PRINT October 1995

Q & A

the Radical Face of Fashion

FASHION AS “the last gritty, gutsy avant-garde”? The words are those of the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute’s Richard Martin. Writing in the Los Angeles Times this past February, Martin argued, “In a more tranquil world for art, only fashion insists on acting out dissonance and stirring up the kinds of social ruckus that art once lived by.” In a 1994 New Yorker piece, Ingrid Sischy, though somewhat more temperate in her claims on fashion’s behalf, compared the buzz around fashion in the ’90s to that surrounding art in the ’80s: “For a while art was the center of cultural attention. Now fashion has taken over.” Her remark suggests that, when it comes to vital news of our cultural condition, she too looks to fashion first.

How do these fashionable views play in the art world? With the media ever more fascinated by fashion and artists turning to the runway for inspiration and/or subject matter, David Colman asked a handful of artists, designers, and fashion observers to talk about the art in fashion, the fashion in art, and the possibilities in their conjunction.

VALERIE STEELE (AUTHOR, FETISH: FASHION, SEX, AND POWER): Part of the reason fashion seems more culturally exciting than art is that it’s closely associated with personal identity, which means the kinds of issues that upset some people—the way, for example, gay people or women are acting—get played out in a very immediate way in fashion. Art seems much more cloistered, more removed from people’s lives. Everyone sees Versace’s clothes on television and in the magazines, whereas you have to go out of your way to see a Nan Goldin—and then you know what you’re going to see, especially with all the warnings posted in museums now. When it comes to fashion, people don’t go down the street saying “Warning, this outfit may shock your preconceptions about gender and sex.” It’s intended to be confrontational.

REI KAWAKUBO (FASHION DESIGNER, COMMES DES GARÇONS): My feeling is that art still has a much stronger and more tangible influence than fashion. Recently, in particular, I have felt that the challenge is gone from the fashion world and that there is hardly any progress within it as a consequence. The big fashion makers now seem to concentrate their efforts on big advertising campaigns designed for shock value alone.

RICHARD MARTIN (CURATOR, COSTUME INSTITUTE): Art remains a world of privilege and exclusivity. With jeans, fashion became a public world. Fashion assimilates the avant-garde sensibilities of art and conveys them, with unprotected and unprivileged transgression , to a more general public, which is why Donald Wildman and his ilk object so much to fashion advertising. If Calvin Klein places his ads in Seventeen and Vanity Fair, it’s far different from, say, Lynda Benglis in Artforum. Klein’s recent ads shot against the kind of wood paneling you find in suburban dens are just like the film Kids, and everybody in the art world has been looking at the Larry Clark stuff for five years.

KAREN KILIMNIK (ARTIST): I guess what draws me to fashion is that I wish I looked like everyone in the magazines—I guess everyone does. For a long time I’ve just worn jeans and T-shirts, but I’ve always loved clothes. I think I might dress differently if I were thinner—I keep waiting to lose weight. Maybe it’s brainwashing. Maybe people like fashion because it looks pretty—the clothes are pretty, the models are pretty. I mean, Calvin Klein’s models aren’t always that pretty-pretty, but they just seem more fascinating, because they’re people. The controversy over his recent ads was sort of silly—but fun, I guess. It reminded me of Rita’s drawings of girls in their underwear. I love Calvin Klein, I’d love anything he does. And I love Kate Moss, I’d rather be her than anyone, I think.

KATELL LE BOURHIS (FORMER DIRECTOR, MUSÉE DE LA MODE): Fashion may sometimes seem subversive, but it rarely is. In mainstream fashion what some consider subversive has no foundation, no depth. It’s almost purely commercial. Maybe the street-tribe fashion like that of the Rastas and the punks, in which a social identity marked through clothes differentiates a group outside the mainstream, is subversive. This is a major source of inspiration for designers. With Calvin Klein, you don’t see it in his mainline designs, you see it in his publicity, in his videos and ads. But for JeanPaul Gaultier it’s a real inspiration for his designs. But I wouldn’t call him “subversive”; I’d say he’s “in tune”—smartly provocative. In late-18th-century Paris after the revolution, the lncroyables and the Merveilleuses, whose clothes, behavior, and language were equally provocative, caricatured both the old and new politics. They truly offended society with their eccentric clothes and outrageousness in every situation. But today—bof!

