By Adefoyeke Ajao
The relationship between fashion and art has always been a point of contention; a perennial argument that sees fashion designs as fungible, but regards art as invaluable. It is a multilayered puzzle that unravels a series of complex questions: Why should fashion collaborate with ‘art’? Is fashion in itself not art? Why is there a separation? How then do you define art?
For some, in spite of its popularity, fashion is a less intellectual endeavour, unlike the high arts that are ascribed ‘revered’ status. Also, fashion’s ubiquity and commercial affiliation are regarded as a curse that stops even couture and vintage designs from breaking the glass ceiling that separates them from other art forms; after all even they can be mass-produced. Defining authenticity in fashion is tricky terrain, and so are the intellectual property laws that should protect fashion designs. In essence, the argument against fashion is that it is a commodity with a limited shelf life – it is driven by public demand and approval, and with time, it decreases in value – unlike art.
Those who label fashion as art see these claims as positives. They argue that it performs the dual role of demonstrating the designer’s creativity and satisfying the user’s needs: It is functional and corporeal art. You don’t have to be in a museum or gallery to appreciate fashion designs and even haute couture or bespoke designs can be made into more affordable versions that are available to the wider public. The fast-paced fashion industry encourages designers to outdo one another in creating, defining and adapting to trends or society’s demands and needs – unlike the exclusivity attached to other forms of art. If fashion designers adopt the basic principles and elements of art in their work, why are they considered artisans rather than artists?
In spite of the controversy, collaborations between artists and designers have helped both fields to coexist peacefully. Notable examples are Salvador Dali and Elsa Schiaparelli’s Lobster Dress; Yves Saint Laurent’s appropriation of Piet Mondrian’s block patterns; Damien Hirst’s collaboration with Alexander McQueen, and Jeff Koons’ and Louis Vuitton’s ‘Masters’ collection. Here in Nigeria, we have Victor Ehikhamenor and Ituen Basi’s ‘Ekemini’ and Vlisco’s collaboration with a variety of creatives. In each case, the artist was responsible for designing the fabric’s print, while the couturier transformed the fabric into a functional garment.
Partnerships have also extended beyond creating garments or costumes: some fashion houses have sponsored art exhibitions and museum events, while museums have showcased the works of fashion designers including Giorgio Armani, Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent. Also, the Metropolitan Museum of Art organises the annual Met Gala as a major fundraiser for its Costume Institute and an opening night for its annual fashion exhibit. The event which is renowned for its star-studded guest list and bold fashion choices has been organised since 1995 by Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, a leading fashion magazine.
It seems that fashion can only enjoy the sophistication ascribed to other art forms when a core artist is involved in the design process, but reducing the alliance of fashion and art to interactions between artists and designers doesn’t entirely cover the scope of this divisive issue. It neglects the inspiration and validation they draw from each other and also rarely identifies the person behind the collaboration: was it initiated by the fashion designer or the artist? And when you introduce a cultural angle, you wonder how artefacts – fabrics and garments or the royal robes and masquerade regalia – that make up the sartorial tapestry of this multicultural universe fit into the argument.
Even if conservatives claim otherwise, fashion designers and artists working together makes both fields accessible to diverse audiences. It takes art to the runway and gets fashion into the galleries. In the end, it’s a symbiotic relationship where art gets corporeal clout and public acceptance, while fashion gets the deference it deserves.
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