Meet the Canadian Artist Whose Painting Ended Up On a Celine Jacket
Darby Milbrath has only been painting professionally for three years, yet her work has already caught Hedi Slimane’s attention.
Last week, Hedi Slimane debuted Celine’s Spring 2020 menswear collection in Paris. The show was filled with uncomfortably skinny male models clad in flared jeans and aviator sunglasses, evincing a sleazy ‘70s-plywood-basement-but-make-it-fashion vibe. One item in the collection, a sequin bomber jacket covered in a twisty botanical pattern, has a particularly interesting origin story. The jacket, worn atop a slogan t-shirt reading “My Own Worst Enemy,” was adapted from a painting by Darby Milbrath, a Canadian painter who splits her time between Toronto and Salt Spring Island, British Columbia.
Milbrath grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, and began her artistic path as a dancer, studying contemporary dance and choreography with Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet before leaving due to injuries. Though she has only been painting professionally for three years, Milbrath’s work has already been exhibited in galleries across Canada, the US and Mexico.
“My work is very much to me like a diary. I paint what I know and what’s around me,” she says. “A lot of my work expresses the emotion or the sensuality or perhaps the loneliness of being a woman. I kind of try to describe what I am going through and experiencing, or I’ll pull from memories. I’m a very nostalgic person. All these fragments of places I’ve visited or people in my life, and the plants and flowers I see in different landscapes. All of these things are woven into the paintings.”
Much of Milbrath’s work draws from botanical themes and contains an almost mystical quality, which she attributes to a lifelong fascination with plants and a background in herbalism. She paints with natural pigments and uses lavender essential oil instead of solvents – an Old Masters technique – which often lends the work a soft, devotional quality.
We reached Milbrath over the phone from Salt Spring Island, where she is spending the summer, to discuss her career, occult mysticism and how her painting ended up on a Celine jacket.
How did the collaboration with Celine come about?
First of all, I was very surprised that someone like Hedi Slimane had found the paintings, most likely through Instagram. It must have spoken to him because he wanted to use it. I got an email one day from one of Hedi Slimane’s assistants asking for permission to use Angel’s Trumpets, which is a painting I did in November 2018. He already had an idea of what he wanted to use the painting for, an all-over embroidered jacket. So we just talked back and forth a little bit and made a licensing agreement.
When you say Instagram, do you think Hedi Slimane was just scrolling through his Explore page and you came up?
I’ve been showing nationally and internationally for a few years now, so I think what must have happened is somebody working in a gallery in the art world was friends with somebody on the Celine team. I know Celine often does collaborations with artists, he’s worked with other painters before.
Tell us more about Angel’s Trumpets, and how the painting came to be.
Angel’s Trumpets was painted en plein air, which means painted from life, at the Palm House, which is a part of a Victorian botanical conservatory in Toronto called Allen Gardens. It’s a place I go often, in the winter and the fall, to soothe my spirit when I’m feeling separated from nature. Growing up in British Columbia, nature was such a big part of my life. Angel’s Trumpets were a plant I had learned about but never seen in person. When I saw them there, I immediately knew they would make a beautiful painting. I was literally kneeling on the ground with my easel in front of me, completely blocking the path. I painted it very quickly, which I think gives it this free, almost dancer-ly quality. It looks like the flowers are in motion instead of just hung there.
What was it that drew you to the Angel’s Trumpets flower and made you want to paint it?
I have a background in herbalism and have always been interested in mysticism and occult art. Angel’s Trumpets has a long history in occult art. It’s associated with the Judgement card in the Tarot. It’s seen as a symbol of communication with the spirit world. The flower becomes very heavily scented at dusk and will linger through nightfall. The scent is so intoxicating that it reportedly has psychoactive properties as well. It’s a night blooming flower. The term for plants and animals that become more active at night is ‘vespertine’, like bats and owls. I definitely like vespertines because I feel connected to that. I feel very powerful at night, and will stay up all night. That’s when I paint the best.
You mentioned Angel’s Trumpets is a night blooming flower, but you painted it from life during the daytime. Where did the darkness in the painting come from?
When I painted the dark background it was definitely imagined, I will often distort reality to make emotion more important. It’s funny, they’re called Angel’s Trumpets but there is something kind of devilish about them. If you look at pictures, you can see the petals almost will curl and twist up in a way that looks like a tail. Also, it has a connection to the night and all the mysteries that are there. I think it brings a new kind of energy to the painting if I know these things about the plant before I paint it.
The jacket is a lot flashier than the painting. What do you think of the final result?
I was very curious to see how Hedi would design it and take inspiration from the painting. I was just thrilled. Any artist that will use another artist’s work as a point of departure to create their own work is pretty amazing. I was very open-minded to what he did with it. I gave him complete free reign to alter the image or even change the colours. [The jacket] is all hand-embroidered, which I think is so special. I love the idea that hands were working in this way, with so much artistry and such a high level of skill to create this. When you make a painting you don’t really know what the life of it will be, so it’s pretty interesting to see his take on it.
What became of Angel’s Trumpets, the painting?
It did sell. It’s in a collector’s home now. I think it sold right after [the collection] was released, so someone must have been excited about it.