Creating high art after a fashion

LIfe&style If a dress hangs in a gallery, rather than a wardrobe, is it art? If an artist creates a painting that is then transferred on to fabric and made into a frock, is it no longer art? Fashion and art are often entwined in an intense relationship of public spats and mutual appreciation. M looks at the past, present and future of this creative partnership.

Irvine Penn?s portrait of his wife Lisa Fonssagrives.
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If a dress hangs in a gallery, rather than a wardrobe, is it art? If an artist creates a painting that is then transferred on to fabric and made into a frock, is it no longer art? Fashion and art are often entwined in an intense relationship of public spats and mutual appreciation. Fiona Killackey looks at the past, present and future of this creative partnership. Open any fashion magazine and the chances are that at least one dress or advertising campaign has been created or shot in collaboration with one of the world's "top artists". As the gap closes between fashion and art, it has become difficult to distinguish the creative from the commercial. In a bid to expand their branding and identity, fashion houses collaborate with well-known artists, illustrators, graphic designers and photographers who, quite often, gain as much exposure as the brand itself, making for a mutually - and, often financially - beneficial arrangement. Dress fabrics feature the work of key up-and-coming artists, while advertising campaigns have become a gallery of images shot by photographers whose prints sell for hundreds of thousands of dirhams.

This month, Christie's auction house will offer for sale a black and white portrait taken by the late fashion photographer Irving Penn. Measuring 50.2cm x 49.8cm, the image shows Penn's wife Lisa Fonssagrives, "the first supermodel", seated in a Moroccan palace. The image, which was probably shot for a fashion publication, captures the glamour, style and elegance that made Penn one of Vogue's most cherished contributors. But it is also a work of art and, with an estimated price of US$300,000 to $500,000 (Dh 1.1 million to Dh1.82 million), a sound investment for an art enthusiast.

The coupling of art and fashion is not new. The relationship dates back to the mid-19th century, when the idea of the fashion designer emerged. By the 1850s, couture had arrived in Paris and those with a high enough income sought out the finest fabrics, which were then taken to dressmakers and sewn into replicas of the latest fashions that were being worn in the Royal Court. In 1858, Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman working for Gagelin, one of Paris's leading textiles dealers, convinced his employers to incorporate a dressmaking section into the business.

Worth's idea was that customers would choose one of his designs - worn by a model in store - buy the company's fabric and Worth would create the entire garment under one roof. With the help of a Swedish investor, Worth realised his idea and by the late 1850s had become the first fashion designer to sew his name as a label into garments. By doing so, he singlehandedly steered fashion in a new direction, where the creator has become the dictator, and the customer the disciple.

Illustrations of Worth's innovative creations quickly made their way into the popular fashion magazines, enabling women outside Paris to replicate his designs, and other companies copied his idea. Artists were brought in to fashion houses to sketch or paint the designer's ideas, thus allowing customers to see multiple designs, without the company having to spend money creating garments that might not sell.

In the 20th century, designers and their artist assistants began to look to modern art for inspiration, often working the lines, prints and patterns into textile and fashion designs. Fashion became a blank canvas upon which designers could create wearable art. In the 1920s, they incorporated beading and embroidery to create masterpieces, often echoing Art Deco. In the 1930s, streamlined silhouettes mirrored the Bauhaus and Constructivist use of the geometric. In the 1960s, pop art changed for ever the way commercial artists were viewed, opening up a new space in galleries for low art sold at high prices. Fashion followed suit with the rise of mass production, textile factories and high street stores replicating designer dresses at a fraction of the cost.

Now, fashion and art appear more in sync than ever. In 1999, Alexander McQueen, who died in February, delighted the audience, and created a moment of fashion history, at his spring/summer show by using a robot to paint a live model at the end of a catwalk, and in 2003 Louis Vuitton announced its collaboration with the contemporary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. In 2008 - the same year Murakami was named by Time as one of the world's "100 most influential people" - the Brooklyn Museum hosted an exhibition of Murakami's work, including his collaborations with Louis Vuitton. Shockingly, for some art critics, it also featured a Louis Vuitton shop in the centre of the exhibition where fans could invest in their own piece of wearable art.

In 2008, Donatella Versace incorporated the work of the Dutch artist Tim Roeloffs in her autumn/winter collection, and Chanel created a touring art exhibition in which 20 artists, including Yoko Ono, Stephen Shore and Subodh Guptall, showed their interpretations of the company's iconic quilted bag. In similar vein, the US clothes chain Gap collaborated with 13 contemporary artists, including Chuck Close, Jeff Koons, Kiki Smith, Barbara Kruger and Cai Guo-Qiang, to create a limited-edition range of T-shirts.

"Featuring an artist's print in our collection is now our central starting point," says Maia Norman, the creative director behind the British label Mother of Pearl. "It's a fresh way of changing our outlook seasonally with new inspiration from a totally different direction each time. Each artist carries a different resonance but we unify it with our sports-inspired styling." Norman, who is married to the British artist Damien Hirst, suggests that artists have become "pop icons" in today's culture and heavily influence the world of fashion.

"In effect, art has infiltrated the fashion world and the two worlds are overlapping. At Mother of Pearl, we look for artists in the same way that one finds music; being open-minded, researching leads and exciting visuals, watching gallery shows and tuning in to arts media." According to Lucy Hutchings, the British jewellery designer and artist, the gap between art and fashion is steadily closing. "I believe there is a movement towards artistic expression rather than functionality as the primary consideration, with designers like Gareth Pugh and Hussein Chalayan creating items that really are examples of wearable art." Hutchings is quick to point out that this trend may be due in part to the increase of high street fashion and speed of technology. "With the ability of the high street to plagiarise so efficiently and cheaply, I think designers strive to create things that can't - or won't - be so easy to copy."

Hutchings, who launched her label in 2008, is a firm believer in the creative crossover of fashion and art. "I do believe that fashion is art. I think that any expression of creativity can be termed art [and] in a way, I think that fashion is one of the most accessible, yet overlooked, forms of it." Mirroring Hutchings' sentiments is Athena Procopiou, a Greek-born illustrator, designer, art historian and pianist based in London. After training at the Conservatoire as a pianist in Switzerland, studying the history of art at Christie's in Paris and illustration and graphic design at Central Saint Martins, Procopiou settled in London, where she quickly gained a reputation for selling and exhibiting stunning fashion, art, video and illustrations. "The relationship and influence between fashion and art is big," says Procopiou. "Art is fashion and fashion is art. Fashion and art work together. You can say that an ugly piece of clothing is beautiful because it's art, or just find it amazing because the designer behind it is très en vogue." According to Procpiou, it's the power of art and fashion to influence others that makes them such important aspects of modern society.

"Let's just remember that art and fashion (and music, poetry, dancing, writing) will always inspire future talents and will, consequently, live on. Creativity will never die, it's eternal. And, it is this that we call art."