PORTLAND – Winslow Homer, fashionista.

Homer, the long-deceased American artist lovingly known for his paintings of the Maine coast, is also gaining a bit of reputation for his influence on what we wear and how we look.

The trendy clothing retailer J.Crew turned to Homer’s earthy watercolors when it launched its new spring line. Frank Muytjens, J.Crew’s vice president of men’s design, visited Maine for the first time last year and admitted being “swept away” by the state’s raw beauty, especially on the coast.

And then, through the providence of this being a very small world, a catalog of watercolors from last year’s “Winslow Homer and the Poetics of Place” show at the Portland Museum of Art ended up on Muytjens’ desk. His mind went where designer’s minds go when they are unlocked and inspiration hits.

In a video promoting the spring line, Muytjens says of Homer, “He did these beautiful watercolors of the coast of Maine. He actually has a studio in Prouts Neck, which is a little peninsula off of the coast of Maine. And the studio is still there and has been there forever, and it’s overlooking the bluffs.

“You can hear the ocean. You can see all the different hues (and) colors of the ocean, and we were really inspired by that.”

The handsome Homer catalog, designed by Portland designer Daniel Pepice and written by PMA chief curator Tom Denenberg, is featured prominently in the video.

It’s interesting that a painter who died a century ago still holds sway on America’s pop consciousness. It’s also encouraging and hopeful, said PMA director Mark Bessire.

“All of us who are older, we love Winslow Homer, and we want to share that with a younger generation so they have an understanding of how important he is,” Bessire said. “To have more pop icons using Homer as inspiration to create the hot, trendy fashion just shows how much impact this artist continues to have.

“We want to share and communicate that to a younger audience But if these designers are already doing it, it’s much cooler than if we were telling them.”

In the larger picture, the influence of Homer on J.Crew’s rugged spring line says something about the appeal of Maine. Many brands communicate their message through the authenticity of Maine. This past Christmas, Tommy Hilfilger featured its models on the streets of Camden with lobster traps and buoys providing a backdrop. Poland Spring touts Maine’s clean water and pristine natural environment to promote the purity of its elixir. Martha Stewart and Angela Adams have made their reputations on Maine’s coattails.

In that context, it’s really not at all surprising that J.Crew tapped Homer. If anything, the question is: What took so long?

“I always look to his work for inspiration,” Muytjens said in an e-mail exchange. “The cloudy grays of the sky, the inky navy of the ocean — they make for a very moody and masculine color palette. One of my favorites is a painting called ‘Weatherbeaten,’ and it perfectly sums up the J.Crew spring ’11 men’s line. Its rugged, hefty fabrics, ocean-faded colors and some of our garments look like they have been bleached out by the sun and the ocean, which makes them look like they’ve been around forever.”

Homer, who died in 1910 at the Prouts Neck studio, cared about appearances and was a fine dresser himself. He might have worn these clothes that his work inspired.

Philip C. Beam, writing in 1966 in the book “Winslow Homer at Prouts Neck,” noted that Homer maintained the appearance of “an English country gentleman, and had a fondness for checks and heavily patterned tweeds.” Homer favored clothing from Brooks Brothers, and ordered a new set of trousers each month from Portland’s best tailor.

That the PMA book had such a profound impact on the J.Crew designer dovetails perfectly into this story.

In his essay, Denenberg writes of the authenticity of Homer’s work and its roots in the soil of America. “Above all,” he writes, “Homer’s visual language seeks to ground the viewer in a landscape of the mind during an era that challenged traditional notions of terra firma in America.”

In other words, as America chugged toward rapid industrialization and change, Homer reinforced the image of America as an outpost. It was more than idyllic, because Homer represented what he saw — here in Maine, and elsewhere. His was not a contrived vision, but something that was real, tangible and attainable.

He seemed to be saying, just come to Maine and this too can be yours.

That was the allure of his art then and now, and remains the thing that designers have latched onto today. Through his work, Homer represents what is real.

Pepice designed the book accordingly. It has a hard cloth cover, and the interior design is clean and airy. It looks as if it could have been published 100 years ago.

A 2003 graduate of Maine College of Art, Pepice has the reputation for making things look good. He’s an artist, curator and designer who has worked for J.Crew, Rogues Gallery here in Portland and other major apparel companies.

He’s got a good eye and a great track record.

In appreciation for his work, the museum gave Pepice a box of books, which he then sent to friends and associates. Among them was J.Crew’s Muytjens. “He was on the top of my list of people who should get the book,” Pepice said.

The designer obviously paid attention to the gift.

Clearly, Homer’s paintings have nothing directly to do with neckties or clothes. But the look of the new fashion line has the authority of a Homer painting.

As Pepice says, “Nothing comes from nothing. I like it very much that Frank found a moment of inspiration in something that was there all the time.” 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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