Is fashion art? [Part 2]

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#NEWSERIE – Jose Romussi | cargo collective

We can look at fashion in two ways:

a) look at their functional aspect that enables clothing to keep us warm, giving us erotic appeal, adorning us

or

b) regard them as beautiful objects of aesthetic contemplation by “disregarding the concept under which they fall and therefore ignoring their functional dimension. They could be (as indeed they are) objects of admiration in a museum (Miller, 2007).

It is a quote like Guillaume Apollinaire’s (1927) in Le poète assassiné that could potentially help us understand what sentiments fashion could invoke within a person: “Fashion is becoming practical and no longer looks down on anything. It ennobles everything. It does for materials what the Romantics did for words (Apollinaire, 1999). It is this power of fascination, historical value and freedom of identity that makes fashion a strong subject of interest, regardless of whether one agrees to its status as art or not.

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Issey Miyake outfit on the cover of Artforum magazine, Feb 1982

The Artforum editor that put the Issey Mikaye dress on the February 1982 cover, Ingrid Sischy, sparked controversy by associating dress with art, but she even admits she doesn’t necessarily think fashion is art, but still poses the question as to why the definition for artistic creativity is so narrow as to be characterised purely as a painting in a frame (Spindler, 1996). She even described fashion designers from the likes of Muccia Prada, Rei Kawakubo and Karl Lagerfeld as the “equivalent breakthrough visually, as there was when artists broke through the idea of the picturesque’’ and carries on the comparison by saying: “The most creative and the most attuned designers are revolutionising what a palette means, what a line means, a shape. For fashion, it’s the equivalent creativity of Cubism” (Spindler, 1996).

For Sischy, the difference between art and fashion lies in the system in which fashion is judged. She points out the lack of system in which people could step back and really look at a piece of clothing or at a look and truly think about it: what it means, what it represents, what it might convey, as opposed to keeping a level of debate and interest to a low and superficial level (Spindler, 1996).

Fashion adheres to quite a few of the philosophies mentioned in a previous extract, in that is not always aesthetically pleasing, more often than not is based on a mood and an inspiration which gives it meaning and it portrays the personality of the designer or the house that design it. It can make us feel tremendous joy, pain, even shock, can be anchored in our minds forever and it can take us back to times we never experienced or lived in. Unfortunately, this might not be enough. There is no definitive answer as to whether fashion is art. This might have been possible if the fashion system was different if designers had more time to work on their creations, and if a real platform was offered to viewers to judge the art. Fashion can also still be linked to status and frivolity as it is not used as a marketing tool by celebrities and bloggers to manifest their status to the world.

This way of looking at fashion as a sign of status could be undermining its true meaning. Evidently, some of fashion’s best moments happened off the runway. As Ms Sischy stated so adequately:’’At the opening of the Andy Warhol Museum in May 1994, the most fabulous moment was when these dames emerged in their Halston-designed dresses when Andy had done the fabric’’ (Spindler, 1996).

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Andy Warhol x Rob Halston collaboration (Fall 1974) 
Halston and Warhol: Silver & Suede exhibition poster at The Andy Warhol Museum 

Indeed, fashion is not only about what happens in big fashion houses. It is as much about history as it is about contemporary happenings. Indeed, innovation was always at the forefront of the fashion world, as well as a constant shift in clothing styles. Most of these changes were inspired by art movements or social shifts in societies. This can even date back to the time of French king Louis XV’s time when his mistress Madame Pompadour established Rococo fashion, described as a happy, fresh style in pastel colours, and subsequently, light stripe and floral patterns became popular. We could even look at Marie Antoinette who became the leader of French fashion, as did her dressmaker Rose Bertin. She basked in extravagance and it became her trademark, which ended up majorly fanning the flames of the French Revolution.

In the next section, we will look at fashion in the 20th Century, how it cultivated ideas, what art movements were the catalysts of modern fashion, and take a look at what could be described as the early show-pieces.

