Art on the Runway: Mitchell Oakley Smith & Alison Kubler

Published in VAULT: Australasian Art & Culture, Issue 5, 2013.

From Chanel’s gallery-themed runway at Paris Fashion Week to Tracey Emin’s turn as Marks & Spencer’s ‘Leading Lady,’ there’s no denying that art and fashion’s millennial infatuation with each other has intensified. But as the harmony between these fields continue their crescendo the debate still remains: is art fashion, and can fashion be art? Brisbane curator/writer Alison Kubler went in league with Sydney writer/editor Mitchell Oakley Smith to dissect the overlaps and divergences of these bedfellows, funneling the outcome into their new book, ‘Art/Fashion in the 21st Century.’

Mariam Arcilla: The worlds of art and fashion have been intersecting since the 1920’s. How have modern commerce, digital platforms and celebrity advocacy elevated this collision?

Alison Kubler: In the 21st century art and fashion find themselves on a more level-playing field and commanding similar media attention. Celebrity has always been used to promote fashion – think of Wallis Simpson wearing Elsa Schiaparelli’s Salvador Dali lobster dress, shot by Cecil Beaton – but it now exists at a hyper level. Fashion houses tweet when celebrities are ‘papped’ wearing their product, as though they were endorsing it. Actors and musicians are the new models, a phenomenon that Anna Wintour almost single-handedly created for American Vogue. Fashion houses are now household names as much as the celebrities who wear them, and this really is a 21st Century thing. Fashion is indicative of aspirational culture. One of the things we examine in the book is how artists have been tapped by fashion houses to appear in advertisements or to wear their product; Tracey Emin for Vivienne Westwood, Cindy Sherman for Balenciaga etc. This is a more recent development and demonstrates how artists such as Sherman and Emin too have the status of a brand name. They are celebrities in their own right.

Mitchell Oakley Smith: Historically, painting and sculpture has enjoyed a status as an elevated art form. If we look back historically, fashion was also in this realm; it enjoyed higher esteem. You just have to look at the beautiful jewellery by the Egyptians or the gowns made for the French royal court. Contemporaneously, I think that society still treats fashion as a commercial system, and somewhat above all else. So maybe fashion aims to capture some of that in a bid to elevate itself. I think that’s the case with the collaborations: the injection of an artist’s hand, even in reproduction, adds a certain level of authenticity and value to a handbag or t-shirt. But then I wouldn’t apply that to everyone: I don’t think that Chalayan or Walter Van Beirendonck sit in their studio and think about employing artistic processes as a way of elevating their work. They just do it, that’s their method, the way they work. They may be artists.

MA: Performance artist Marina Abramovic recently dared Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci to suck her nipple as a response to her belief that “fashion feeds on art.” Abramovic took a photo and called that work ‘The Contract.’ What is it about art that tantalises the fashion world? And could the same be said about art, that it relies on fashion to remain socially and economically relevant?

AK: Art offers fashion that which it desires: longevity. Fashion is essentially designed to supersede itself and is characterised by its temporary nature and capacity for change as determined by its need to stay current. Fashion used to be about being on trend. Now it must define itself before a trend is identified. The fashion cycle today is so accelerated that it renders a collection irrelevant almost as soon as it has been constructed. Art generally requires time to be considered worthy. It requires discussion and critical conversation and approbation to endure. Fashion doesn’t require such approval. In fact, this is art’s criticism of fashion; that it lacks critique that it fails to stand outside itself. Fashion moves forward not stopping to consider. This is how fashion remains relevant. I think fashion allows art to not take itself too seriously, and art has taught fashion to seek more gravity.

MA: In your book, you mentioned that by definition, not all art is a capital ‘A’ and not all fashion is a capital ‘F’. Can you elucidate?

MOS: Not all art is Art. I wouldn’t say that a canvas from Freedom Furniture is a piece of art, and much of what is in our wardrobes isn’t art, either. This book is focused on a very specific type of designer – Alexander McQueen, Viktor and Rolf, Hussein Chalayan – whose output is very artistic. I think it should be noted why not many people own the work of these designers. The same thing can be said of art, and just because you don’t own it doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate it and experience it. How many of us own a Warhol or Koons artwork? And yet we can see it in museums and galleries the same way we can watch a fashion show or see the clothes in magazines and exhibitions.

AK: Historically, art and fashion are philosophically opposed. Art is (allegedly) motivated by ideas and concepts, and disinterested in commerce. Fashion has as its central concept a commercial imperative. Art is slow whereas fashion is fast; art endures and fashion changes. Of course we know that these concepts are not absolute. Art and fashion too are very similar; they can be maverick, underground, rebellious and reactive. Both art and fashion can describe the Zeitgeist and endure historically. These shared and divergent platforms are perhaps the reason why the question “Is fashion art” endures.

MA: I see you engaged legendary fashion icon Daphne Guinness to write your foreword.

MOS: Daphne Guinness is very intelligent, with a brilliant knowledge of the history of both art and fashion and a personal connection to many of the designers in our book, particularly Alexander McQueen. I think what her foreword is very in line with the points we make in our essays.

