Music's inspiration in the fashion world

Music's inspiration in the fashion world

We ask four local creatives how music influences and inspires their lives.

“Without music life would be a mistake,” wrote Nietzsche in 1888, a concept that still holds true for many creatives. Music reaches into most creative disciplines, inspiring and influencing designers, artists and writers, and affecting people in ways that film or literature can’t; whether it’s the actual sound or the image of a performer.

Haruki Murakami’s novels are influenced by music – heavily so by The Beatles – while Bret Easton Ellis peppers his books with references to music and pop culture. Think of Less Than Zero (an Elvis Costello song), or entire chapters of American Psycho dedicated to musicians like Whitney Houston, Genesis and Huey Lewis and The News. In art music abounds too: photographers like David LaChapelle, Ryan McGinley, Pennie Smith and Mick Rock have become famous for shooting musicians, while an upcoming exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery, titled Who Shot Rock & Roll, looks at those who have photographed rock ‘n’ roll and its visual identity.

The relationship between fashion and music is a complicated one, often based on the image of a singer or band rather than the sound. Musicians inspire designers, designers dress musicians, musicians become designers.

Consider Kathryn Wilson’s disco-inspired heel, named Kimbra, after the Kiwi girl-done-good overseas, or Twenty-seven Names’ “Thug Life” sweater for next season (the Wellington label is often inspired by music, namely hip-hop).

Fashion can feed off and often helps further define a musical movement: punk, new romantic, disco, hip-hop.

“Rock chic” is still probably the most pervasive musically influenced fashion trend, as seen, again, in the new collection from Saint Laurent Paris – designed by one of fashion’s most famous music fans, Hedi Slimane.

The designer is known for his super-skinny silhouette seemingly perfect for super-skinny rock stars.

Slimane’s longstanding mantra has been “Fashion = music + youth + sex”, and his musical infatuation runs deep. He told that there is no fashion without music.

At his previous role at Dior Homme, he commissioned original soundtracks for runway shows, and he told the Guardian that he could have a whole show in his head after listening to one song.

After retiring from design, he moved into photography, often with rock stars as subjects, while his recent return to the runway with Saint Laurent showcased his love of music too, with Daft Punk soundtracking the show and the runway lighted as though it was a concert.

Brit musician Jarvis Cocker is not a fan of Slimane’s – and fashion’s- habit of exploiting music for ideas.

“The thing I like about music is that people make it up for themselves, and that extends to what they look like as well. So it’s a very personal thing.

“Then someone comes along and goes, ‘oh, yeah, skinny trousers, de-de-de-de, that’ll be £800, please’,” Cocker says.

Jean-Paul Gaultier, who famously put Madonna in that cone bra and, perhaps less famously, released a song in 1988 called How To Do That, pushed the musical agenda at his recent Paris Fashion Week show.

His show notes explained it as a “homage to all the pop stars of the 80s who have influenced fashion and my fashion with their look”, with models dressed as Sade, Annie Lennox, Boy George, Michael Jackson, Abba, David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, Grace Jones and, yes, Madonna.

Music’s impact on local artistic types may be a little less blatant than Gaultier’s gloriously cheesy homage, but for many the influence is still strong.

We spoke to four creatives to discover how music affects all aspects of their lives.


Music is huge in the New York studio of New Zealand artist Max Gimblett, whether it be Tibetan chanting, Johnny Cash or Philip Glass.

“Music is a key component of my work process in the studio,” says Gimblett.

“I compose my paintings, drawings, calligraphies and books to music. I may do black sumi ink calligraphies on Thai Garden Smooth paper to Bach, Philip Glass or chanting from Tibet or India. All this makes a difference to the treatment as the music enters the pieces, seriously affecting, the content.”

Opera and classical music are favourites, as well as jazz, spiritual/new age soundscape CDs – “lots of bells, gongs, chanting” – and compilation albums of popular songs in New Zealand each year. Gimblett’s personal favourites include Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, Bach, Beethoven and Vivaldi, with a circulating disc-player of 300 in the studio that includes everything from Steven Halpern’s Chakra Suite (“Music for meditation, healing and inner peace”) to Enya’s Shepherd Moons, Stan Richardson’s Shakuhachi Meditation Music (“Traditional Japanese flute for zen contemplation”) to Na Mele Hawaii (“A Rediscovery of Hawaiian Vocal Music”). Studio manager Matt Jones’ taste is more “aggressive-metal style”, which he plays at his desk rather than streamed through the studio, “as I’m pretty sure it would drive everyone else mad”. But Gimblett believes that variety of sound is important.

“As we have four people working here on any given day, three permanent staff and an intern, the music serves to buffer emotions and offer different private spaces for the work to go forward in. The busy noisy Bowery, a major artery for this city, is softened by our music and at times completely drowned out.”

“Music is at my centre,” says Gimblett.

“It is non-verbal, it is importantly silent as it loops through the days and nights in here; sometimes one piece stays on the entire day, creating a constant.”