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Lacoste’s Save our Species series

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Lacoste released an endangered species collection last week. The polo shirt usual crocodile logo was swapped for the images of 10 endangered species in an effort to raise awareness and help counter their threat of extinction. On the left breast of the shirt, we can the Gulf California porpoise, the Burmese roofed turtle, the Sumerian tiger, the Anegada ground iguana and the northern sportive lemur, amongst others.

Only 1175 t-shirts were released on the market, and these numbers were calibrated for each series to the amount of the remaining animals in the wild; i.e. only 30 were released with the California porpoise, while 450 were available with the Anegada iguana. T-shirts have already sold out after less than a week on the market and proceeds went to the sponsor of the event, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This is the start of a three-year partnership between the brand and the IUCN.

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“The Lacoste crocodile is one of the world’s most iconic logos, proudly displayed on the brand’s famous polos for the past 85 years,” said the Lacoste in a statement. “For the first time in the brand’s history, BETC has initiated a change of the logo.”

“Lacoste and BETC worked closely with IUCN’s experts to define and select ten threatened species, whose animals have been designed by the Lacoste studio to create the logos, adopting exactly the same embroidery approach as the historic Crocodile,” it continued.

The element of design in this campaign is so basic and yet so powerful. Lacoste has found a way to stay true to its aesthetic, raise awareness at all levels of consciousness, but also catered to the fashion fanatic. It is the sweet balance between targeting people who care about the endangered species and would love to spend about £135 for proceedings to go to the IUCN, and the people who crave and need the exclusivity of these polos. The hype and the cause all gelled into a recipe for success: sales, interest, fashion, nature, awareness, responsibility.

Is fashion art? [Part 1]

The theories

In her article Fashion as Art; is Fashion Art?, Sandra Miller (2007) asks if fashion can be regarded as a form of art.

In its February 1982 issue, Artform magazine featured on its cover an Issey Miyake outfit, which could have doubled as an aggressive/erotic sculpture or painting. It was the first time clothing had been featured on the cover of an art magazine (The Issey Miyake Foundation, 2009). This marked the beginning of all parties attempting to “bridge the gap perceived to exist between the worlds of art and fashion, culminating in the 1996 extravaganza that was the Florence Biennale” (Miller, 2007). Entitled Time and Fashion, the exhibition was the first biennial event to explore fashion in depth (Spindler, 1996).

 

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Muccia Prada x Damien Hirst Entomology bag

The Biennale held seven exhibitions with the only purpose of exploring the relationship between the visual arts: design, architecture, film, photography, music, costume and communication. The catalyst of this exhibition was the belief that fashion, in its complexity and innovative worth, was the most important expression of mass culture (Catalogue of the Biennale di Firenze, 1996). Miuccia Prada collaborated with art collector Damien Hirst in one of seven pavilions; Helmut Lang with neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer in another; Gianni Versace with pop-artist Roy Lichtenstein in a third. Works of Ms. Prada, Jil Sander, Rei Kawakubo, Mr. Lang, Mr. Versace and Karl Lagerfeld had been criticised for being unattractive, but were exhibited nonetheless to appropriately challenge what is considered beautiful (Spindler, 1996). 

 

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Issey Miyake outfit on the cover of Artforum magazine, February 1982

 

 

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Since then, the question of fashion as art has been constantly discussed in matter of art history and philosophy. George Dickie provided a deemed logical definition of art by proposing that “a work of art is an object of which someone has said I christen this object a work of art” (Dickie, 1977;436). If this theory is accepted, then conferring the status of art on fashion should be acceptable when looking at Elsa Schiaparelli’s work for example (Miller, 2007), especially her collaboration with surrealist painter Salvador Dali. This work will be discussed further in the section on Cubism.

