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Coach celebrates the visual language of Keith Haring 30 years later

Coach celebrates the visual language of Keith Haring 30 years later

Taylor Engle

Keith Haring Coach
In every industry, there are too many ways to view someone else’s work. This makes the creative fields, with their subjectivity and intimacy and circumstantiality in their exposure to us, difficult to call. Those at the art world’s helm in the 1980s in America either saw the artist Keith Haring as a gay hero or someone who pimped out his images by printing them on anything he believed would make money.
Haring was something of an artistic superstar in the 1980s, dedicating most of his time to public and social work. He used pop art and graffiti to communicate.

Haring began democratically sharing his work underground. His art was featured on the subway’s walls. As his work grew more popularity, it evolved to spread a social message: gay people need to speak up and everyone else needs to listen.

Some art critics saw him as kitschy, a sell-out. “To the people that attack me for selling out, I always answer them, ‘What did they think the alternative was?’” Haring told The Morning Call in 1987.

Keith Haring Coach
However, many Americans saw the commercialization of his art as a chance for everyone to access his work, not just the wealthy. It was a way to spread a message around the world, which is the same message Coach 1941 took on for spring 2018.
“It’s very emotional for me, but his values and work also feel right for Coach,” Coach 1941 Executive Creative Director Stuart Vevers said to WWD, explaining to the publication how he drew inspiration not only from the optimism and creativity of New York but of the playfulness of Haring himself.
Haring’s work is cartoonish and vapid to the untrained eye, but in reality it’s a thoughtfully-crafted homage to the gay community—a community that was under the microscope during this decade.
Anyone over 50 can tell you—the 1980s were terrifying, especially in the art world. The AIDs epidemic was first noticed in America in 1981. By 1989, the World Health Organization reported up to 400,000 cases worldwide.
As of 2016, 675,000 people have died.
In the 80s, people were dying. And not in a distant way; not in a way that makes you nervous, a little sad, but it feels far enough from home that it really isn’t that bad. This was real. They were your friends, your coworkers. You shopped with them at grocery stores and danced with them at all the clubs and laughed until your cheeks hurt…and suddenly, they were gone.
In the midst of this shaky, unpredictable era was Haring, an artist from Pennsylvania who drew cartoons having a good time together. Or, more specifically, cartoons having a good time together who also happen to be gay and proponents of safe sex.

Keith Haring Coach
This open conversation was so necessary because of how stigmatized HIV/AIDS was at the time. Then-President Ronald Reagan infamously didn’t even mention the subject until 1985 (when over 5,000 people in America had already died). Nancy Reagan, who was said to have tremendous sway over her husband, did nothing. And as has been evidenced time and again over our nation’s history, when the government is corrupt, the artists have to step forward.
Among his artwork were quite a few incredibly powerful protest posters, including Safe Sex and Silence = Death (as in silence about AIDs). This year, on the 30th anniversary of Safe Sex, Vevers turned to Haring’s work as inspiration for a divine collection.

Madonna Keith Haring 1984

Madonna wearing a Keith Haring suit during a performance at Paradise Garage, 1984. Photograph courtesy of Flavorwire.

This isn’t Haring’s first collaboration with the fashion world. He collaborated with designers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren on their Fall 1983 Witches collection (including the Haring-printed clothing Madonna wore to perform “Like a Virgin” on a British pop music show). He graffiti-d Grace Jones’ body in 1985 for live performances at Paradise Garage, a popular club in downtown New York City. At the same venue, Madonna also performed in a pink plastic two piece by the artist.

Keith Haring x Coach

However, this collaboration is unique because it isn’t necessarily a collaboration with the artist. Vevers had to get the rights to Haring’s work from the Keith Haring Foundation.

Coach x Keith Haring Spring 2018 Collection. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images.
The collection premiered in New York in September on a runway paved with glitter. The graphics were simple, subtle and instantly recognizable. Models strutted Keith-embroidered jackets, dresses, and revived designs of Coach’s classic handbag models down the runway, faces solemn with respect for the artist, who died of AIDs in 1990 at the age of 31.
With the knowledge of the collaboration, an audience may expect more of a 1980s vibe to the entire line, but Vevers instead incorporated the graphics into looks that were inspired by the ’30s (and some ’70s-style jackets with Haring squiggles).

Keith Haring Coach

Coach x Keith Haring Spring 2018 Collection. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images.
Models (with names like Binx Walton, Winnie Harlow and Kaia Gerber) paraded in pastel slips, leather jackets and the perfect amount of Haring’s playfulness. Selena Gomez (a.k.a. The “face of Coach”) attended the show and was spotted last month wearing one of the slips.
Haring was a phenomenal artist—he was an artist for the people. His pieces were meant to be shared with everyone; no one was to be left out.
Although he granted every social class access to his work, his real triumph was his ability to zero in on a specific group of people: gays.
Haring’s art gave a voice to the 1980s gay community. It made them feel like they could talk about their identity, and (perhaps more importantly) it made them feel heard. It made a discrimination-free world seem the tiniest bit more possible. It made that generation feel the slightest bit accepted.
It was felt in the air when he painted the entire set of MTV in a couple hours with an audience cheering him on. It was felt when the queen of pop wore his designs on television. It was pulsing through his subway murals and whispered with his Pop Shop merchandise–America was starting to talk.
His work wasn’t just art; it was a new visual language.
Beyond his representation of gay culture was his refusal to be silent about AIDs. The LGBTQ community was demonized and Haring did not accept that. He demanded a conversation, no matter what it cost.

Keith Haring Coach

Keith Haring and Madonna on the cover of the German magazine Monopol.
Haring spoke to the American people directly through his art. With his graffiti and pop art came an understanding that at least some of America was done being silent. His art popped up all over the world and it was impossible to ignore. It forced people to address the epidemic.Vevers would have been in middle school or high school when Haring was coloring the world with his ideas, making it safe to assume he was inspired by his work. The fact that he’s willing to carry it out is a testament to the impact it had on a nation in crisis.
We have a much longer way to go before we see equal representation for everyone in pop culture and media, but this collection was a step in the right direction—both a win for the gay community and a successful collaboration between a brand and a late artist.

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