Designer of Jimmy D and co-owner of Children of Vision boutique

Music inspires several aspects of James Dobson’s world, whether designing for his label Jimmy D, deciding what to play at his boutique Children of Vision, or having stars shop in his store. Once, Canadian singer Peaches came in, and Dobson remembers her “trying on loads of outfits and dancing in front of our fan so she could see what they’d do on stage with her wind machine. It was definitely a pinch-myself moment.”

With his own design, music plays a big role, whether it be inspiration for design or in the workroom.

“For me the design process is always a melting pot of various inspirations and there is always some musical aspect in the mix – whether it’s simply an album I played on repeat while I was working on it, or a musical movement that formed a more pivotal point of inspiration such as AW11’s black metal-inspired collection. I use music as a way of tying a collection into a particular time – my neon scratch print from SS08 was inspired by new rave or as a way of exploring sub-cultures,” explains Dobson, who helped run a new ravey club night around this period called Time to get Dumb.

The black metal-inspired collection of 2011 featured a print in collaboration with local artist Andrew McLeod, who Dobson discovered through the printed band T-shirts that McLeod made for his various bands.

“What intrigued me about black metal was the intensity of it, the aesthetic codes of it all and yet how anti-fashion it is – there are very few musical movements that have such ferocity about them now,” says Dobson.

“For that collection I took the iconic ‘metal’ tee and recontextualised it, making it ridiculously oversized, and re-imagining it in digitally printed silk.”

Show music is another key aspect for Dobson, with soundtracks that the audience tend to love or hate.

“Quite often when I’m working on a collection I’ll obsess over a few songs that I can imagine forming the soundtrack to a show and when I listen to them I can visualise the whole scenario, I can see outfits in motion and it can even pre-empt new designs by simply imagining what the next outfit out would be.”

He works with his partner and stylist Chris Lorimer on show soundtracks.

“For me the music is an integral way of reinforcing the themes and inspirations of the collection, taking the viewers on a little journey and I’m not afraid of music that might make you feel a little uncomfortable – one season a reviewer said ‘the music at the Jimmy D show was horrendous. It sounded like the soundtrack to the latest Saw movie.’ Which I kind of loved – you don’t want the fashion equivalent of dinner party music at a show.”


“Being a child of the 80s, music plays a big part of my artistic practice,” explains artist Sam Mitchell.

“It often physically becomes part of my work in either the use of song lyrics randomly placed throughout, or it becomes the title of the work. Sometimes, like in David Bowie’s case, it becomes the actual subject matter.” Mitchell’s Ziggy Stardust series features David Bowie, “a man of a thousand faces”, in various incarnations.

“He was my first crush,” says Mitchell. “It amazed me when looking at images of Bowie how his style changed throughout his career. From his pre-teen Laughing Gnome 1950s style, to a long-haired guitar-strumming hippie to Ziggy Stardust alien sex object, then Diamond Dogs rock ‘n’ roll, blond, new romantic, suit-wearing Let’s Dance to duos with Mick, Tina and Freddie. Then on to David Lynch soundtracks and drum ‘n’ bass … He has tasted all that music could offer and has also changed how music is and can be made.”

Music also has a less literal influence on Mitchell’s work, playing in the background when working in her studio.

“I need the distraction. Music allows me to work intuitively and having music as a background noise stops the self-edits and the inner voice that questions why you are putting green next to orange … why that image? … It distracts the hypercritical mind and allows a free-flow effect to happen. Too much coffee can also have this effect.” Her playlist can range from Crowded House to Ice House, Patti Smith to Rod Stewart, The Specials to The xx. “The bulk of my iPod really is 80s music that reflects my nights dancing in Auckland at The Box and Alfies.” Away from work, Mitchell listens to National Radio’s Music 101 show, and the Sampler by Nick Bollinger, and will regularly attend live performances by the NZ Symphony Orchestra. “My partner is really into classical music and that has rubbed off on me.

“The last “live” band I saw was The Cure when they played at Vector Arena. Shows my age, I guess …”

Menswear designer at Zambesi

“Music provides food for your soul,” says Dayne Johnston, menswear designer at Zambesi. The fashion house sends out frequent e-newsletters to customers, always featuring a song lyric – the most recent was Bjork’s Come to Me – and they are known for their brilliant show soundtracks, including local band Pluto playing live on stage at the St James (2005), the Jaws soundtrack (2006) and The Knife’s frenetic Silent Shout last year.

Zambesi founders Elizabeth and Neville Findlay’s daughter Sophie is the music director for the label, with a broad knowledge of most things musical, and often the one who comes up with the song lyrics for the newsletters too.

But Johnston says the entire Zambesi design team are constantly influenced by music. “We like how it has the ability to take you on a journey and how it affects moods and memories,” he says. “I work a lot of the time with my iPod on; it seems to motivate me and gives me a bubble to work in.” He currently has The xx’s new album Coexist on repeat.

By Zoe Walker Email Zoe

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