On Albert Kriemler’s first visit to the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, in June of 2015, he was mesmerized by a green and white painting by Carmen Herrera, Blanco y Verde (1959). In the painting, a plane of off-white is broken up by a narrow green triangle. “Her sense of color and proportion, a blend of euphoria and perfect order, stunned me,” said Kriemler. He was also surprised that he had never heard of the artist.
Kriemler is creative director of the Swiss fashion brand Akris. He’s an avid patron of the arts, and he has connected that passion with his creation of garments before, collaborating with artists like Thomas Ruff and Sou Fujimoto on previous collections. He also collects, accumulating work by artists like Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, Lawrence Weiner, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Rémy Zaugg, and Paul Thek. “I was so surprised that there was art that I don’t know,” Kriemler told us last fall. “I’m passionate about art. I don’t know everything, but I have seen a lot. I spend a lot of free time in museums and galleries. It’s part of my free time where I clear my head and get inspired by new things.”
So Kriemler decided to learn about Herrera, reading as much as he could about the artist, buying some books and visiting her gallery in London to know more. The Cuban-born artist did not sell her first painting until the age of 89. Her show at the Whitney last fall coincided with her 101st birthday. Most of her work was largely unseen until 2009. So Kriemler shouldn’t be too hard on himself for not having seen her work just six years later. In the 1930s and ’40s, Herrera moved between France and Cuba, studying architecture. She came to New York, where she still lives and works, in 1954. For many in the art world, her recent success has felt like an incredible discovery.
The density of the green she used in that first painting Kriemler saw continued to occupy his thoughts. “The density of this green, can you imagine? She was thinking green and white already in the fifties. It’s amazing.” So Kriemler resolved to meet with the artist, in May of 2016 visiting her at her studio, where they spoke about her work. He found her still living in the same apartment that she moved into in 1954, a modest studio with her working desk that she still works at every day. She gave him a book, putting a note inside that said, “To Albert, my best wishes for a great success, Carmen Herrera, May 31, 2016.”
He proposed using her work as inspiration for his next collection (what would be Spring/Summer 2017), and she agreed. She told him she felt very honored, and to go ahead. So he set to work, choosing specific paintings to inspire certain looks, patterns, and shapes.
“I have done collections with artist inspiration before. I get inspired by color or shape or images,” he told us. For this collection, Kriemler explained, the starting point was Blanco y Verde, and from there he was drawn to the oranges, browns, blacks, greens, and blue patterns of Iberia no. 25 (1948), Venetian Red, White, and Black (1949), and Green Garden (1950). “I selected the early works, which were fabulous,” he said. “After this she started to be much more reduced, and she started working in black and white.”
The two works from 1959 and 1976 show that dense green again, whereas works from the 1980s and ’90s Kriemler was drawn to are in bright red and orange. “One I really loved was this was fascinating painting she did called PM, which stands for Piet Mondrian,” he told us, showing us an image of a work from 1990. Surprisingly, the designer found it quite challenging to create clothes around such minimalistic works. He then developed embroidery and complicated folds and pleats to complete the looks.
“It is a process of choosing from a multitude of options, the one that blends emotion and purpose perfectly. I set out to translate her abstract, geometric lines which captured my mind and heart into a woman’s body language expressed in a relaxed and refined wardrobe,” Kriemler said in a statement.
Along the way, he continued to check in with Herrera, to make sure she approved of his interpretation of her work. In July he showed her the colors he was working with, and the dress he had created from one of her untitled works. And the painting that started it all, Blanco y verde, resulted in one of his favorite looks, a sleeveless floor-length dress to close out the show with a thigh-high slit and slim arrow of green down the front. It looks so simple and elegant, but Kriemler assured us it is the product of an incredibly difficult and long process.
He showed the collection in New York last fall, the week that Herrera’s major retrospective at the Whitney opened. He chalked up the serendipitous timing to luck, saying, “What’s beautiful was that it started somewhere very personal.”