Critiquing the canvas of the spring/summer 14 catwalk, Dan Thawley considers the choppy courtship of art and fashion.
Nearly four hundred years ago, the Renaissance philosopher Sir Francis Bacon told us that “fashion is only the attempt to realise art in living forms and social intercourse”, in a shockingly prescient statement of the intertwining evolution of the two disciplines. Fast-forward to 2013 and that social intercourse has exploded into a myriad of associations, both high and lowbrow, which continue to divide critics as to the value of art and fashion’s endless dalliances. From the face-value approach of art prints on garments (be that T-shirt or ballgown) to the deep exchanges of visual and cultural gravity that pass, from time to time, between artists and designers, one must approach these partnerships with perspective in order to divine their true value – whether purely aesthetic or something much more.
The spring/summer 2014 runway was an intriguing signpost for this rocky romance, amidst other recent events that have highlighted a relationship that seemingly teeters between equal parts catalytic and parasitic. There is no denying the tremendous creative forces that have collided of late: be it Roman Coppola signing commercials for Prada (and her, costumes for The Great Gatsby) or Dior’s Guggenheim soiree in honour of artists Christopher Wool and James Turrell. Cindy Sherman is rarely seen out of a Marc Jacobs dress these days, and the upcoming Bacchanalian beach romp of Miami Basel will surely oust a slew of other art-world names draped head-to-toe in next season’s silhouettes. The point being, art and fashion have become all too familiar bedfellows, and as often as not for commercial gain. It is interesting in many instances to observe how, like young lovers, the two still remain somewhat naïve to the other’s true nature. Certain gestures are immediately transparent, clumsy, forced. At times they raise the question: “Is one not strong enough to stand alone that it requires the other for affirmation?” When, however, they meet with wit and audacity, fearless abandon and lusty obsession – that is when true magic happens.
"It is interesting in many instances to observe how, like young lovers, the two still remain somewhat naïve to the other’s true nature."
Raf Simons is one fashion designer whose lifelong fascination with art, design and humanity has remained a constant and welcome leitmotif in his work. He did after all, begin his studies as an industrial designer, and has made news of late for his extensive collection of French ceramics heading to auction in Paris in December. For Dior’s winter show, he had their resident DJ Michel Gaubert string together an eerie musical sequence of the artist Laurie Anderson’s spoken word performance pieces, creating a clinical atmosphere as the models floated around a silver mylar tent, their ‘memory dresses’ adorned with original Warhol fashion illustrations. For his own menswear line for next summer, Simons invited guests out to Larry Gagosian’s satellite gallery at Le Bourget airfield outside of Paris, seating everyone amongst the mid-century architectures of Jean Prouve and mobiles by Alexander Calder. The artworks didn’t correlate directly with the garments, but rather amplified their vivid colour stories and graphic lines. It didn’t need to be any more literal.
At Chanel, Mr. Lagerfeld’s message was also colour poetry, albeit a little more cutting – and with the clothes aside, culminated in one of the fashion calendar’s most controversial and intelligent statements. He called it Chanel Art, and played upon the very institution itself with a monumental installation of phony contemporary artworks each modelled in the spirit of various schools of artistic thought. All the references were there – be it a whiff of Ai Wei Wei, Anselm Keifer or Jeff Koons, all emulated in large-scale, often glossy artworks which lined the catwalk and matched the rainbow-coloured cocktails and patisseries which prefaced the equally Technicolor silk-swatched gowns. Models wore giant pearl headphones and carried paint-splattered backpacks or quilted folios, adding further literal fodder to the theme of art itself. In his ultimate stab at the art world’s very own circus, Karl even placed red ‘sold’ dots on several pieces, further questioning the value of his artificial Chanel ‘artworks’ against their authentic counterparts.
Mrs. Prada left clues to her Spring '14 artistic liaisons with a series of post card invitations, effectively previewing to buyers and editors the murals that would line the catwalk of her Via Fozzagaro HQ. Walls were painted by a hand-picked selection of international graffiti artists with names like Stinkfish, Mesa and Jeanne Detallante, in a project Prada entitled ‘In The Heart Of The Multitude’. Ranging from flirty and feminine to dark like Dante, certain designs appeared on printed smock dresses or appliquéd into the graphic fur coats that Prada showed for Spring. The effect was at times comic, drawing comparisons to Jean Charles de Castelbajac's earlier designs, albeit with the sporty, geek-chic update of Prada's techy sandals and rhinestone bra tops – details that no doubt surpassed the thumping Britney Spears soundtrack for artistic merit. Worthy of note is Prada’s own Fondazione in Venice where the designer and her husband Patrizio Bertelli choose to separate art and fashion entirely, dedicating the space to pure art exhibitions. At their recent show ‘When Attitude Becomes Form’ , the curator Germano Celant recreated a 1969 exhibition from the Bern Kunsthalle, in collaboration with the artist Thomas Demand and architect Rem Koolhaas.
Elsewhere on the catwalks, echoes of bygone art were unavoidable too, like the ‘arte povera’ reference of Italian artist Alighiero Boetti, whose work surfaced in Paris and Milan at Giambattista Valli and Jil Sander respectively. Valli, surprisingly, took the calmer route of the two, weaving Boetti’s iconic alphabet tapestries into a white-on-white jacquard, while Sander chose to amplify his more colourful abstractions into a fractured camouflage print. Phoebe Philo also seemed determined to break the mould of minimalism that has underlined her time at Céline, with a collection bursting with paint-splashed coloured layering à la Antonio Lopez, in textural plays that she attributed to the work of Hungarian photographer Gyula Halasz, better known as Brassaï. She paired her fanning, shredded skirts and lurex knit polo’s with brilliant accessories that toe the line between 60s futurism and Memphis pop art references, for designs which one may attribute to the world of industrial design more so than fashion. From the woman who’s ode to the white shirt seduced a generation, the improbability of such an about-turn is a sure testament to this wider movement, one which seems destined to stick - continually evolving itself in both beautiful and grotesque alignments.