Masterpiece Misplaced: Uffizi’s lawsuit against Jean Paul Gaultier and the Legal Complexities of Art x Fashion Collaborations

The Uffizi Galleries in Florence, Italy, are suing French fashion label Jean Paul Gaultier for “unauthorized use” of imagery from The Birth of Venus, a 15th-century painting by the famous early renaissance artist Sandro Boticelli. “Le Musée,” the capsule collection at the center of the lawsuit, was intended to be Jean Paul Gaultier’s tribute to the art world. 

Art and fashion have always been intimately intertwined worlds of creative expression, one often borrowing inspiration and ideas from the other. The earliest known “collaboration” was between Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali and Italian couturier Elsa Schiaparelli. 

In 1938, Schiaparelli used a print specially designed by her friend Dali to produce the iconic. While the terms of this collaboration were mutually agreed upon, it would have been an unrealistic proposition if one of the parties had died many years before. This was the case for Yves Saint Laurent who, for his autumn-winter collection in 1965, launched the iconic “Mondrian” dress, for which he candidly and publicly drew inspiration from a painting by the then deceased Dutch painter and famous pioneer of modern art, Piet Mondrian. The modernist style of Saint Laurent’s dress revolutionized high fashion, with its short length, minimalistic silhouette, and unique pattern. It is unknown whether the designer asked Mondrian’s estate for permission, but if the dress was available today, authorized use would likely be immediately raised by Saint Laurent’s legal team. 

The lawyers at Jean Paul Gaultier’s atelier failed to consider the “authorized use” question before the very public and costly release of a full collection featuring Botticelli’s masterpiece, not only on items of clothing but also widely circulated publicity materials. The Uffizi claimed that it sent Jean Paul Gaultier a letter of formal notice in April requesting that the brand remove these items of clothing from the market, or respond with plans to make a commercial agreement that would “remedy the abuse committed.” The museum claims that it was forced to take legal action after the letter was ignored. The fashion house could argue that the Boticelli image was painted during the 1480s, which places it in the public domain, making it free from copyright protections. However, the Uffizi’s claim finds support in Italy’s Codice dei beni culturali e del paesaggio, the Italian Code of Cultural Heritage of 2004. The code, which is entirely independent of copyright law, intends to protect “objects with a ‘cultural interest,’” i.e., those with “artistic, historical, archaeological and ethno-anthropological interest.” The code takes precedence over copyright law and remains in force even when a painting with the vintage of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus has fallen into the public domain. 

Damages will be a contentious issue in future stages of this lawsuit. How much will Jean Paul Gaultier have to pay for the alleged unfair use and its lack of response to notice from Uffizi? According to Ella Schmidt, director of the Uffizi Galleries, fees can range anywhere between a few thousand to tens of thousands of euros, depending also on how many garments the image appears on. Gaultier’s use of the image on an entire collection of clothes might set the company back by more than €100,000. 

This lawsuit raises many interesting questions about the cost of “inspiration” in the fashion industry. It also highlights the increasingly strict policies museums and artists’ estates are adopting vis-a-vis licensing, fair use and compensation. A couple of years ago, the Wall Street Journal explored the ethics of fashion’s voracious, somewhat crass, and profit-driven attempts at (over)licensing famous works by deceased artists. This raises a policy question about what limits the law should set to balance the protection of cultural heritage and the rights of individuals and companies to profit from authorized works deriving from creative freedom and inspiration.

Art and fashion collaborations quickly achieve the status of high fashion from the day they drop and continue to enjoy their high worth as rare vintage items on resale websites throughout their lifetime. Takashi Murakami x Louis Vuitton, Coach x Jean-Michel Basquiat and Raf Simons x Robert Mapplethorpe are just some examples of successful ventures. Some fashion “collaborations,” however, have not gone down well in the public eye. Marc Jacobs, for example, was sued by Nirvana in 2019 for using images resembling the grunge band’s classic black-and-yellow iconography in its Redux Grunge collection. Roberto Cavalli faced similar allegations from street artists in San Francisco’s Mission District for using designs of their murals without permission. The latest to join the list of accused infringers is the Chinese clothing company Shein, which already suffers from a murky reputation and allegations of questionable ethical practices. British oil painter Vanessa Bowman accused the multi-billion dollar enterprise of unauthorized use of her images on their product, but thus far hesitates to get involved in time-intensive and expensive litigation. 

Allegations of infringement are not good for any fashion brand and a nuisance for artists. The increasing number of cases in this area indicates a mismatched sense of “fair use” on both sides and the need for frontloading collaborations with more robust transactional terms and safeguards.  Collaborations that achieve the highest levels of commercial success and cultural acceptance seem to be collaborations in the true sense: based on mutually agreed upon terms, clear communication about image use and predetermined models of profit-sharing. If the designer in question is knowingly using imagery from another artist’s work, the best recourse to avoid costly litigation and potential payment of damages would be to communicate with the artist themselves (or their estate, in case of a decedent), acquire relevant permissions and, ideally, draw up an arrangement for mutually benefitting from sales.