AK: She was on our wish list to contribute and we were thrilled when she accepted. She is both a fashion maverick, and a collector and fashion curator. Her foreword offers a verbatim retelling of Alexander McQueen’s VOSS parade in 2001, a specific moment in fashion that we cited as emblematic of fashion’s engagement with performance.

MA: Tate Modern Director Chris Dercon believes that fashion is not art, that if anything its function makes it closer to industrial design – but definitely not art.

MOS: I don’t think that’s an unreasonable observation, but then again isn’t some of Jeff Koons’ or Takashi Murakami’s artwork a product of industrial manufacturing too? It’s certainly mass-produced by multiple sets of hands, like clothing is.

AK: One of the fundamental differences too between art and fashion is the understanding of being a brand. Koons doesn’t physically make his work – he has artists who follow his direction, but the ideas are his. He is Jeff Koons and there will never be another Jeff Koons. In fashion though, a designer’s death (Alexander McQueen) or retirement (Valentino) does not render the use of the name invalid. McQueen’s house is still in operation under his name, as is Valentino. With Yves Saint Laurent, incoming designer Hedi Slimane dropped the Yves to inject something of himself into a brand that is firmly established. This is something that the art world would reject and perhaps this is why fashion is not art, because at its heart, it is a commercial enterprise in which ideas are not paramount over profit. Of course, as I mentioned before, many artists, like Koons, have household names status, and manage their careers as they might a brand.

MA: Fashion houses ‘artialise’ their stores by designing white-cube inspired windows and displaying products as works of art. Likewise more museums incorporate fashion into their exhibition calendars and collections. How has this movement changed the gallery and retail experience, and its response to architecture?

AK: The new millennium has seen the advent of mega starchitect-designed stores – Peter Marino for Dior, Rem Koolhaas for Prada, Zaha Hadid for Chanel – that are, in many senses, the museums of the fashion world. Andy Warhol famously predicted this logical outcome, declaring that all department stores would become museums, and all museums would become department stores. The big maisons and stores have become architectural temples to fashion – a hybridisation of art, fashion and architecture.

MA: What role does authenticity play in mainstream art and fashion?

AK: Walter Benjamin’s original critical assertion of the authenticity of the original is particularly relevant when we look at the rise of luxury retail. The biggest luxury houses have turned enormous profits, even as more mainstream companies and brands at lower price points have struggled as a result of the GFC. It would seem that while the financial world fluctuates and fortunes are lost, consumers are ironically turning to bespoke and luxury items for solace. Perhaps this is motivated by a desire for an object that is well made, or more specifically hand-made by an artisan. Luxury is slow, as opposed to fashion, which is fast, so the time afforded to make luxury objects is worth the price paid. To return to Benjamin, artisanal goods or bespoke products carry the hand of the artist. When you add the imprimatur of an artist, through collaboration or the employing of a print, the object or item becomes somehow more authentic and valuable. This too addresses issues of high-end luxury products being counterfeited. It is at the luxury end of fashion retail that fashion comes close to acquiring longevity.

MA: Mitchell, what is your driving force as a freelance writer?

MOS: Money, I guess. And I don’t mean that in a greedy way, but writers don’t earn a terribly large amount if you look at current word rates and the sparse media landscape. To maintain a full-time freelance career that supports you financially means producing a prolific amount of work. On the creative side, I really do love my job! Being a writer is incredibly different from being an editor, but the balance is a good one. I also don’t write about just one thing, as this book demonstrates – with fashion, art, architecture, popular culture – and I enjoy the mix. I don’t think you can talk about one subject without discussing others today, such is the nature of the creative world, and so it baffles me that people brand themselves a ‘fashion writer’ or a ‘music writer’.

MA: Alison, was there a defining moment that ignited your interest in the arts?

AK: I remember going to the Tate Gallery in London and seeing a Roy Lichtenstein around the age of 11 and thinking, “That’s it, that’s what I want to do.” Not make art, but be in that world of ideas and creativity. I have no skill artistically but I always liked to read and think, and muse on ideas. I still love the feeling and atmosphere of art galleries and museums and always loved to read about Warhol’s milieu and the creative people all bumping around together at that time. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol was my favourite book as a teenager.

MA: You are both both avid travelers. If I peeked inside your travel kit, what would I find?

MOS: Always with me on a plane are sleeping tablets, my computer, a copy of Vanity Fair, eye cream, pawpaw ointment, comfortable clothes to change into on the plane.

AK: I always like to pick up the International Herald Tribune, and bring a good cashmere scarf in lieu of the hideous aeroplane blanket offerings.

‘Art/Fashion in the 21st Century’
by Mitchell Oakley Smith and Alison Kubler, with a foreword by Daphne Guinness, is out now through Thames & Hudson.

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Image 1:Digitally printed scarves for TRU$T FUN!, Zawada’s fashion label with Shane Sakkeus and Annie Zawada.

Image 2: Romance Was Born, ‘Berserkergang’ collection, 2013. Photo: Lucas Dawson (All Rights Reserved).