MR. PHAM AND SUGGAPAK (DESIGNERS, BERNADETTE CORPORATION): Fashion is the most desirable form for discursive activity because of its overtone toward the critique of the individual. It is not about individual Identity as it is a lubricant to facilitate the codification and communication of a singular Identity. The grunge-bunny knows that his individual style and dress is secured only when that particular style is adopted and worn by all his grunge-bunny friends. So the fashion show is a really nice forum for the analysis of this, um, phenomenon. We love to dress the models in styles incomprehensible with respect to existing codes. We consider this a strategy of disappearance.

SYLVIE FLEURY (ARTIST): My work is supposed to be about fashion issues and women’s concerns—femininity, feminism, fetishism, or whatever—and I am a female artist. Isn’t this the perfect filling for an art-trend slot, more politically correct stuffing to nibble at? Trends/obsessions: the hottest eyeshadow shade is the perfect place to look—if there is one—to find out where we stand and what we are up to today. The shade of the day is shimmering metallic iridescence. I wonder what to make of that!

AMY SPINDLER (CHIEF FASHION CRITIC, THE NEW YORK TIMES): When fashion tries to be subversive, it’s forced to borrow from familiar taboos, which is why it so often fails. By the time it appropriates something, be it punk or body piercing, what was subversive has already become mainstream. Which is why the recent Calvin Klein ads upset some people but not others. If you had never seen amateur porn, the ad seemed to be just another part of fashion’s recent trend toward appropriating bad taste and ugliness, undermining its implicit goal of making people more attractive. For example, the Bernadette Corporation recently used acid-washed denim, a fabric that has become symbolic of “mall” fashion. Alexander McQueen toys with this same esthetic in the cuts of his pants—so low they show butt cleavage. Still, as if to prove what a puritanical society this is, nudity somehow remains fashion’s most controversial transgression.

ISAAC MIZRAHI (DESIGNER): Scandal is the easiest thing to create; art isn’t. You can be an adman and create a scandal. But it shouldn’t be mistaken for art or something necessarily of merit. I don’t think it’s a matter of art being cared less about today than fashion. Fashion is based on commerce. Selling art is not supposed to be an artist’s goal. It’s a very recent phenomenon for artists to expect that they’ll immediately become rich and famous.

What’s so funny about this time in history is that it’s the curators who are made into stars today, and shows have become less about the art than the juxtaposition of it—kind of the way fashion editors choose designers. Painters want to synergize with curators the same way fashion designers want to synergize with stylists.

WIEBKE SIEM (ARTIST): What links my work to fashion is not that I make clothes, but my mode of working. Everything takes place on the surface. Its style is both a matter of expression and a means to an end, a strategy. In 1984, when I made my first clothes and hats, I viewed these pieces as sculptures you could put on and move around in. They were intended to function as “images” of clothing or hats, so the street in turn would become an image of itself, a secret installation. Now I’m making a large collection of objects—clothes, wigs, furniture, toys, etc.—which, isolated from their usual context, get shown in a museum. Just as the street was turned into an “installation” in my earlier work, now the museum becomes estranged, “refashioned,” by the objects it houses.

JOHN BARTlETT (DESIGNER): Fashion, which is not necessarily the same as clothing design, is increasingly important as an immediate expression of how our culture (or a given subculture) imagines or would like to imagine itself. Having studied sociology, I felt going into fashion provided the most exciting and available means of commenting on this cultural salad spinner we call New York.

I just finished the Mapplethorpe biography, and it seems his needs and anxieties as an artist were similar to the struggles of a designer, except that fashion encourages a more subjective and personal identification with its audience. Plus, paintings are much harder to wear out at night.

GLENN O’BRIEN (CREATIVE DIRECTOR OF ADVERTISING, BARNEYS NEW YORK): When television went from three or four networks plus PBS to 60 or 70 channels, it created a need for lots more celebrities. Fashion was a convenient solution. Models became supermodels and designers became readymade celebrities. And fashion is price accessible. While wacko prices remain on the couture end, to give a necessary quotient of insane exclusivity, designers are mass consumable, where artists are not. You might not be able to afford a Chanel suit or a Bob Gober sculpture, but Chanel makes a lipstick and Bob doesn’t. Fashion has seemingly taken over fine-art turf because it has a big audience and a big clientele and it’s arty. Art now exists in investorland and academia. If it wants to compete culturally with fashion, artists will have to do what designers did: go mass. Artists could still do their couture work, but also have ready-to-wear and “bridge” lines that regular people can afford.

David Colman contributes this column regularly to Artforum.