Art by Art Jacobs, Marc Jacobs' retaliating t-shirt is retailing for $689
Despite channelling the artist Sandro Botticelli in an underwater seascape for the launch of Chanel’s 2012 Spring/Summer collection, Karl Lagerfeld has scorned the suggestion that fashion and art are intrinsically linked. In an interview with The Telegraph
the Creative Director of Chanel said, "I am against museums and exhibitions in fashion […] If you call yourself an artist, then you are second-rate."
Such a comment is not a new opinion but it does reopen the classic debate between the purists and the fashionistas: is fashion art? By distinguishing between fashion and art, what are the implications for those great museums such as the Victoria & Albert in London and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, who have long dedicated themselves to the exhibition of everything from kimonos to sneakers?
Designers and curators line up on both sides of the debate. Those who say fashion is art, such as English designer Zandra Rhodes, point to the pursuit of beauty and the creativity inherent in design. In fact, Rhodes believes fashion designers are occasionally more artistic than self-styled artists; "Fashion – which is always about a concept of beauty, whether or not everyone agrees on the concept – is more relevant, more artistic, than the garbage they put out as conceptual," she wrote in The Guardian
Conversely, there are those who consider such a suggested link as incredible. Former director of London’s Design Museum, Alice Rawsthorn, takes such a view, also in The Guardian
. Making a clear distinction between the functionality of worn clothing and the purposes of considered art, she argues "Fashion has a practical purpose, whereas art does not."
Some make more convoluted distinctions. Pierre Bergé, co-founder and life-long partner of Yves Saint Laurent, considers the division between fashion and artist to be defined by the individual; "Fashion is not art. But fashion needs an artist to exist. Yves Saint Laurent was an artist – a great artist."
The debate has even taken on an artistic life of its own; the current Costume Institute Exhibition at New York’s Met Museum, called Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations
, realises an imaginary discussion between Elsa Schiaparelli – darling of the 1920s and 30s – and contemporary designer Miuccia Prada. It is constructed by curator Andrew Bolton through the textual use of quotations and historical resources.
Collaborating with the likes of Salvador Dali, Schiaparelli insisted that fashion is art and she enjoyed pushing the boundaries of the combination, creating lobster print dresses and balancing shoe hats. Prada, on the other hand, maintains that fashion is not art. Acknowledging Schiaparelli’s experimental and inventive feats, Prada states that it is the commercialisation of the industry that is responsible for detracting its own freedom to experiment. "Today everything is so contrived […] there is not even the same freedom to work with artists," Prada disputes.
But it’s not only the high-end galleries who buy into the debate. Just last month street artist ‘Kidult’ targeted Marc Jacobs’ Soho outlet in New York, scrawling ‘ART’ across the store front in neon pink paint. Soon, hot pink t-shirts bearing a picture of the vandalized store front appeared on the twitter account of @MarcJacobsIntl with an asking price of $689. Infuriated – judging by this ridiculous twitter remark, "LET’S PLAY, but we don’t play the same rules!" – the French street artist unveiled his own bespoke t-shirt tagged with a price of $6.89.
By forcing an alliance between art and fashion, Jacobs has encapsulated the polar opposites of the commerce of fashion and the commerce of art. Regardless of whether ‘Kidult’s action was vandalism or not, Jacobs has commercially restrained this artistic expression into a price tag and true to fashion, it is produced on demand. ‘Kidult’s pricing wages a war against this currency and acknowledges that ‘ART’ does not always carry the same value. Instead, it is dependent upon the artist’s self-worth. And so unfolds the tale of a series of t-shirts, each less clever than its predecessor.
It is when designers such as Jacobs willingly collaborate with artists that the distinctions between what is art and what is fashion become blurred. Other haute couture houses including Louis Vuitton and musicians such as Kanye West have worked with Japanese pop-artist Takashi Murakami, an artist who moves effortlessly from installations to handbags. Even Lagerfeld has permitted artistic collaborations. Musical juggernaut Florence Welch performed at Chanel’s 2012 Spring/Summer Collection launch, becoming the Venus of Lagerfeld’s Botticelli-shell.
But in these mutual circumstances, to question whether fashion is art appears futile. It does, however, remain an important question when the livelihoods of designers and artists alike hang upon the few influential words of the Karl Lagerfelds’ of the world. Surely the word fashionable
moves beyond the practicality and function of design. On the other hand, it is also necessary to emphasise that – whereas art’s commercial value is often surmised of what is currently fashionable – the commerce of design should never be compromised by artistic expression. As Miuccia Prada says, "Fashion is art, fashion is not art. But at the end, who cares?"