A before and after look at Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei’s fashion photography creation. (Liam Warwick /Courtesy of V Magazine )
Fashion critic

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei received a shipment of garments from 14 up-and-coming fashion designers with instructions to photograph the clothes for the readers of V magazine in whatever manner he chose. He decided to douse them with paint.

The anarchic results, captured in a story for the Nov. 13 issue of the fashion and art publication, are comical, violent and joyful. Instead of creating traditional images that hold the clothes in esteem, romanticize their imperfections or fetishize their lines, the artist treated them like blank canvases that are transformed by both the person wearing them and by circumstances. Which is to say, the artist suggests the infinite possibilities in a single frock.

“I don’t know if it’s sad or positive that he decided to do the project this way,” says Los Angeles-based designer Shaun Samson, whose gray-plaid, quilted jacket and shorts were splashed in mauve paint. “But the outcome is beautiful.”

The photograph of his clothes “raises questions,” Samson says, “and you can come up with your own understanding of it.”

Ai is known for his political activism, for his provocative creativity and for such a profound ability to rankle China’s authoritarian establishment that he has been banned from traveling abroad. One of his most striking works was his 2010 “Sunflower Seeds” installation at the Tate Modern in London, in which a room was filled with millions of tiny porcelain sunflower seeds handmade by craftsmen in China. The artwork tricked the eye into seeing something that was not really there and made one reconsider the meaning of what was perceived. (Initially, guests were encouraged to shuffle through the mountain of seeds, but their feet kicked up so much potentially toxic dust from the porcelain that visitors were eventually restricted to viewing the installation from a distance.)

“I always think art is a tool to really set up new questions. To create a basic structure that can be open to possibilities,” the artist said in a video detailing the making of “Sunflower Seeds.” “I want people who don’t understand art to understand what I’m doing.”

He indulged in a similar kind of trickery and transformation with his fashion project, while also making a point of welcoming non-fashion aficionados into this seemingly rarefied world. He photographed the clothes on people who are often estranged from fashion, such as the workers in his studio. But he also used fellow activists as models, suggesting that clothes can be accomplices to social disruption.

The designers whose work is represented in the project are part of Dover Street Market’s stable of emerging talents. Dover Street Market, created by Comme des Garcons — the iconoclastic Japanese brand — began in London and has since expanded to include locations in Tokyo and New York. It is known for curating collections by designers who have something to say, which is a diplomatic way of noting that the work can be a bit odd. Beautifully, confoundedly, daringly odd.

Samson, for instance, launched his menswear collection in 2011 after studying at London’s Central Saint Martins. His quilted jacket and shorts were matched with hockey socks, and he originally styled them with ropes of flowers. Other designers include London’s Craig Green, who had a breakout moment during the spring 2015 menswear shows in that city, Russian designer Gosha Rubchinskiy, who is inspired by skaters — as, it seems, all young menswear designers are — and Shayne Oliver, the disruptive force driving Hood by Air.

The clothes that arrived at Ai’s China workspace were not exactly plain T-shirts and khakis. They were wild plaid shorts, latex skirts, translucent tunics and trippy, psychedelic suits.

To create the photographs, each model stood below a specially constructed scaffold as a single hue of paint was poured from above. Sometimes it spattered widely in an explosion of color. Sometimes it formed a smooth, sensual coating. In some pictures, the paint is captured mid-splash and looks like a strange, asymmetrical hat. In others, the paint and the garments combine into something new that is beautiful, dynamic and raw. Yet when red paint collides with a white coat from French designer Simon Jacquemus, the result is angry and violent — as if the clothing has been doused with blood.

As black paint fans out around Green’s multi-colored suit, the model transforms into something resembling a winged, prehistoric creature. “It was a bit scary knowing that something was going to happen to [the suit], but I trusted that something good would happen,” says Green, who has been in business two years.

The linen jacket and trousers, which were part of Green’s fall 2014 runway collection, were already one-of-a-kind. The outfit had been painstakingly hand-painted in shades of yellow, brown and cyan as a kind of ode to classic craftsmanship. It had taken five people four days to complete. When Green first saw what Ai had done to it, he gasped, “Oh, my God! Is that the outfit?” And then he fell in love. “It adds chaos to a piece that was overworked and ornate,” he says. “There’s something kind of incredible about it. There’s such freeness to it.”

The artist’s interventions serve as vivid reminders that the process of design is messy and unpredictable. It’s impossible to know, truly know, how the final garment will look until it meets the capriciousness of life — a pristine white dress is spattered with mud — and is inhabited by individual personalities. In the same way that art becomes something unique as each viewer brings along a particular point of view, the individual transforms fashion, too.

Ai Weiwei uses paint as a form of social turbulence. It beautifies and mesmerizes; disturbs and unnerves. Occasionally, it makes a silly, sticky, dripping mess. It makes us gasp. It elicits laughter. It gives us pause.

The Ai Weiwei collaboration with V magazine will go on display Nov. 9 at New York’s Dover Street Market.

The story has been updated.