Sultan Creates Wearable Art for the Abstract Fashionista

The French-based apparel company Vilebrequin has released a line inspired by the designs of Donald Sultan.
The French-based apparel company Vilebrequin has released a line of men’s swim trunks inspired by the designs of Donald Sultan.

By Annette Hinkle

As an artist, Donald Sultan is well-known for his large format flower paintings which were initially inspired, ironically, by the flaming smokestacks of the industrial Midwest. Sultan’s abstract paintings can be found in the collections of prestigious museums throughout the world, from MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, to Tate Modern in London and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, as well as the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill.

And now, thanks to French-based apparel company Vilebrequin, Sultan’s artwork is wearable. Recently, the company released a new line of men’s swim trunks featuring a design based on Sultan’s Lantern Flowers paintings.

“It’s a different kind of look than Vilebrequin has traditionally had, and appeals to surfer people,” explained Sultan in a recent interview. “It was launched in Miami and sold out in the first three days.”

“I thought the design was more youthful than others they sell. I think they’ll look great — I can’t imagine they wouldn’t.”

Vilebrequin’s CEO, Roland Herlory explains that the brand is about creativity — and working with a range of artists fits naturally with the company’s philosophy.

“Collaborations give new perspectives to the Vilebrequin spectrum. It’s a way to bring new inspiration and to collaborate with amazing artists, designers, and brands that share our vision on how to enjoy life,” said Herlory in a statement. “We mix our worlds in order to find a common path.

“It is very exciting. It is rejuvenating, and it pushes a little bit further the boundaries of our natural territory.”

As a brand, Vilebrequin was founded in St. Tropez in 1971 and was the vision of the late photographer and journalist Fred Prysquel. Sultan, who lived in St. Tropez in the 1980s and knew Prysquel, is a loyal customer of Vilebrequin and has been wearing the company’s swim trunks for decades. While the new red and white trunks are being sold by a company best known for its presence in the French Riviera, the inspiration for the pattern comes from a rather surprising source —the Chinese lanterns hanging in Sultan’s Sag Harbor garden.

“They are wired up and very plain. They’re nothing special, and meant to be hung outside,” admitted Sultan. “But they can’t stay out in the rain, so I sprayed them with a waterproof lacquer.”

“They’re for good luck and happiness.”

The simple decorative motif on the lanterns appealed greatly to Sultan’s interest in creating artwork featuring flowers with a decidedly obvious sense of artifice. That was how the Lantern Flower paintings came to be.

“I had been doing a lot of flowers and the ones I had been working on were based on the paper poppies from the Fields of Flanders,” explained Sultan. “They were artificial, then I was polishing them and making them almost completely artificial.”

“I wanted to use flowers that were totally made up as well. The Chinese lanterns have these swirling things on them,” he said. “So I kind of eliminated the flower itself and just used the buds and vines as an expressive motif.”

Donald Sultan at work in his studio.

Though it took the initiative of Vilebrequin to bring Sultan’s Chinese lantern flowers to life in swimwear form, this is not the first time his art has ended up being used on something else. In the past, he has worked with weR2, a company co-founded by Sara Meltzer, the daughter of one of Sultan’s friends. The firm produces new, functional objects made with, and inspired by, the work of contemporary artists.

“We made napkins, scarves, pocket squares and a lot of them sold at the Parrish,” Sultan explained. “Then they came to me and said Vilebrequin wanted to do a bathing suit. I like their bathing suits and lived in St. Tropez, so I thought, why not?

“The cross-over between merchandising and art is something I’m interested in. I like the idea of wearing a work of art.”

Sultan has also designed rugs for the Friends of the Pompidou Center and a tea set for Limoges. While most of the products have been sold in museum shops, some have been designed especially for retail stores — including a set of Sultan dishes for Bergdorf’s, and a perfume for Neimen Marcus which was sold under the appealing name “Turpentine”

“The bottle was an old turpentine can, but made of crystal,” said Sultan.

While the swim trunks are the only wearable apparel Vilebrequin has released utilizing Sultan’s work at this point, he could easily envision his imagery being used on clothing for women as well, perhaps on a simple A-line dress or a bathing suit.

“I had decided to come up with a women’s suit and boy shorts which they decided not to do,” said Sultan. “It was a beautiful pattern — gray and white. It was different than the trunks, and more active and vine-like. Maybe they’ll revisit it.”

“I would like to do more with them. I like the company, but I’m not pushing it. What I get out of it is bathing suits,” added Sultan. “All these things I do for fun.”

The next launch of Vilebrequin’s Sultan-inspired swim trunks is scheduled for next summer in St. Bart’s. In the meantime, Sultan fans who don’t want to wait to see his work can travel to Lincoln, Nebraska where “Donald Sultan: The Disaster Paintings” will be on view from January 26 to May 13, 2018 at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska.

The traveling exhibition, which was organized by the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, features 11 of Sultan’s large-scale paintings created between 1984 and 1990 depicting natural and man-made events in a postindustrial age. The exhibit opened at the Lowe Art Musuem in Coral Gables, Florida in fall, 2016 and since then has traveled to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, and finally to the Sheldon Museum in Lincoln.

Unfortunately, it will probably be much too cold to go to the exhibit opening in Nebraska wearing Vilebrequin’s Sultan-inspired swim trunks — but you never know.