Whenever discussions about the relationships between fashion and art occur, the conversation inevitably ends up around the question “Is fashion art?” Although it’s been answered previously on AEQAI, it bears repeating that yes, fashion is art. Fashion design is an art form like painting or sculpting with one major difference: Fashion generally is made to be worn in the real world, which is why it’s so often called Wearable Art.
But like other artistic disciplines, there are different levels of fashion art that grace the world’s runways. Unknown to some, but of great interest to many, is the very selective sliver of the fashion industry known as haute couture. Overseen by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in France’s capital city, a select number of design houses are allowed to create haute couture under specific guidelines. The pieces must be hand-crafted, the atelier must be in Paris, and there must even be a specific number of artisans employed by the atelier. Certainly, if there was any doubt if fashion was art, one would only need to view and understand haute couture to affirm its status as high or fine art. (The interrelationships between fine art and popular culture may well have begun in the world of fashion, long before it began to dominate the fine arts per se).
In early June, many of the haute couture houses presented their newest biennial collections at Paris Haute Couture Week. There were mainstay brands like Chanel, Dior, and Elie Saab, all of which know how to showcase their pieces in spectacular fashion. But when looking at these collections in light of the “Is fashion art?” question, the most intriguing presentation was by the Dutch designers Viktor & Rolf. For they did not just dance around the question, they answered it straight on by transforming garments from clothing to fine art within a single runway show.
Once models completed their turn on the runway, the duo was on stage to shed the garment from the model’s frame and hang it on the stark white walls of the Palais de Tokyo. The pieces transformed from one art form to another, before the audience’s very eyes, in a brilliant moment of art imitating life imitating art.
The dresses created by Viktor & Rolf, before being hung on the walls, could have easily been in an exhibition all their own. From the first look to the last, they grew ever more elaborate from a seemingly simple white wrap to the exaggerated shapes with origami-like folds for which the brand is known: Garments are decorated with the motifs of 17th century Dutch Golden Age ideas and concepts. Through the folds of the garments, you could see glimpses of portraits and still life fruit, the portraits highlighted with what the brand described as “action painting techniques”. This interdisciplinary approach is really where cutting-edge contemporary art lies, and Viktor and Rolf translate the ‘gesture ‘ of Abstract Expressionism into the ‘gesture’ of the hand-made of haute couture.
In the words of Viktor & Rolf, “the painterly gesture is achieved through trompe l’oeil techniques: each artwork is executed in a complex layering of laser-cut jacquards, embroideries and appliqués.” To add to the wearable art homage, many of the pieces had what appeared to be gilded gold framed trimming so that they were appropriately framed when hung on the walls.
This is the first haute couture collection of Victor and Rolf’s since announcing they would suspend the ready-to-wear division of their company. They wanted to focus their attention on their craft and free themselves from the restrictions often associated with having to produce garments for a commercial audience. It’s particularly Interesting now , because their first collection since abandoning ready-to-wear literally asks and answers their fundamental questions and takes them back to their roots as artisans. They are, again, very much in the forefront of contemporary art as collaborators and blurrers of conventional boundaries: one might think of them even as performance artists.
And as the presentation came to a close in Paris, the garments were not clothing anymore , because their original shapes had been altered. Fashion was no longer their purpose or function: they were fine art and at least one of the pieces will be used as such. For Han Nefkens, a famous Dutch art collector, has already donated one of the looks to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam.