Frida Kahlo

Would Frida Kahlo Hate How Her Image Gets Used Today?

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907 - 1954). Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although she died in 1954, Frida Kahlo has lost none of her allure. More than 60 years later, admirers remain fascinated by the intriguing Mexican artist and find ways to continue exploring her life and legacy–or, as some critics would contend, perpetuate her cult of personality.

That cult has proven lucrative for designers, as fans of Kahlo—even those who know little about her– eagerly snap up anything bearing her image, be it a t-shirt, keychain, shopping bag, or some less expected items bearing her name and face, including a line of skincare products, watches, and a special edition pair of Converse high-top sneakers.

Kahlo herself likely wouldn’t have been caught dead in any of it. The artist was famous for embracing traditional Oaxacan styles, wearing hand-embroidered huipiles, long, swaying skirts, and colorful rebozos. Flowers often adorned her hair and dramatic pieces of statement jewelry—rings, necklaces, and bracelets especially– were never absent.

Kahlo’s was a style that channeled creativity and required the kind of deliberate care with dressing and drama that few people had then and even fewer have today. Her presence, wrote stepdaughter Guadalupe Rivera in the cookbook and memoir, Frida’s Fiestas, was one that was constantly surprising, defined by motion, texture, and pops of color. Everything “seemed to come alive when she moved,” wrote Rivera, “everything… breathed a kind of roguish glee….”

Perhaps that sense of coming alive is what designers at the upscale Italian fashion house Valentino hoped to convey through their 2015 Resort Collection, a boring name that belies the incredible interpretations of Kahlo’s work and style in more than 80 pieces of clothing, all of which evoke Kahlo vividly.

The collection raises questions about how dead artists and their work are appropriated.

There’s a buttercream colored suit whose jacket flutters to life with blue mariposas and other winged insects, all floating through flowers; an ivory mid-calf length dress of eyelet and fine lacework, whose seeming simplicity makes it the perfect canvas for a dramatic, Kahlo-style necklace; a crocheted sweater that looks as if the model walked through the jungle, picking up flowers along the way; and a stunning, form-fitting, semi-sheer black dress with monkeys climbing up, down, and all around. One could easily see Kahlo in the dress, making a dramatic entrance at a Mexico City party.

There are dozens of other pieces, from oversized blouses to serape-style cover-ups, skirts, pantsuits, and even bomber jackets. There’s printed fabric, embroidered fabric, and appliqués, ruffles, fringe, and scalloped necks and sleeves. The entire collection seems made by designers who not only have an appreciation for Kahlo’s art and her own personal style, but also for Mexico: its flora, its fauna, its shapes and textures and colors.

The downside, unsurprisingly, is the cost. The price points for the 2015 Resort Collection definitely aren’t artist-friendly. This butterfly embroidered jacket will set you back nearly $5,000, and even a pair of butterfly-emblazoned canvas espadrilles will cause most shoppers to wince at the $495 price tag. Bergdorf Goodman, one of several stores that carry pieces from the collection, declined to comment on sales for the Kahlo-inspired pieces.

The collection, along with its exorbitant price tags, raises anew questions about whether and how artists and their work—especially dead artists and their work—are appropriated for ends which the artist might not have supported. Those questions are particularly acute when large sums of money are being made from the artist’s legacy, but they’re not always easy to answer and they become even more complicated when the artist in question is someone who has become so iconic, so public domain, as Frida Kahlo.

Descendants of Kahlo, including her niece, Isolda Kahlo, have attempted to help protect the artist’s work and legacy while collaborating with designers and other entities who want to use Kahlo’s image or that of her work for profit or for promoting a cause. Isolda Kahlo founded The Frida Kahlo Corporation to serve as a licensing entity, trademarking the artist’s name and attempting to control how Kahlo is branded internationally. The corporation was involved, for instance, with the Converse high-top sneaker project, with sales of the shoes benefiting communities in Mexico.

But even the corporation has to admit that it’s impossible to control every Kahlo-inspired piece, many of which are intended as homages rather than profiteering schemes. And Isolda Kahlo has herself been criticized for enriching herself by exploiting her aunt’s name. Over the years, bloggers have called for boycotts of Frida Kahlo-branded tequila that was “authorized” by The Frida Kahlo Corporation, while others have lamented rumors about the construction of a line of Frida Kahlo hotels, the first of which is scheduled to open in the spring of this year.

Isolda Kahlo did not respond to Remezcla’s requests for an interview.