Art/Fashion in the 21st century - Art Collector

14 August 2014 | We interview Alison Kubler and Mitchell Oakley Smith, the authors of Art/Fashion in the 21st century. Kubler is a curator and art writer, and Mitchell Oakley Smith is a journalist who has written on fashion and culture for GQ, Harper's Bazaar and Monument magazines.

surveys the collisions between art and fashion, ultimately arguing that there is no longer any real distinction between the two.

The book’s introduction references Immanuel Kant who said fashion is only vanity; it is not art because it does not have inner value. While postmodernism has recast the way we view high and low culture, this idea that fashion is frivolous and art is meaningful is still fiercely held. Are views changing?

I certainly think so. We need only look at the way in which the high profile art fairs like Venice and Miami have become like fashion weeks, with fashion events and exhibitions and pavilions supported by fashion houses. Indeed, Frieze is now regarded as the fifth fashion week, falling directly after the seasonal international circuit, and Venice Biennale director Massimiliano Gioni is also the artistic director of the Trussardi Foundation, one of the most significant forces in contemporary art and which is supported by a fashion house, its namesake Trussardi.

There is literally no separation between the two worlds anymore, with fashion becoming very much a permanent fixture in galleries and museums around the world – the result of both its commercial and attendance pulling power, and also of the explosion of the hierarchy that traditionally existed within the art world.

AK: Fashion is designed to change and evolve. Its natural state is to be in flux or shifting. In that regard fashion aspires to a kind of impermanence that art, and the art market, is suspicious of. Art covets longevity, it seeks to endure and last, to retain its value or worth. Art is not fickle in the way it understands fashion to be, although we recognise this too is a cliché. Fashion has a commercial imperative too whereas art traditionally does not, and yet, in relation to the art market, art does have a commercial imperative. Art is spoken about in terms of value, collectability and yet we know that value is not inherent or fixed but rather it is fluctuating and altering. Fashion looks to art and artists for cultural cachet and permanence, and art looks to fashion for commercial benefit.

There are fashions in art too; witness the rise and then fall of Chinese art for example. I think the prevalence of fashion exhibitions in art museums and galleries around the world has had a big impact on the way in which the cultural value of fashion has been reappraised, to use an art term. The insertion of fashion in the white cube renders the arguments almost null and void.

When you look at fashion’s investment in art fairs around the world as well as the money fashion brings in the form of philanthropy, supporting the mounting of large exhibitions, it would suggest the art world is comfortable with the relationship.

Do you think people who are introduced to art via fashion, such as through a Takashi Murakami Louis Vuitton handbag, ever really come to see or appreciate this inner value of art? Do they ever become serious art collectors for example? Or does art just remain a means of elevating cultural status?

I think you could say yes to all three questions. The art may be a means of elevating cultural status, but that doesn’t negate that they might also become a serious art collector. In a post-art historical context we might postulate that the intrinsic artistic worth of a work is not lost in reproduction and as such a Louis Vuitton handbag reproduced with Yayoi Kusamas might still be considered a piece of art, albeit one that is worn.

AK: I think art is a means of elevating cultural status and always has been. The purity of the collector collecting for the inner value of art is a dubious notion. I think there are many collectors who buy the same rollcall of names because they have critical approbation and not because they just love it.

Of course some people do both. But I think the collecting of art is very often a cool, non-emotional financial decision.

As to whether a handbag might lead one to start collecting, it is difficult to assess. Certainly it’s a cheap entry point to the art market. Perhaps what it creates is an awareness [of art], as opposed to another art collector.

You suggest that collecting fashion might be equally as worthwhile as collecting art. How so?

There is the obvious value of vintage clothing, and the prices it can fetch at auction, but in terms of contemporary fashion I don’t think collecting it should be regarded as any less worthwhile.

Fashion, maybe more so than art, reflects our time and culture, representing societal shifts and movements. There is also value in the way in which people put themselves together – the art of dressing, so to speak. As Warhol said: "I think the way people dress today is a form of artistic expression … Art lies in the way the whole outfit is put together."

AK: There is too a distinction between capital F fashion and small f fashion, in the same way that we may distinguish between capital A art and small a artists. Not all fashion is collectable, in the same way not all art is.

Haute couture is highly collectable by virtue of its bespoke manufacture, its unique handmade characteristics. The originality of haute couture, its artisanship, puts it on a more level playing field with art, more philosophically in line with the originality of the authentic artwork, one that is made by the artist’s hand.

The cost of haute couture too is akin to the cost of contemporary art. The prominent collections of fashion we have seen come to auction also have a culture provenance that marks them apart, or socially and historically relevant; the collection of the late Isabella Blow for example.

Many artists might worry about harming their careers or reputations by doing fashion collaborations. What are some of the reasons they might choose to do one?

I think the way collaborations operate in the luxury sphere very much help to elevate an artist’s status, and there are certainly commercial benefits that stem beyond the obvious. When Yayoi Kusama collaborated with Louis Vuitton in 2013, the French house contemporaneously sponsored the artist’s solo exhibitions at the Tate and the Whitney Museums.

In the case of Takashi Murakami, the artist later incorporated work commissioned by Louis Vuitton into his solo practice, and certainly the collaboration with the house elevated his name to household status around the world.

AK: Certainly working with a major fashion house has the potential to secure commercial benefits. It is a way for an artist to greatly increase their audience and, also, it is a new platform for expression. I think contemporary audiences are much better at understanding cross-disciplinary practices, skilled at comprehending collaboration, which happens all the time in music, architecture, theatre and film – art forms that artists have collaborated with historically too.

Fashion too has an increased visibility across contemporary media, newspapers devote significant pages to fashion, including financial papers, because fashion has is a serious commodity, floated on the stock exchange.

Can you talk about some of the more memorable fashion and art collaborations you’ve seen locally in Australia & New Zealand? Why do they stand out?

In terms of fashion-art collaborations, Sydney-based label Romance Was Born undoubtedly produce the most high profile, having worked with Del Kathryn Barton, Nell, Pip & Pop and, most recently, Jonathan Zawada. In each case, the resultant product is simply clothing with reproductions of the artist’s print, created for the label, however Romance Was Born is unique in that they involve the artist in the creation of its runway show and fashion shoots, creating a dialogue between art and fashion.

And I don’t think it’s too bold to say that working with a fashion label hasn’t harmed the artistic integrity or status of these notable artists.

Jonathan Zawada in particular is a master at operating commercially as a designer and simultaneously as a practicing artist – his most recent show at Sarah Cottier Gallery timed with the release of collections by fashion labels Romance Was Born and Bassike, for which he had created prints reproduced on fabric. But there are plenty more, too: Michael Zavros and Gail Sorronda, Matthew Johnson and Gary Bigeni, Toni Maticevski and Doctor Cooper… the list goes on.

Jane O'Sullivan

Alison Kubler and Mitchell Oakley Smith were interviewed for the April-June 2014 issue of Art Collector.

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