When Kate Moss walked down the runway in Bottega Veneta’s Spring/Summer 2023 show, she could have been modeling for Urban Outfitters. Her outfit, which consisted of a flannel shirt, a tank top and a pair of jeans, seemed out of place on a high fashion runway where each look pushed five figures.
But once viewers got a closer look, it became clear that this wasn’t just a normal outfit. Each piece was made of 100 percent lambskin with multiple layers of printing to achieve the appearance of a different material.
This illusory technique, dubbed “trompe l’œil,” a French phrase meaning “trick the eye,” has existed in art for thousands of years. Dating back to ancient Greece, artists captivated audiences by painting scenes that looked like realistic three-dimensional objects, from still-life paintings of grapes to ceilings of cathedrals painted to look like the sky above.
Trompe l’œil first met the runway when Elsa Schiapirelli created a sweater knitted to look like it had a bow attached to it for her eponymous fashion house in 1927. The sweater was a hit and the technique, though initially rare due to lack of technology and cost of production, contributed to many iconic looks over the last few decades of high fashion.
From Jean Paul Gaultier’s sheer tattoo long sleeve shirts in 1994 (actually first shown by his protégé Martin Margiela in 1989) to Loewe’s recent pixelated collection for 2023, each designer’s interpretation of trompe l’œil is different and the potential in something as simple as illusion has led to numerous innovations in garment treatment. While some designers prefer to experiment with clothing shape, material or sizing, trompe l’œil allowed designers like Margiela — who was more focused on reinterpreting traditional items of clothing — to achieve a surrealist effect in the production of his pieces without having to change their appearance.
Nowadays, the method is ubiquitous in high fashion, mostly as a result of the push by labels like Bottega Veneta to value craftsmanship as much as, if not more than, branding. Most fashion houses now offer some kind of trompe l’œil item and it’s even trickled down into fast fashion, with simple trompe l’œil designs like the tuxedo t-shirt and subsequent versions of the aforementioned tattoo top making their way into larger, more accessible retailers.
Trompe l’œil might be my favorite design technique in high fashion, but the reason why I love it so much is the same reason why I don’t personally own any trompe l’œil pieces and why you might be hearing about it for the first time right now: because so much effort is spent making such a small visual effect, cost of production is regularly through the roof.
“Unfortunately, for fashion enthusiasts who have had the Bottega Veneta jeans on their if-I-had-infinite-money-and-horrible-spending-habits wishlist for the last few years, part of appreciating trompe l’œil comes in accepting that that appreciation will have to come from afar.”
For someone like me, these pieces are the ultimate testament to revolutionary craftsmanship and it’s even cooler that said craftsmanship is practically indiscernible. It’s the ultimate “if you know, you know” technique. Unfortunately, high production costs make it incredibly difficult to adapt intricate trompe l’œil designs into larger scale production models, meaning that the only accessible examples of trompe l’œil are bottom-of-the-barrel designs (if you are an unironic owner of a tuxedo tee, I would encourage you to find a new home for it. Preferably in the donation bin).
Even established houses like Bottega Veneta only produce their leather, denim-appearing, jeans in two sizes, indicating extremely limited production. The price for those who are curious? $6,800.
Loewe’s pixelated collection is the first of its kind, but it’s priced accordingly, with t-shirts retailing at $1,850 (oh, and they’re sold out in most sizes). Essentially, to realize the full potential of trompe l’œil, both the producer and the consumer have to pay a premium.
So where’s the middle ground? If there is any such thing, it exists on the secondhand market or through designers like Our Legacy whose trompe l’œil designs are relatively affordable and high quality. Still, if you’re looking to purchase a piece from them or a used piece from a designer like Gaultier, be prepared to shell out multiple hundreds of dollars. The best bang for your buck is most likely in a t-shirt or dress of some sort; these items are the easiest canvas for designers to work with, allowing for many different interpretations of the effect.
Unfortunately, for fashion enthusiasts who have had the Bottega Veneta jeans on their if-I-had-infinite-money-and-horrible-spending-habits wishlist for the last few years, part of appreciating trompe l’œil comes in accepting that that appreciation will have to come from afar. But that shouldn’t stop people from purchasing affordable alternatives or trying to create their own trompe l’œil design. After all, that’s how Martin and Elsa got started too.
Gus Gingrich PO ’24 is from Walnut Creek, California. In his free time, he enjoys stressing over being outbid on Japanese auction websites and mocking up re-designs for his dorm room closet.