Representing the creative future

So what does it mean to be a muse in 2022?

Looking into the notion of the muse and its meaning in fashion design today

Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn, Jean Paul Gaultier and Madonna, Lagerfeld and De Bascher, Halston and Peretti. When it comes to fashion, designers and their relationship with their muses hold a collective fascination. In the twenty-first-century celebrity brand endorsement deals, the muse’s cultural capital is compensated financially, making the link between them and the designer clear. But what lies behind the muse if the currency is inspiration? What does the muse get out of the deal? We spoke to recent design graduates to further explore how the notion of the muse is used in design today.

A narrative that prevails is that of the muse as an inexhaustible source of inspiration, an object of love and admiration. But still, the muse is seen as an object. Often set in our heads as a woman,  young, and beautiful. The duality between the creator and the subject doesn’t leave much room for speculation about their complicated relationship.

The muse as a symbol of inspiration dates back to classical Greek mythology, represented by nine sisters, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, presiding over art and science. Artists would ask the nine muses for help with their work, seeking inspiration and guidance. The muses were seen as the root of artistic creation. They roused the artist, awakened their senses, and made them dig deeper into their talent. The muse was never stagnant.

To consider the muse today, often there seems to be a bitter imbalance in power. The notion prevails that the designer “makes” the muse.

In “More Than A Muse”, author Katie McCabe explores this complex relationship between a muse and their often male counterpart. A link that usually left the first overshadowed, anonymous or underestimated in their work.

To consider the muse today, often there seems to be a bitter imbalance in power. The notion prevails that the designer “makes” the muse. The late Karl Lagerfeld promoted the careers of models such as Ines de la Fressange, Claudia Schiffer and Cara Delevigne. While Lagerfeld lost interest in most of them, Jacques De Bascher, who died in 1989 at age of 37, was his amour absolu. “I’m not a family-minded person, and he was the only thing that gave a kind of sense to things,” Lagerfeld told Vanity Fair. “But the strange thing is, it wasn’t physical – it had nothing to do with that. It was like family without the burden of a family.” A concept that is true for the more profound and successful designer-muse relationships: Lovers without sex, family without burden. The lines between all of these ideas become blurry.

To the MA graduate designer, who goes by the name Mehmet, the muse is the focal point everything revolves around. “My collection is built around my muse. When I meet someone that inspires me, that changes me, I can tell this person is my muse.” Although believing there are many muses, his main source of inspiration is the contemporary artist Shirin Neshat. Both Mehmet and Neshat share a background of immigration, which directly flows into his work. “I create for the women I grew up with. They are the women that inspire me.”

To him, a shared understanding of the world is essential, even for the models he chooses to wear his clothes. “I can’t do a show where I have the models walk around like they are in a fairytale, because this is not my reality. My reality is tougher, and that’s what I want to show in my work as well; tell the story of my people.”

“I can’t create for someone I don’t know, it’s not sustainable.” – Mehmet

Someone who has the ability to do that is his friend turned muse, Thea. “She is a strong woman, that’s why I am interested in her. What drew me in about her was her attitude. When I saw her for the first time at CSM she was wearing a mask, so I couldn’t see her face, but I saw her long hair and the way she was talking and I thought ‘Oh, she has quite an attitude – I have to talk to her.’” Still, Mehmet has trouble calling Thea his muse. “I don’t really call her my muse, because she is my friend too. But when people inspire me, they become my muse.”

When being asked if he is looking for a part of himself in her, he answers: “I think your muse is a part of yourself or someone you love. I can’t create for someone I don’t know, it’s not sustainable. I think having a muse is the only way to be sustainable in fashion, to make it relevant. If you don’t have a muse, it is just commercial in my opinion.” Coming close to the final MA show, Mehmet would exclusively drape on Thea, forming a bond of appreciation and inspiration that goes both ways. “With Thea, we change each other’s life, we have an impact on each other. And I hope that I inspire her, too.”

“My muses are people that are close to me, for example, my mum or my aunt. To me, they embody this spirit of freedom and self-irony.” – Thomas Newbury

With connections that run as deep as that, some designers and muses form a bond that spans a lifetime. Take Seventies fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick, better known as Halston, and Elsa Peretti, who transitioned from the world of modelling to becoming Halston’s muse and went on to develop a career as one of the most influential jewellery designers to date. Rebecca Dayan, who played Peretti in the Netflix drama “Halston”, told American Vogue that “Some have said that had Halston been straight, she would have been his great love. Their relationship was intense and competitive and, at the same time, they needed each other’s attention and validation. I think it’s great that our show shows her as this equal creative force.” Equality is the keyword – Halston and Peretti met as equals.

Some muses might be very close to home. “My muses are people that are close to me, for example, my mum or my aunt. To me, they embody this spirit of freedom and self-irony,” says designer Thomas Newbury. He celebrates the British working-class: from honouring his solarium-obsessed aunt in a sequinned ‘sunburn’ dress that looks like it has tan lines on the back, to his mum’s love for tattoos reflected in a deconstructed lace top that gives the illusion of a tattoo on the wearer’s chest. Thomas’ muses show that muses don’t have to be models.

