Not monkeying around … fashion designer finds inspiration in the art of Ottawa’s Christopher Griffin

Detail from Ottawa artists Christopher Griffin's painting The Conservative Party of Canada. The monkeys were used by designer Stella Jean to accent her new Resort line of clothing and managed to get in Vogue magazine.

What initially looked like a scam email has resulted in Ottawa artist Christopher Griffin’s work not only appearing on high-fashion clothing from Rome, but also prancing across the pages of Vogue, the holy grail of fashion publications.

Italian fashion designer Stella Jean is a protégé of Georgio Armani and her work is sold in specialty boutiques worldwide. It was a member of her team who emailed Griffin back in March.

“I got an email from an Italian address,” Griffin recalled when asked to recount his ascent to Vogue-dom. “They spelled my name wrong and it was kind of generic — ‘We like your work, we want to put it on a clothing line.’ It looked like spam for sure.”

Once every couple of months, Griffin gets an email asking about purchasing his art. The scammers say they’re prepared to pay, but need some help with the shipping costs so if he can send them a few hundred dollars, they will process the order and send him a cheque for everything.

A model wears one of the Stella Jean Resort collection dresses. Courtesy  Stella Jean.

“The email comes from overseas and the (theory is that) the artist is flattered that someone overseas wants their work,” he explained. “They (the scammers) make their money on shipping. It’s basically a fake shipping company.”

Griffin was about to delete it when he saw the name ‘Stella Jean’ at the bottom. He googled it and determined it was a bona fide company with stores across Italy. So he went to their contact page and sent them an email asking how they would approach an artist if they wanted to use their work.

“Twelve minutes later, I received an email from the woman who sent the original note,” he said. “I thought if it was spam, it was pretty sophisticated.”

That it was legit was the good news. The bad news — and news with which artists are all too familiar — was that there was no budget to pay him. “But I was so relieved they didn’t want money from me, I said fine,” Griffin said with a laugh. “They wanted me to sign this agreement that came with no logo, no letterhead. I asked them to resend it with their logo, maybe the date and maybe a signature. I was still suspicious, but all they asked for was a high-res photo of the painting so I sent that to them.”

The strange thing, and it’s one for which he still has no answer, is that it was a painting from 2012. It’s not on his website and it’s been in a private collection for much of that time so he has no idea how they found it.

“I’ve asked them several times and they still haven’t answered,” he said. Before he sent the image, he contacted the client who owns the painting. Although he believes he owns the copyright, he did it as a courtesy and to cover his bases.

The image Stella Jean was after is called The Conservative Party of Canada and depicts Costa Rican capuchin or white-faced monkeys in an abstract way.

Stella Jean is known for her use of colour, inspired by her Haitian heritage. She used his monkeys in her Resort collection. As Vogue noted in its coverage Griffin’s monkeys were a motif on “boxy jackets, graceful tiered dresses and shorts.” Vogue also wrote that with Resort, Jean took a lighter approach to her work, which is often charged with “intense political undertones.” Little did they appear to know that the monkeys were a statement about Canadian politics made by Griffin way back when Stephen Harper was in power.

Ottawa’s Christopher Griffin.

And what does Griffin think of what the designer did with his work?

“I think it’s fabulous,” he said. “I think it looks really cool. They changed the colours, but since it’s going on clothing, I’m not so concerned with artistic integrity.”

Asked what kind of reaction he’s received so far, he said he’s getting more credibility from some of his Facebook buddies, 178 of whom have “liked” his post on the subject.

“I guess time will tell,” he said. “My clients and my Facebook friends think it’s really cool. I’m getting comments from people in the arts community who never comment on my work. Because it’s in Vogue, I guess they’re giving me more cred. The funny thing is that the painting is six years old and I’ve moved on from that style and the subject matter. It’s curious how putting Vogue alongside it, all of a sudden, people look at it twice.”

The next stop for the Griffin fashions is a runway show in Milan. Time will tell whether Griffin is in the audience to see his monkeys scamper across the catwalk.

Jennifer Campbell is an Ottawa writer and editor.

Share Post