GRATEFUL DEAD CUFFLINKS. Andy Warhol socks. Jean-Michel Basquiat T-shirts. Lately my email inbox brims with press releases from fashion companies pitching these items. These are not, of course, the handiwork of the artists themselves (R.I.P. Jerry, Andy and Jean-Michel) but the result of licensing partnerships struck between a brand (Tateosian, Happy Socks and Diamond Supply Co., respectively) and an estate, foundation or company.
These types of deals have long been negotiated for mass merchandise, often kid’s items emblazoned with cartoons (think a pint-size Iron Man backpack). Lately, however, more sophisticated licensing deals are being made between designer labels and other entities. Calvin Klein has been working with the Andy Warhol Foundation on clothing and accessories screened with the late artist’s works. This season, you can also buy a Comme des Garçons Shirt men’s button-up printed with the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat (the artist walked in a CDG runway show in 1987). Just a couple of weeks ago at its latest women’s show in Paris, Gucci showed a handbag shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head, the bag’s handle spanning his ears.
“Brands are looking to distinguish themselves for a period of a season or more, and looking to get that ‘pop’ of alignment with another cool brand,” said Douglas Hand, a lawyer in New York City who specializes in working with fashion and lifestyle brands. “And Warhol is still cool, Basquiat is still cool, Lichtenstein is still cool.” Traditionally, Mr. Hand explained, fashion licensing deals positioned the brand as the licensee—Tom Ford, for instance, lending its trademarked brand name to a line of sunglasses or a fragrance collection. Increasingly now, we’re seeing the reverse form of licensing: where the brand is the one paying royalties to a foundation or company for the right to use its imagery.
Once it might have been unthinkable for a luxury label like Gucci to work with a mass-market brand like
or a mainstream brand like Uniqlo to use the work of a capital-A Artist like Jean-Michel Basquiat. And while those in the art world may still cringe at a $14.90 Uniqlo T-shirt printed with Basquiat’s ‘Beat Bop’ painting, this kind of crossover has become a broad cultural phenomenon. Automakers advertise their cars to the strains of indie rock songs, basketball players moonlight as style icons and your next pair of MeUndies underwear may come patterned with Keith Haring’s doodles.
Culture today is “so fluid,” said Beverly Semmes, an artist and visiting professor at Pratt University in New York. When she was launching her art career in the early 1990s, “there wasn’t so much interesting crossover happening between art and fashion.” Fashion brands approached her to collaborate but she was quick to say no. “I had a bunch of offers for things with fashion people and I just couldn’t even think of it,” she said. Today though, Ms. Semmes, whose mixed-media installations have often referenced clothing, looks more approvingly on art and fashion relationships, particularly Calvin Klein’s work with German sculptor Sterling Ruby, who designed the brand’s New York flagship store and has done installations for its runway shows. Such partnerships, she pointed out, let the artist reach a larger audience and get a financial boost.
On the brand side, Nick Tershay, the owner of Diamond Supply Co., bet that licensing Basquiat’s work for a collection would bring in new customers. “People from the art world, they’re like, ‘Wow, Diamond Supply Co., that’s cool, I never heard of it, but they’re doing Basquiat [clothes],’” said Mr. Tershay, who’s particularly proud that Los Angeles’s Broad Museum, whose collection includes original Basquiat works, carried his line in its gift shop.
Still, there is a fundamental reason why the work of Basquiat, Warhol and Haring in particular is seen so frequently on everything from hoodies to boxer briefs to a ceramic key tray: They’re deceased. Because of that, as Ms. Semmes noted, there’s less danger of diluting their reputation, something a living artist would fear. (Which isn’t to say that deceased artists’ estates aren’t protective: Basquiat’s carefully reviewed each design Diamond Supply Co. created using the artist’s work.)
It’s hard to imagine an artist like Warhol, though, being upset at the sight of his Banana painting on a sock even when he was alive. Warhol “engaged in various licensing projects during his lifetime, whether it be collaborations with [fashion designers] Halston or Stephen Sprouse or watches with
” said Michael Dayton Hermann, the director of licensing at The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. The foundation manages the late artist’s catalog and uses royalties for cash grants in support of the arts—more than $200 million since 1987. “With Warhol you can be both commercial and a diligent steward,” said Mr. Dayton Hermann, who has overseen everything from a Warhol Campbell’s soup can to a $95 fragrance with Comme des Garçons. “Warhol said art is what you can get away with.”
Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com