On the other hand, Noël Carroll seems to disagree. He believes that “sometimes the mere fact that an artefact can be used to serve a historically acknowledged function suffices to call an object art, irrespective of the original creator’s intention” (Carroll, 1999). Art has to provide historical narrative. The reason for this theory is explained clearly: all famous theories of art have been replaced by the appearance of new ones, and experimental innovation should not be feared but embraced to ensure the never-ending evolution of art (Carroll, 1999).

The study of the history of clothing has not yet acquired the status of fine arts history. Nevertheless, the history of fashion is directly linked and dependent on the visual arts, if only because of its perishable nature. Clothing has always offered very important clues to art historians regarding issues of class, gender and social status and has been used as conveyors of meaning in many religious studies. If we were to consider the aesthetics of dress and how they have influenced economic, political and technological history, and even of social customs, we would see that they were very closely aligned. These matters can affect invention and sartorial craftsmanship, and help fashion expand its horizons (Miller, 2007).

 

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A collaboration between Gianni Versace and Roy Lichtenstein, showing an overlapping of artistic disciplines.

 

An association with frivolity offers yet another opinion as it links fashion to social customs rather than aesthetics. Kant (1892) defines this theory as an imitation of the other, especially holding a higher status than one’s own, like a child would his parents. The frivolous nature of imitation provides the justification for predicated vanity and recklessness of fashion (Miller, 2007): “thus fashion belongs under the heading of vanity for its intent is no inner value; and also under the heading of folly, for it is folly to be compelled by mere example into following slavishly the conduct shown by many in society” (Kant, 1892). An opposite view given by Edmund Burke, argues that our desire to imitate is especially important in a society as it shapes manners, opinions and lives (Burke, 1990). “It is a species of mutual compliance which all men yield to each other without constraints to themselves, and which is extremely flattering to them” (Burke, 1990). This is a proven theory in fashion diffusion and is called the trickle-down theory, a hierarchal process where individuals with high status establish trends, only to be imitated by lower-status individuals producing cheaper versions of the style offered. This circle keeps high-status individuals motivated to differentiate themselves from the masses, and this, in effect, is what fuels innovation and style changes.

 

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Ultimately, if fashion is not considered art, then it is a subject of aesthetics. In his book Art, the critics and you, Curt John Ducasse (1944) argues that man is a reflective being, but most of all a self-centred one (Miller, 2007), and goes on to place appearances at the centre of human happiness and states that clothing is “an ornamental mask for the human form, and whatever manages to serve as such constitutes clothing” (Ducasse, 1929). Thus beauty, mystery, interest, grandeur, glamour are means of fascination and therefore significant the flourishing of humankind (Miller, 2007).

The requirements of Haute Couture

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The lavish world of Haute Couture still baffles a few fashion lovers, so I have decided to write this post to try and cover some basic information about it, as well as take a look at Members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. 

Understanding Haute Couture goes hand in hand with understanding the prestige of Paris, and the city of love is where the story begins. Haute Couture, French from “high sewing” started out as a necessity for the high society of Paris in the 19th century. Women visited couture houses to order bespoke, one of a kind clothing, insuring that they had a unique dresses that didn’t clash with other ladies’. Turning up to a party wearing the same outfit as another woman was just as mortifying (if not more) back then.

So what makes a Haute Couture label? The French Ministry of Industry and the Fédération Française de la Couture have imposed strict legally binding requirements for a house to be able to identify itself as a Maison de Couture:

  1. Create made-to-measure clothing for private clients and offer personal fittings.
  2. Have a full-time workshop in Paris that employs no fewer than twenty staff.
  3. The fashion house must present two collections a year – in January and July – comprising both daytime and formal evening wear.

These collections are made by a collective  of 2,200 seamstresses called “Les Petites Mains” who build pieces of clothing by hand. Working in the ateliers, this talented, patient breed are often fiercely loyal to a fashion house, spending their whole career solely at one brand.

