How Art Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Fashion

It seems the art world has finally learned to embrace fashion, and their fusion is setting a precedent for contemporary culture.

Yayoi Kusama Exhibition In Infinity in HAM, Helsinki. Image courtesy of Katja Nevalainen under creative commons

Fashion and art have always had a fabulous and fraught relationship. Many fashionistas claim not to “get” art whereas art world people often distance themselves from fashion for fear of art losing evergreen relevance. There are many examples of designers who’ve become artists like Helmut Lang and Tom Ford. There are also many artists who have created fashion lines, such as Tracey Emin, Yayoi Kusama and Jeff Koons. However, lately the line between the two has blurred into almost total invisibility. There’s now plenty of designers who have also become artists and artists who are taking in the fashion world with open arms, hearts and wallets.

Eckhaus Latta and Camper SS17. Styling: Avena Gallagher. Image: Rob Kulisek

Eckhaus Latta, for instance, who launched their label in 2011 consider their practice as both design and art. In their Los Angeles store they sell their conceptual fashion and simultaneously take part in visual art exhibitions. Their clothes can be seen simultaneously as sculptures and as sculptures than can be worn. Either way their pastel monotone biomorphic forms are visually striking. Also based in LA is the designer Bernhard Willhelm who’s made his major jump into the world of art with his exhibition at the MOCA in 2015. Entitled “Bernhard Willhelm 3000: When Fashion Shows The Danger Then Fashion Is The Danger”, the work which was conceived in collaboration with Jutta Kraus functioned as a sculptural installation. It featured Willhelm’s AW15/16 collection and including video, photography, was a meditation on the future of commerce and a “thinking-forward exhibition.” The aesthetic borrowed as much from his own designs as it did from “post-internet art” culminating in an environment that was both salacious and painterly. Berlin-based collective BLESS also take a similar approach.

In 2016 and this year, Anne Imhof incorporated fashion elements in her performances, even if unwittingly, as she claimed in an interview with SLEEK. Yet it can’t be denied that the performers she has chosen all bear the same Berlin sportswear aesthetic that is so popular in the clubbing scene.

In both “Angst” and “Faust” her performers’ style channels the “post-soviet union” look. It is monochromatic, almost normcore if it wasn’t for the brand references including adidas. Not surprisingly, Imhof’s artist muse Eliza Douglas has modelled for Vetements and Imhof’s signature look features a black cap emblazoned with Balenciaga’s logo. And this “coincidence” not only is that being accepted as valid but is also winning awards. And whether you like her art or not one thing is certain, her performances are sexy, sensual, stylish and timely. Moreover, it would not have had the same impact if they’d worn the typical performance art costume – the naked body – let alone the leotard, or a random designer.

Franziska Aigner and Emma Daniel in Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017, German Pavilion, 57th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Image: Nadine Fraczkowski

But why only now? One could argue that the historical hostility between the art and fashion troupes stems from insecurity. Neither wanted a direct association with the other or at least to make very clear that there was a distinction of what is what and what influenced whom. However, this modus operandis is finally becoming outmoded and creative worlds seem to be more willing to accept this new fusion.

One the one hand art can only gain from being influenced and working with fashion. A lot of conceptual and cerebral art lacks in aesthetics. This can arguably be credited to the popularisation of conceptual art since the 90s, the influence of Object-Oriented Ontology, and the fetishisation of information. On the other hand fashion which is known for being temporary can benefit from art’s conceptual longevity. Art can complete the puzzle of fashion as a legitimate cultural phenomenon. This can lead to both art and fashion becoming more complex with results that are both intellectually challenging and visually stunning – beyond presenting clothes as artworks. And no one does it quite like Juliana Huxtable.

Left: “Untitled (Psychosocial Stuntin’)” by Juliana Huxtable, 2015, New Museum; right: “Untitled in the Rage Nibiru Cataclysm” 2015 from the “Universal Crop Tops for All the Self Canonized Saints of Becoming” series, by Juliana Huxtable; Image: courtesy the artist

Huxtable straddles both worlds, and in her art the New York artist puts fashion and art in conversation, highlighting through photography, video and installation how fashion can both give the illusion of political affiliation and offer a counterpoint to what’s happening politically in the West today. For example in her debut solo show in New York “A Split During Laughter at the Rally”, the artist delves into how leftist aesthetics can easily be embedded with neo-Nazi messages. While in London, her show featured a combination of prints on canvas and T-shirts as well as, and  photography, to reflect on the inception of the YT skin culture and the symbolic role of fashion signs and signifiers has played in its troubled history.

There’s different ways, however, to bring art and fashion together in a way that makes the most of aesthetics while not diverting from meaning, narrative and intellectualisation of a sartorial object. In March 2017 a group show in Adelaide, Australia, opened at Fontanelle’s Sister Gallery with the premise of unpacking the intricate narratives contained in threads. Curated by Jonno Revanche and featuring artists including Nina Dodd and kalenjay dhir, “Woven Dialects” delved into the hidden stories imbued in clothing and fashion items that often go unnoticed or are disregarded.

Juliana Huxtable for SLEEK56. Styled by Rachael Rodgers. Left Juliana: jumper: Balenciaga via The Store, tights: Hudson, shoes: CELINE. Right Juliana: coat: The Row via The Store, skirt: Prada, shoes: CELINE. Hair and Make-up by Manu Kopp. Image: Timothy Schaumburg

Granted, everyone has a piece of clothing with meaning yet that’s often overlooked, but this exhibition connected that to historical trends. For instance, Will Fredo’s piece “i was always her” looked into the sartorial choices as another way of how the oedipal period extends well into one’s adult life. The piece consists of a picture of Fredo’s mother and himself as an adult (but dressed the way his mother would have dressed him as a child), and a poem. In the text, Fredo turns the personal into the political by dissecting the politics of cultural supremacy and social imperialism, as the “immigrant aesthetics” his mother once imposed on him later resurfaced in his style subconsciously.

Art seems to be more present in fashion than one might assume. And fashion dictates art and society much more systematically than we perceive at first glance. Beyond giving fashion more meaning, by artists digging deeper into the fabric of it all, they can deconstruct it and examine the context it was designed in, revealing hidden cultural connections that explain what it means to be human. Art and fashion can complement each other, even improve each other, and together with the internet this new awareness is set to create more bold new aesthetics to come.

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