Depesche der Mode

Why so many people now regard fashion as art

Karl Lagerfeld knows how to time his jokes. So when his last Chanel show was a send up to the art world, we felt it was time to investigate. Godfrey Deeny takes a trip to Frieze London and speaks to notables in the art and fashion world. Is fashion art? Or is it basically, all things considered, dare we remind ourselves, mainly just dress making? It’s a debate that ignites periodically ever since designers began to be surrounded by artists and even more so now many houses collaborate with art world leaders. The discussion has reared up again in the wake of Chanel’s much admired October show, where Karl Lagerfeld pointedly mocked many designers determination to be viewed as modern artists.

Is fashion art? Or is it basically, all things considered, dare we remind ourselves, mainly just dress making?

It’s a debate that ignites periodically ever since designers began to be surrounded by artists and even more so now many houses collaborate with art world leaders. The discussion has reared up again in the wake of Chanel’s much admired October show, where Karl Lagerfeld pointedly mocked many designers determination to be viewed as modern artists.

Most everyone has by now seen the images of that catwalk. For those who did not it was an exhilarating display of absurdist humor, where the Grand Palais catwalk was turned into the largest modern art gallery ever built, as a setting for a spring Chanel collection containing some beautiful clothes.

Using the house’s seemingly endless resources, Karl commissioned 75 “works of art,” many playing on Chanel’s DNA, from a massive fake marble perfume bottle, entitled “Unsinkable,” to suggestive enormous red lipstick protruding out of a three-meter high double C, named “Logo Crossing,” that looked like a Koons sculpture.

“It’s Chanel AAArt!” expounded Lagerfeld. “In the past designers were desperate to be socially acceptable, because they were just clothes makers. Now they all want to be recognized as artists. To many of them have forgotten that their métier is to make dresses. Huh?”

Within the industry, the show was regarded as a timely reality check; especially to a new generation of designers many of who very clearly regard themselves as conceptual artists. Though it is somewhat ironic that Lagerfeld used Chanel’s legendarily experienced in-house production team at a time when so many fine artists are only too willing to collaborate on runway shows. Indeed, in an epic Prada show in Milan a week before, the clothes practically walked out of the murals starring dreamy beauties, distraught lovelies and Flower Power graphics in an installation entitled “In the Heart of the Multitude,” created specially from six contemporary artists. Indeed many looks, like shaved mink coats, literally lifted the images off the murals.

“I certainly would never describe myself as an artist. Though there is an artistic moment in fashion.”

And on the evening after the Chanel show, on the east side of Paris in the Garde Républicaine headquarters, Sarah Burton referenced the European art movements of the 20s, via tough Cubist colors, geometric forms and defiantly warrior looks in an exhilarating show. The colorful sand catwalk was a tennis court sized patchwork that Piet Mondrian would have loved, while models wore metal skullcaps and abstract Der Stijl graphic kilts.

However, when I talked to Burton at a McQueen dinner staged during the London art fair Frieze, she was careful to stress: “I certainly would never describe myself as an artist. Though there is an artistic moment in fashion.”

“What we have in common is that fashion is about creating emotion, which is what art is trying to do too. It’s such a demanding job to be an artist. To create and then to have to put your ideas out there and see if they are welcomed or rejected is just like in fashion too. Lee went to the first Frieze, and never missed another, and bought many things there. Plus this place also has a certain historic meaning for the house,” added Burton after the supper in Christ Church in London’s Spitalfields, where McQueen staged his 1996 Dante collection. The feast had a gothic mood, inspired by paintings of the court of Henry VIII and the guests were essentially art world celebrities and dealers, Rachel Feinstein, Maureen Paley, Tracey Emin and Frieze founders Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp. It was also striking that there were as many art dealers in slickly cut Italian cashmere suits as actual artists at the dinner. As the last unregulated international market art has enjoyed a very profitable recession.

Like art, fashion can presage the future. Burton also tapped into the Dark Continent in her collection, showing urban amazons in beaded bras and feather skirts, albeit in Yves Klein blue. As indeed did many Paris collections, in a collective suggestion that Africa may be about to escape its post-colonial struggles. Two decades ago when I covered Pierre Cardin becoming the first couturier to enter the Académie française, he told me that when I would reach his age Africa would be the continent of the future. As he is 91 now, that would be about in 2025.

Fashion’s other obvious link to art is that due to the explosion in their fortunes many designers and luxury barons have become major league collectors. Indeed Francois Henri Pinault, main shareholder in luxury conglomerate Kering, has Europe’s most important contemporary collection.

Luigi Maramotti, whose family-controlled Max Mara, with 1.2 billion in sales last year, is one of Italy’s most significant art patrons. Max Mara has even created a generous bi-annual art prize for women. In Maramotti’s opinion Lagerfeld’s take on the debate is right.

“As usual Karl Lagerfeld is very smart. What he did is an interesting way of showing his criticism. What he is saying to the young generation of designers is that you are not artists in the sense of you are manufacturing luxury to make saleable products. And maybe he is suggesting to artists to go back to art and be less drawn to fashion.”