The same goes for Halina North. Her MA collection was inspired by her departed grandad and thereby the kilt. ‘My grandpa passed during Covid-19 and I was asked if I wanted his kilts otherwise they would be given away. I learnt the origins of where they came from, and I analysed and unpicked them to understand. The tartan structure, how the kilts were used, when they were worn and why, all of which became centric to the idea of my muse.’ Through exploring her heritage and the place that connects her to her grandad, her final muse became the tartan itself.

‘Kilts are a very male-dominated garment. Producing womenswear and designing these garments, especially for a woman has created a progressive outlook I think my Grandpa would have loved to see. I think something that my muse would get back from my designs is the continuation of my heritage, redefining it and its ideals.’

João Machado’s muse is someone that is very close to him as well. His Central Saint Martins MA collection is inspired by his former partner and the space they spent the most time in the bedroom. With its intimate objects, sheets, pillows and nightwear, the bedroom became a creative inspiration for his looks – his muse, if you will. After breaking up with his partner, Machado explored the emotions of the space. “I looked at the sadness of losing the partner after a breakup and the emotions I connected to the bedroom. Due to Covid, our space was confined to the indoors. We had a lot of deep, meaningful conversations there, about the future and about the uncertainty of life.”

Arron Burton’s muses are unusual in another sense. His collection “Yes, Sir” is all about the nuances of masculinity. “I want to build this identity of a male, which is really somewhat aggressive, but also raw in the sense of showing vulnerability.” Growing up without a dad, Burton said he had to form his own idea of what it means to be a man. Looking back at his childhood, his muses seem to intertwine with his role models. “I think my muse is someone like the actor Jack O’Connell. He would be the kind of person I would’ve looked up to in school, he’s the version of a man I always wanted to be. Jack O’Connell takes himself seriously but he also is a bit of a silly lad as well.”

Though defining the actor as a central inspiration, Burton can find a muse in many people. “A muse to me could be a guy in a boxing ring, it could be my model and sometimes it can also be myself. However, they all share the traits of authority, masculinity and integrity. But that can fall within anyone, really.”

His high school days were a time in his life where he draws a lot of inspiration from. “I grew up in Wales and went to an all-boys school. I was quite obsessed even back then with male identities and there I was surrounded by a lot of different types.” For him, inspiration was everywhere. “I looked at how they would interact with dress. That could have been as simple as a guy wearing a school uniform, how he would tie his tie or wears his jumper around his waist instead of over his shoulders.”

“I don’t want to just take from them [a muse] and then not give back.” – Nora Kassim

Being only one of two women who’s doing menswear in the Master’s programme, Nora Kassim challenges stereotypes with this fact alone. “I think it can be an advantage,” she says, “because I see menswear differently than them I would say. I have a different view on their masculinity.”

Nora is inspired by the mundane from walking around in Berlin and London: chairs that were set on the streets no longer wanted, stained mattresses on a street corner, a plastic bag wrapped around a tree. Besides the objects, it’s the ordinary people on the streets that go about their everyday life that inspire her. People eating, people on public transport on their way to work, carrying bags of groceries home. “I want to design for the people I see in the streets because I take inspiration from them. And then I was asked at CSM: ‘Oh, but in the end, will what you make be affordable for these people?’ – Probably not. And that’s something I’ve questioned myself about right now. I don’t want to just take from them and then not give back.”

Above all, she would say her main muse is her father. “I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Seeing him growing up, wearing traditional Somalian dress, definitely influenced my view of menswear. And it’s funny because when I was growing up, he used to wear skirts that are typical Somalian. And as a kid, when I was visiting friends and comparing my family to theirs and I thought ‘Oh, something’s different.’ But now, I think it’s the coolest.”

It was also her father that pushed her toward the arts. “He made me sit down and watch fashion shows with him, he introduced me to art. And I am incredibly inspired by the way he cherishes clothes, growing up having nothing, borrowing clothes from the neighbours and repairing every piece of clothing when it got torn. He still has a sweatshirt that is 30 years old that he keeps on repairing. That circularity is something I want to focus on in my designs as well.”

The notion of the muse and the designer is an exchange of power: inspiration for exposure.

When being asked what her dad gets in return for being her muse, she takes a moment to think. “I feel like he just feels so respected or so seen that I asked him a lot of questions concerning my work or the fact that I referenced him a lot. And I just care so much about how he grew up, I think he feels just very appreciated.”

A realization that can be drawn is that designers seem to find something in their muses that is either missing from them or that is familiar to them. Some seek completion, others seek recognition. The muse serves as an extension of themselves. Pop culture’s fetishism of muses however seems to be the root of the confusion about the concept. It puts the person on an ephemeral pedestal while belittling them at the same time. In the end, the notion of the muse and the designer is an exchange of power: inspiration for exposure. But oftentimes, it is a collaboration, wanted by both sides. Muses are not magical creatures, they are individuals — often artists, actors and musicians themselves. We need to redefine the concept as something more human, a coming together of creativity and collaborations between two people.