On a breezy night during L.A.’s auto show in November, a group of mainly middle-aged execs were shuffling their feet inside Jim Henson’s Hollywood studio. Above them, a sparkly Smart car—conceived by Kansas-born fashion designer Jeremy Scott, and launching next month—sat dramatically unveiled on a stage. Faux laser beams hit the milk-hued vehicle’s wing-shaped taillights, and gun shots blasted through speakers as rapper M.I.A. performed Paper Planes, a song about globalization’s damaging effects. Then through the VIP doors, and into the uniformed mass of charcoal grey and navy jackets, came rapper A$AP Rocky, actress Liberty Ross and the rest of Scott’s guest list: 30 twentysomethings wearing a mix of punk, ska, skater and Goth-inspired drag. “My designs can make worlds collide,” said Scott, who was sporting PVC pants, a mesh top and a canary yellow coif for the occasion (“my version of business casual”).
Scott, named by Karl Lagerfeld as his possible successor at Chanel, is one of many style-focused eccentrics conscripted by an automaker. Mini asked Italian Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Franca Sozzani, to work with them on developing a one-off Roadster, which was uncloaked and auctioned off at the big-ticket Life Ball event in Vienna last year. Emerging designers such as the U.K.’s Louise Gray, James Small and Fred Butler have produced versions of a new Vauxhall car called Adam, which launched during London Fashion Week last month. Victoria Beckham has designed a Range Rover, and even Chrysler entered the fray, producing a 2013 300C John Varvatos Limited Edition model with Varvatos, a Detroit designer. It’s a “brute in a suit,” as Chrysler put it, painted in phantom black—a trendy hue snatched right from the fall-winter runways. And in perhaps the biggest news, fashion house Courrèges—which began designing electric cars in the ’60s—is getting back into the game. According to the Financial Times, the label’s new owners, Jacques Bungert and Frédéric Torloting, plan to roll out electric cars this year in a soon-to-be announced partnership with a European carmaker.
It’s easy to spot a couture car. Whether the designer is charged with the interior (many overcompensate by covering seats in logos or handbag leathers) or, as in Scott’s case, working with a team of auto engineers to tweak the templated body of an assembly-line vehicle, runway designers are expected to break the moulds. When Scott used his iconic wing motif, which he has employed in countless collections as well as a 2013 Adidas sneaker project, he was ensuring his car would have brand recognition on the road.
“We are living in an age of customization,” explained fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi via phone from his home in New York. “It makes sense that a car company would gravitate to people who do what I do.” Last fall the designer released a limited-edition capsule line of clothes inspired by the 2013 Chevy Malibu. The collection, commissioned by GM, includes Malibu driving moccasins, in a shade that reflects the car’s Tintcoat colour, and a Malibu leather jacket, crafted to resemble the contrast stitching in the car’s seats.
The trend is a new twist on an old idea. Gucci teamed up with AMC back in 1972 to provide luxury trim for the suburban-looking Hornet. In the ’80s, Valentino provided Lincoln Continental models with unique colour palettes, and in 2008, Hermès collaborated with Bugatti, sheathing the Veyron in bull calfskin from its workshops in Paris. But the trend has extended to affordable cars. One reason is the slew of successful fashion collaborations with retailers like Target, Fairweather (Mizrahi has worked with both), and even Starbucks (who recently hired L.A.-based style duo Rodarte to make mugs). Fashion is now more important to the cultural landscape than TV, Mizrahi said. “I’m not a Real Housewife, but I’m close—I have a platform, I’ve developed a brand over the past 25 years.”
For Scott, it was a good trade-off. “They get new ideas,” he said, “and I get to be out of my element, working outside of my studio and in 3D and clay models.” Then a moment of bravado: “I’m the first designer in history to change the body of a car so radically.”