Last month, the Hepworth Wakefield gallery launched Disobedient Bodies, a sublime dissection of the way clothing can subvert the human body curated byLoewe creative director J W Anderson. Last week, Louis Vuitton introduced Masters, a collaboration with controversial American artist Jeff Koons, which featured copies of some of the world’s most famous works of art – the Mona Lisa, the Rape of the Sabines – printed onto some oddly pedestrian bags.
The jury is out on the Vuitton/Koons collaboration (‘a joyous art history lesson,’ proclaimed the Guardian; ‘tacky and cheap’ stormed the Mail) but the two events have one thing in common: a conjoining of fashion and art.
From Elsa Schiaparelli’s lobster dress painted by Salvador Dali to Cindy Sherman in vintage Chanel, fashion and art have been bouncing ideas off each other for decades. Recently, the overlap has become even broader, ranging from a genuine commitment to art to exercises in brand-building.
The reasons for this are complex and manifold, symptomatic of a circular movement which has crept across cultural beliefs for the past 20 years. Luxury has lost its sheen. Inspiration for designers today is frequently drawn from the street, where many of today’s celebrities begin their careers. Museums, too, now focus less on ‘high’ culture and more on popular movements; think of the V&A’s exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970.
Simultaneously, social media has created an access-all-areas visual culture that thrives on the power of the image. And all of it springs from a desire for greater relevance, a yearning to reach different audiences; at its most basic level, the desire to make a profit. Couture exists for an increasingly niche market while the exaggeratedly luxe streetwear of labels like Vetements is more popular than ever; the sudden ubiquity of luxury trainers is testament to that.
When fashion and art come together, they create a mutually beneficial arrangement that sees art offered to new audiences (not to mention funding) and lends fashion, always regarded as the flightier and more commercial of the two, with a gravitas it would find hard to achieve on its own.
Hettie Judah has a long-standing relationship with the Mode Museum in Antwerp and has written extensively on the relationship between fashion and art. ‘Within the fashion industry, there is an abiding perception that artists work free of commercial constraints and the kind of pressure that those in the fashion industry struggle with,’ she says. ‘There is still a popular idea of the artist as a figure of pure expression that has become totemic.
How does she think fashion and art work together? ‘To an extent these days, both [art and fashion] seem to function as a kind of entertainment and/or spectacle, whether it’s a blockbuster exhibition or an Instagram-ready catwalk show,’ she says.
Collaborations are the public face of the developing relationship between fashion and art. And when collabs work, they really do work. Few will forget September 2013, when Miuccia Prada used the art female graffiti artists to decorate perfect knee length shift dresses. Prada’s presentation demonstrated what can happen when a designer blends visual acuity with passion.
The same goes for Belgian designer Raf Simons’ one-off capsule range with American multimedia artist Sterling Ruby: a hype-inducing wardrobe of splattered streetwear, Simon’s minimalist precision placed against Ruby’s anarchic hand-painted exuberance.
Simons’ has good form in mixing with artists: previous work featured Joy Division album art. His Spring/Summer 2016 “Isolated Heroes” collection offers parkas and sweatshirts (no one does luxe streetwear like Simons) emblazoned with monochrome portraits of beautiful young men by photographer David Sims. The sinuous, organic lines of Sims’ images against Simons’ pared down, street-style-infused silhouettes made the partnership one to remember.
‘[A successful collaboration is] of a meaningful three-way relationship – a genuine mutual respect/interest between the art and the designer, and a rapport between the artist and the consumer,’ says Judah.
With Koons, Vuitton remains a pioneer in this field. One of the most seminal partnerships remains its then creative director Marc Jacobs’ sprawling work with reclusive Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. In 2012, after partnerships with Murakama and Stephen Sprouse, Jacobs covered a vast array of products in Kusama’s signature kinetic dots. Love them or loathe them, you couldn’t escape them …
What made LV’s investment in Kusama significant, however, was that it was, in effect, merchandising: the brand was supporting the artist’s touring retrospective. In the exchange between fashion and art, cultural investment and sponsorship is starting to count more and more.
‘That’s the big change,’ agrees Professor Frances Corner OBE, head of the London College of Fashion. ‘Fashion houses have moved into the gallery and museum space. Kering CEO [and owner of Christie’s] François-Henri Pinault has an amazing gallery in Venice, Palazzo Grassi; Miuccia Prada has the Fondazione Prada and you’ve also got the Louis Vuitton Foundation and Museum, which celebrates both contemporary and traditional [art].’
Major art gatherings such as Art Basel Miami Beach are now a maelstrom of influential faces from across art and fashion, cinema and theatre. At the Serpentine Gallery’s annual summer party in London, you’re as likely to see Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Tommy Hilfiger as genuine artists. London’s Frieze Art Fair (co-sponsored by Gucci) was referred to by Vogue as the world’s ‘fifth fashion week.’
Simultaneously, the art world has discovered the pull of its sartorial counterpart. Where a delicately nuanced exhibition of 14th century Chinese porcelain may fail to gather the crowds, whack on the work of a famous fashion designer and attendance figures rocket. With audience numbers of almost half a million, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is the most popular show in the V&A’s history. This year, the museum is hosting Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear and Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion. Disobedient Bodies will no doubt pull in crowds at the Hepworth Wakefield.
Fashion photography is also gaining credence in the art world; gallery owners are more than happy to see their photographers helming a shoot. Marilyn Minter, for example, photographed a Tom Ford ad campaign in 2007. In 2012, Sherman created a series of self-portraits, placing enigmatic female figures in vintage Chanel against bleak Icelandic landscapes. The costumes only enhanced the oddness of her characters.
‘Art and fashion now occupy the same physical space in society,’ Pinault told the 14th NYT Luxury Conference, in 2014. ‘Both art and fashion are now in the streets, drawing influence from and influencing contemporary lifestyles. Today, art has moved out of museums, where it used to be confined, and fashion has moved in.’
Social media is part of the shift; with Instagram filters and an iPhone, everyone is an artist – and a consumer. ’The increasing visualisation amongst consumers make them interested,’ muses Corner. ‘And the fact that [through social media] they can see behind the fashion show, they see people wearing [the fashion], means they become interested in the relationship between fashion to music, art and celebrity – which then makes people come along to see the exhibitions.’
For Corner, however, the two disciplines remain separate entities. ‘Fashion is a business,’ she says. ‘It does have strong artisan and art form aspects and, if you look at designers like McQueen and Galliano, they were extraordinary. But in the end, the dream and the artefacts they create are about selling clothes. Fashion cannot be detached from the economic reality.
‘Artists can explore issues of the wider cultural implications of clothing, issues of identity, the performance nature of clothing and dressing,’ she continues. ‘It has an act of being artistic and artists are interested in it – but that’s not the same as fashion being art.’
In Disobedient Bodies, which links fashion with modern artists including the sculptural work of the late Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, Anderson puts forward another viewpoint. ‘Working with so many amazing pieces in fashion and art, I’m completely converted,” he told Business of Fashion. ‘What Yohji Yamamoto does is just as important as Barbara Hepworth. You can achieve sculptural form in clothing.’ The cross-fertilisation continues.
An earlier version of this article was published on the website of art publishers Plinth here in February 2017.