miss Kier. And thanks to Scharf, Dior Men's latest offering is all that and more.
Scharf was born in Hollywood, California, and grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles. "My grandparents were from eastern Europe and came to the United States to escape the persecution of the Jews in the early 20th century," he recalls. "I had a very typical suburban American upbringing, but always felt there was something else out there and something different about me." That drive for a life beyond the sort of textbook American dream that he was born into brought him to New York City in the '70s.
As fate would have it, Scharf met Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat during the first week of his move to the Big Apple, thus beginning his exposure to graffiti art. Like his fellow contemporaries, Scharf too believes that art and fashion are inherently connected. "They are both expressions of creativity and can easily intermingle and occupy the same place at the same time," he expresses.
While Scharf may have yet to receive the kind of high-profile recognition and continuous referencing as much as the late Haring, Basquiat and Andy Warhol (an icon who he also befriended) have, he's no stranger to collaborative works in the fashion sphere. French streetwear label Les (Art)ists incorporated Scharf's artwork in a two-drop capsule collection as part of its fifth anniversary back in 2017. A few years before that, he was selected as one of several artists to make his mark on scarves for Louis Vuitton's Foulards D'Artistes series for spring/summer 2014. And prior to this collaboration with Dior Men, Heron Preston released a range of ready-to-wear pieces with Scharf's signature graphics.
Dior Men's fall 2021 collection, however, is unique for the American artist. "This is incredibly exciting and by far the best fashion collaboration of my life," Scharf enthuses. "Because I knew Kim Jones [Dior Men's artistic director] was such a pro, I let him and his team do their thing, and they certainly made it easy for me because I think I approved every single item without changes. That was quite amazing for me as I'm always picking everything apart and finding things to change and improve. But in this case, I kept quiet because I was so impressed!"
What's even more impressive about this collaboration is that it was done entirely without Scharf and Jones ever meeting; another one of COVID-19's unfortunate realities. It was mutual friend Dijon who introduced them both through Instagram before the decision to collaborate was made. According to Scharf, the collaboration was an easy one with Jones understanding the meaning behind his work and sought to celebrate the spirit of it.
The Dior Men fall 2021 collection is part of Jones's ongoing exploration of modernising Dior's haute couture sensibilities and combining them with the artistic expressions of contemporary artists. Impeccably tailored pieces exude the kind of sophistication and elegance of a couture house, but are then disrupted with the brash vibrancy of Scharf's prints. These cartoon-like characters appear on everything from printed shirts worn under equally printed outerwear, to accessories such as the house's Saddle bag as well as the collection's defining embroidered belt. Jones spared no expense at making Scharf the centrepiece of the collection.
"I let Kim have free rein of my archives and I was happy to see that most of the imagery is current—things that I post on Instagram as I'm finishing them and sometimes things that are still works in progress because I like showing those too," Scharf elaborates. "A few of my 'classic' paintings were used, much to my delight, and I also created some new imagery specifically for this collection." Those imagery in question are Scharf's interpretations of the animals that make up the Chinese zodiac and are featured in tandem with traditional Chinese artistry and techniques that have been employed for the collection.
Beyond the intricacies and technicalities of the techniques used, at the heart of it, Dior Men's fall 2021 collection is one that seems like a spirited awakening of the senses. A renewing of joy in spite of the troubling state of the world. And Scharf's globular characters rendered in shades which are not only arresting but seem to also exude a sense of child-like wonder, underscore that emotion.
"I do love bright colours and I love joy and feel the need to spread those things around. If one peeks below the surface, I'm maybe not so happy all the time. There's so much darkness in the world, I want to shine light in joyful places," he says.
It may not have been the intention of the collection (at least not explicitly), yet one can't help but take notice of the power that a combination of multiple artistic disciplines, each done in the most respectful of ways, can achieve in evoking feelings of joy, hope and wonder. That is the best kind of collaboration, pandemic or not.
The Dior Men fall 2021 collection is now available in Dior Men boutiques. For more stories like this, subscribe to Esquire Singapore.