Only the finest materials by the most skilled artisans will do when it comes to Haute Couture. Thus, houses call upon Lemarié for the finest feathers; Lesage for embroidery; Massaro for shoes; Causse for gloves… and so it goes on. Speciality is the name of the game (I will try to dedicate an article talking only about artisans and their place in our world).

Exclusivity is an important requirements of Haute Couture, with the label being a legal – and highly regarded – term to be used by only a very select number of designers meeting the standard. Here is a list of official, correspondent (foreign) and guest members, as well as accessories and jewellery members.

▽ Official members

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▽ Correspondent, or foreign, members

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▽ Guest members

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▽ Accessories

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▽ Jewellery

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These designers offer bespoke pieces, and are going to be priced higher than Ready-to-Wear. Some pieces can take upward of 700 hours to finish, and use twenty people at a time working on it. Daywear garments start at around £8,000, while evening and formal wear could easily go way above a 5 figures price tag. The use of rare fabrics and precious embellishments will hike the price even higher, which some items reaching hefty millions.

Today, The main buyers of Haute Couture today are no longer French socialites, but buyers from Russia, China and the Middle East. Fine clothing items can escalate in value over the years, and are often regarded as collectors’ items, making for a great investment.

Fashion houses receive very little profit from Haute Couture; in fact, they often lose money. Colossal expenses and a tiny clientele (there are only an estimated 2,000 female customers globally) perhaps explain why, in the past 60 years, the number of couture houses has decreased dramatically. Nonetheless, couture is seen by many as a long-term investment, augmenting brand image and raising the profile of ready-to-wear collections.

If you would like to know more, there is a great documentary available on m2m.tv called “Couture, The New Queens of Haute”, in which we follow two young designers, Iris Van Herpen and Delphine Manivet, as they navigate the modern world of Haute Couture. You can watch it here for free.

For more information, please visit the website of the Fédération Française de la Couture du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers and Créateurs de Mode.

All images were taken from the most recent Couture collections of shown designers (aw16 or ss17).

Hermès SS17 a return to Productivism

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To me, the Hermès’ SS17 collection was breath-taking. I might be biased as I say this because I have a real love for the iconic French brand, but it was incredible. You see, I am not easily swayed by Ready-To-Wear. I’m interested in RTW, because it is beautiful, usually functional clothing and all trends are embedded in that sector of fashion. On the other hand, I am rarely taken by a collection in a way that is all consuming. I do have the odd obsession with catwalks, but this collection was different. I found myself thinking about it quite a bit this time. I looked for better pictures and details and I kept watching it.

What struck me the most in this collection, was the return to the style of Productivist art. The clothes felt so French, but yet a tad Russian avant-garde constructivist: after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Lenin’s slogan “Art belongs to the people” became reality, and brought with it the precursor of contemporary design to adapt to the new way of life proposed by the day’s politics. During the early 1920’s, despite the more traditional and restricted expectations of women at this time in Imperial Russia, Productivist designers frequently exhibited produced work with functional purposes.

Indeed, artists who were interested in the ideological aspect of clothing were just as concerned about its functionality. There ensued a “utopian desire for a universal garment” for a lot of artists. For example, modernist artist László Moholy-Nagy, who ran the Bauhaus weaving workshop, only wore overalls from 1923 onwards, and steered his workshop towards standardisation and commercial success.

Fashion was simple, functional, and made en-masse for the masses. Obviously, that is not what Hermès stands for (I mean who are we kidding), but I am focusing more on the silhouette. Although, using Productivism as an inspiration would not be completely out of place at a time in which functionality and a sense of liberty are both craved by our society.

With this Hermès collection, I could clearly see the resemblance: fluid lines, simple but precise cuts, streamlined silhouettes, cinched waist, different volumes… There is even the use of geometrical prints, even though they are not as bright and evident as in older designs. Looking at images of fashion dating from the Productivist movement, it is easier to see the similarities (see gallery below).

Hermès might have designed the Productivist power-dressing of our time.

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