The Genteel
October 20, 2020



This month, in quintessential Karl Lagerfeld form, the legendary designer criticised (which is putting it delicately) a fashion designer for calling herself an artist. Kaiser Karl replied, dripping with disdain, that she - or any other designer who refers to themselves as an artist - is "second-rate."

I might not agree with Lagerfeld's position on Russian men not being good-looking or his issues with Adele's curves, but I've got to hand it to the outspoken fashion guru - this time, he's absolutely right: fashion is not art. Fashion is fundamentally the production of clothing and accessories - it fulfils a function, it is a utility. Some designers just happen to make clothes with more creativity than others.

Karl Lagerfeld art
Kaiser Karl. Source:

According to Valerie Steele, the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, fashion is considered bottom-rung to museum folk. "Fashion is really seen as the bastard child of capitalism and female vanity," Steele told the Wall Street Journal in a 2010 an interview.

That's not to say that fashion cannot inspire art, or be inspired by art. An artist's canvas can be just about anything, whereas a designer's canvas must conform to the form of the human body. Innovation and artistic expression doesn't confine itself to the basic parameters which fashion, by its definition, must fit (so to speak). Shirts, trousers, jackets, dresses - fashion is an interpretation of pieces of clothing.

Veracious artists will agree that the absence of complete artistic freedom hinders the artistic process. And isn't confining and limiting themselves what most designers do? Virginia Postrel, author of The Substance of Style, argues that "fashions of all sorts seem driven by the desire to be different, but not too different - to stand out as an individual while fitting into whatever group you identify with … In dress, the fluctuations aren't random, nor do they mirror current events in some literal way … [styles] evolve according to an internal aesthetic logic of their own."

Essentially, as Postrel goes on to say, fashion is subjective. It relies on and transforms based on previous styles; last season's colour scheme will affect this season's colour scheme just as hemlines, prints and accessories will morph out of what was in style in the past.

Art is art. Fashion is fashion. However, Andy Warhol proved that they can exist together.

There is no denying that what can be considered art isn't always your typical watercolour on a canvas. Recall Guillermo Vargas, the Costa Rican ostensible artist who tied up a stray dog and deprived it of food and water as part of his exhibit. To parents, macaroni and glitter projects from their little ones are Louvre-worthy. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which anti-Lagerfeld crusaders would shout from the rooftops.

Well, artists might have a problem with that creed, as would other designers, such as Marc Jacobs, Coco Chanel and Miuccia Prada, who are also on Lagerfeld's fashion-is-not-art bandwagon. Despite the wishful thinking we have for the fashion industry, the industry is consumerism to the core. The ultimate goal for any designer is to have someone purchase their items to wear and turn a profit - not exactly our idealistic notions of art for art's sake.

This concept is emulated amongst the ranks of designers. It reared its ugly head in 2009 at the Grand Palais exhibition, Le grand monde d'Andy Warhol, when Pierre Bergé, life-long partner of Yves Saint Laurent, demanded that the late designer's portraits be relocated. Originally, the exhibition's curator, Alain Cueff, planned to hang YSL's portraits in the "Glamour" section, where other designers such as Giorgio Armani and Sonia Rykiel's portraits were. Bergé claimed YSL belonged in the "Artists" section, and that "the rags mustn't be mixed with the serviettes." Ouch. Cueff refused to move the photos, so Bergé pulled out from the exhibit.

Elsa Schiaparelli Wallis Simpson
Wallis Simpson wears Elsa Schiaparelli's
lobster dress inspired by Salvador Dali.

Postrel said Bergé's baffling objection sparked a societal dogma that "fashion is an inferior, unworthy, trivial and culturally suspect pursuit." But fashion and art do enjoy a healthy relationship and can feed off of one another. Many designers have worked alongside traditional artists and incorporated their work into clothing. Take Elsa Schiaparelli, whose lobster dress was dreamed up with help from surrealist artist Salvador Dali. Even Louis Vuitton's Cosmic Blossom collection was inspired by contemporary artist Takashi Murakami. Notable architect Frank Gehry, whom Vanity Fair named the most important architect of our age, was enlisted by Tiffany & Co. to design a jewellery line. Rarely do we ever see artists picking the brains of designers in search of a vision.

Art provides inspiration for designers, it is a muse. Fashion is a reflection of artistic expression, but it is a separate entity. Yes, like art, it can be beautiful and evoke different emotional responses, but perhaps by sharing similar characteristics of art, it might be more fitting to consider it a medium or subset of art.

Designers who have advocated in favour of fashion and art as one and the same, such as Elsa Schiaparelli, Ralph Rucci and John Varvatos (and, we're guessing, Lady Gaga's design team) can take comfort in the fact that art itself is ever-changing. These days, photography, music, film and even graffiti are considered art forms. Fashion, is starting to blur the lines, but still stands on its own. Without art, fashion would continue to exist. And vice versa.

When it comes to fashion and art, I prefer Kaiser Karl's take: "Art is art. Fashion is fashion. However, Andy Warhol proved that they can exist together."



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