Does Art have a place in the world of Fashion?

Yayoi Kusama

It is widely thought that fashion is a form of art. This certainly seems to be the case now that items of clothing can sell at auction for very high prices, as proven in June by the sale of the Daphne Guinness Collection at Christie’s South Kensingon. The visual feasts available in a designer’s studio or at an haute couture show can have the same power as their art-based cousins, the artist’s studio and the exhibition. Indeed, the reverence with which one utters Proenza Schouler or Karl Lagerfeld rolls off the tongue in much the same way as when one mentions Degas or Caravaggio. Paralleling fashion with art seems to elevate it beyond the tactile and transitory to something that is simply ‘more’. However, as couturiers ascend towards the artistic elite, what about the artists who choose to come down? What happens when an artist turns their work into fashion?

This is a fairly recent phenomenon, with the collaboration between Louis Vuitton and Takashi Murakami really kicking things off in 2003. Louis Vuitton has brought this issue into focus once again, only this time collaborating with the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.

I first discovered Yayoi Kusama at the Victoria Miro Gallery in East London in 2011. Admittedly, this was arriving slightly late to the party of the long career of this 83 year-old artist, but at least I got there before the late arrivals hailed in by the large Tate Modern show in early 2012. However, the real gatecrashers to the Kusama party are those who have only recently grown aware of the artist through magazines and the replica model of her standing in the window of Louis Vuitton on New Bond Street. Scores of people, previously unaware of the artist, will now be encouraged to consider her work from a career spanning over 50 years. Eagerly they will try to remember how to spell and pronounce her name, with Wikipedia expertise soon to follow.  Except, well, why bother? A quick google search reveals some bright colours that look like the ad campaign, and Louis Vuitton, Bip Ling and other such taste makers have declared her ‘in’; acquiring further knowledge probably just seems a waste of time.

Herein lies the problem. Whilst some fashion is undeniably ‘art’, and some art certainly ‘fashionable’, there is something uncomfortable about the notion that art can be traded in the same way as fashion. For example, I can love the way a dress looks on me and makes me feel when I wear it. However, without the inclusion of ‘me’ the dress is simply an empty item; an appearance rather than an idea. This almost makes fashion a sort of spectator art. However, when art enters the realm of fashion it moves from the interpretative realm of the gallery to the strict realm of ‘good taste’. It becomes like an empty suitcase; the visual trademarks and tropes are there, but the ideas have remained at home in the art world.

Fashion can certainly be art, but there’s something almost Faustian about art becoming fashion. This is particularly apt considering the cheapest Kusama/Vuitton handbag will set you back over £1,500. This may seem a positive bargain compared to the prices fetched at art auctions, but fashion changes, and it’s hard to imagine the collector who bought her ‘Pumpkin Twaa’ at auction in 2010, cursing his luck and bemoaning that for his £10,000 he could have bought 5 large handbags rather than a painting. It is not only fashion that aspires to be art and designers who aspire to be artists; we all aspire to be a part of something more eternal than a facebook newsfeed.  We all want to be a part of something ‘more’.

By changing the goal posts from psychological, emotional, and almost spiritual, to financial, art as fashion debases itself into a commodity item. It was witty when Andy Warhol did it with soup in the sixties, but when in 2012 that commodity item is an outrageously expensive handbag it comes to signify a materialist ideology few can participate in and the distance between our material existence and our aspirations seem even greater. If and when Kusama falls from her current pedestal, all that will be left is a ‘passé’ artist and a lot of leather. Ars longa, vita brevis.


Polly Warrack

Image by Polly Warrack