“An artist’s life is very demanding, and I have great respect for them. We support women artist for no matter how much has changed in the condition of women we all know they struggle more than men for their art and creativity. So our Max Mara prizes is a way to support women art and their resiliency, even if prize if not money but a chance to life and do research and work in Italy. It’s a contemporary grand art grand tour,” says Maramotti, whose old company headquarters in Reggio Emilia boasts work by more than one hundred artists, including: Francis Bacon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, Tony Cragg, Lucio Fontana, Mimmo Paladino, Tom Sachs, Mario Schifano, Julian Schnabel and Bill Viola.

However, any discussion about the meeting of art and fashion can only be meaningful if one hazards a definition of what is art. In my view it is the communication by artifice of an essential truth whether visual, verbal, musical or literary. By truth I mean anything that reveals to us something we sensed but maybe did not comprehend before, or a creation that by virtue of its beauty reveals a new way of looking at the world anew aesthetically. The great Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas and James Joyce, the writer all we Irish revere and the author of possibly the greatest novel in the English language, both believed that art is the human use of sensible or intelligent matter for an aesthetic end. And that the “improper” use of art is when art tries to teach or makes you do something you would not normally do. From this point of view any art that arouses emotion to persuade you to buy something or support a political cause is improper. It suggests advertising is ultimately pornographic. Of course, a Pop Artist like Andy Warhol would obviously regard this as nonsense since in his universe any visual commentary or critique of popular culture is art too.

Indeed, one could argue that within any fashion magazine the upfront pages of ads are not art precisely because their goal is to burnish the DNA and image of a label to sell its products, while the editorial shoots can be artistic as their aim is to create memorable and arresting statements of beauty and style.

And, I’d go further – dismissing Aquinas and Joyce – and say that any visual display with aesthetic élan that positively informs or encourages finer moral or more elegant behavior is art. Which is one reason I regard great fashion shows as moments of art. Not only can they be intense visual displays of beauty they also just occasionally reveal to us sociological truths we already partially sense – whether that be about individuals right to personal autonomy, or women’s right to sexual independence, individual space, and elegant eccentricity.

“Art is art and fashion is fashion. But I believe in the synergies between fashion, design and architecture and bringing them all together.”

Art curators have another view, notably Hans Ulrich Obrist, Europe’s most path-breaking exhibition planner, and joint director of the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens.

“Art is art and fashion is fashion. But I believe in the synergies between fashion, design and architecture and bringing them all together. I call it the Diaghilev moment. He brought together fashion, music, dance and costume design,” says Obrist of the Russian impresario whose 1928 production of Apollon Musagete saw Igor Stravinsky, George Balanchine and Coco Chanel work together.

Obrist recalled that the Serpentine organized Scottish artists like Douglas Gordon and Tilda Swinton in a curatorially collaboration with cashmere Pringle making knits. He later approached Cos, the upmarket H&M offshoot, after noticing in Cos windows while walking to work that they were supporting young artists.

Now Cos stages weekly encounters, Park Nights, in the pavilion built by Sou Fugimoto, bringing together various disciplines, among which George Henry Longley, an artist who staged a fashion show with snakes and wall-mounted marble sculptures. It’s all part, he insists, of Joseph Beuys idea of the expanded notion of art.

“It’s not art trying to be fashion, or fashion trying to be art. It’s one plus one can be eleven,” argues Obrist, dressed in a fitted Cos suit.

Adds Karin Gustafsson co-designer of Cos, which sponsored the Adrián Villar Rojas show in the Serpentine Sackler Gallery this autumn: “I would not consider myself an artist, but we have been so inspired by this gallery some many times, we thought it made perfect sense to support it. It’s part of our life.”

Does an artist or designer’s intent and purpose alert whether what they create is art. Probably. Oliver Cromwell famously instructed Sir Peter Lely to paint him with “roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.” Warhol, commissioned by the rich and famous, always made his subjects very glamorous, free of blemishes. Except, perhaps, dead historical figures like V.I. Lenin and Chairman Mao.

That being the case, I’d argue Lagerfeld’s latest show was indeed an art exhibition. Its brilliant mimicking of famous artists, its exacting quality, its clever impersonation so many artists all combined to make it so. The proof was that most people in the audience guessed the names of majority of artists which artist Karl was referencing. No wonder Chanel got offers to stage an auction of the “collection.” It would surely be a commercial hit. Though that won’t happen, because Chanel plans to warehouse the whole lot.

“You I don’t own a single piece. I signed everything over to Chanel. It all belongs to the company,” revealed Lagerfeld.

Many people both within and outside fashion regard fashion folk as inherently superficial, interested only in the surface. I can not agree, since I find many of my colleagues remarkably informed about artistic movements, architecture, musical genres, interior design, cinema and the art of living. They have to be in order to create great collections, magazines, shows and shoots. They may not all be very skilled verbally and can be strikingly insular, but cultured they most certainly are.

I’d also argue that we are currently living in a Renaissance era of fashion in that there never has been so many fertile minds designing clothes and presenting them with such attention and skill. Photography, on the other hand, partly because it is an an older discipline and partly because it is so beholden to corporate clients, is in a post-Renaissance era, similar to what is known as Mannerism in art. That movement was characterized by virtuoso technique and a sophisticated but florid style, along with the habit of copying or improving on predecessors rather than attempting to break new ground. In a word, stylized beauty too frequently without much soul.