Is Fashion Art? Karl Lagerfeld Puts the Debate Back Into the Spotlight by Dismissing the Notion

Is Fashion Art? Karl Lagerfeld Puts the Debate Back Into the Spotlight by Dismissing the Notion
The 'Schiaparelli And Prada: Impossible Conversations' at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
(Getty Images)

Is fashion art? The age-old question returned to the spotlight last week when designer Karl Lagerfeld told the Telegraph, “I am against museums and exhibitions in fashion. One woman said to me — ‘In my world, the world of art’ — so I said: ‘Oh, don’t you make dresses anymore?’ A thin smile and then: ‘If you call yourself an artist, then you are second-rate.’”

With fashion becoming the focus of an increasing number of museum exhibitions and a multitude of artists now collaborating with luxury labels, the distinct line that once separated fashion and art is more blurred. A handful of notable designers throughout history have stated unequivocally that fashion is art, but the topic continues to be debated and designers, as well as art and fashion historians, remain divided. The question is even the focus of an imaginary dialogue between Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli in the current Met exhibition “Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations.”

Schiaparelli: You know, Miuccia, I've always felt, and after talking to you I'm even more sure: fashion is art.

Prada: I always said, for me, fashion is not art.

ES: Oh, of course it is! That's why I collaborated with these other artists — the greatest thrill of my career, oh my God, the things I did with Dali! Lobster dresses, skeleton dresses, shoe hats, desk suits…

MP: I was taught, and I agree, that your collaboration with Dali and other artists of your time was the only real relevant experiment that really was meaningful. It was not a joke, it was a serious moment when serious minds were collaborating.

ES: If I don't say so myself, it was revolutionary. You should try, Miuccia.

MP: Today everything is so contrived and anything you do is under observation. So in a way, there is not even the same freedom to work with artists because immediately you think about what the comments will be. ‘Ah, yes, art and fashion…’ So I avoid that subject completely.

ES: For me, if I hadn't been a designer, I would have liked to have been a sculptor. Coco even said of me that I was that designer who wanted to be an artist…

MP: Fashion is art, fashion is not art. But at the end, who cares?

There are several arguments that support the idea that fashion isn’t art. Fashion functions with the purpose of clothing the human body and protecting it from environmental elements. It serves as an aspect of commerce and is produced at regular intervals. At the hands of mass-market retailers like H&M and Macy’s, it merely becomes a commodity to sell and profit from. Art, on the other hand, while also commercial in some aspects, is less fleeting and is created at the whim of the artist.

Those who are on Prada and Lagerfeld’s side – who don’t think fashion is art – include Marc Jacobs, Comme des Garçons’s Rei Kawakubo, Coco Chanel, and Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Glenda Bailey.

“I don’t think of fashion as being an art form,” Bailey told ARTINFO last fall. “I think sometimes it can look very artful, and we always want it to be creative, and we want it to be inspiring, and we want it to be desirable.”

“A lot of fashion designers deny that fashion is art,” Valerie Steele, fashion historian and director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who regularly lectures on the topic of whether fashion is art, told ARTINFO. “Then that would make that very difficult for other people to announce that it is when you’ve got people at the caliber of Karl Lagerfeld and Miuccia Prada and Rei Kawakubo saying, ‘no it’s not art.’”

These varying points of view are worth consideration, but it may have been a bit impulsive for Lagerfeld to call fashion designers who consider themselves artists “second-rate.” In many ways, the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power,” puts fashion in the same realm as art. Fashion, when executed at the hands of certain designers, like Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy or the late Alexander McQueen, can be expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.

Those who agree with that notion are designers like Schiaparelli, the late Paul Poiret, who fancied himself an artist, Ralph Rucci, and John Varvatos.

Varvatos, who doesn’t think of himself as an artist, told ARTINFO: “If you’re creating and you’re new, and you’re pushing the envelope – I definitely think it’s a form of art.”

And then there are those who fall somewhere in between, like Yves Saint Laurent co-founder and partner Pierre Bergé, who doesn’t consider fashion to be art, but believes that some of the biggest names in the industry are artists.

“Fashion exists only when it’s worn by women,” Bergé told ARTINFO earlier this year. “Otherwise, it is nothing. It’s not an art. But Yves Saint Laurent was an artist, like Balenciaga was an artist. And Chanel, too. And Christian Dior, too. And Schiaparelli was an artist. Fashion is not an art.”

And what about the artists whose work has appeared in fashion, like Dali, who collaborated with Schiaparelli on her 1937 lobster dress, or Mondrian, who inspired Saint Laurent to create his 1965 day dress? Their contemporary counterparts include artist Takashi Murakami, who put his smiling flowers on Louis Vuitton handbags in 2003, and Liam Gillick, who placed his brightly-hued bold lines on knitwear for a capsule collection with Pringle of Scotland that debuted this spring.

“We didn’t attempt to merge anything,” Gillick told ARTINFO via email, when asked about his Pringle of Scotland collaboration. “I worked as an artist — curious about the production processes and semiotics of design. It was an encounter between two related species that recognize each other but shouldn’t really be allowed to produce too many offspring.”

Artist Olaf Breuning, who created a line of accessories with Bally of Switzerland that debuted last December during Art Basel Miami Beach, agrees that the two are separate. “Fashion is mostly commercial,” Breuning told ARTINFO via email. “For me it is a collaboration, just to expand my normal art activity.”

Adding to the debate, against Lagerfeld’s wishes, is the fact that fashion is increasingly making its way into art’s most sacred institution — the museum — with exhibitions like last year’s “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” at the Met, the traveling Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective,” and the roving “Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” all attracting record-breaking crowds.

“It’s certainly contributing to the discourse about whether fashion is an art,” said Steele of the phenomenon. “The more you show fashion in art museums, the more there’s some kind of focus being made directly or indirectly on whether it’s art.”

While fashion has many believing it is an art, it still has a long way to go before it convinces both industries and the public at large of its place in the field.

“Traditionally everyone has accepted that certain kinds of cultural production are art, like Old Master paintings and classical music, and then gradually other things like film, and photography, and jazz started to be accepted, and now fashion is in this phase where it’s possibly transitioning into being considered art, but that transition is by no means fully accomplished yet,” said Steele.

While a definitive answer to the question may never be reached and the tug of war between both sides will certainly persist, perhaps it’s best to think of art and fashion as having a symbiotic relationship — two different entities that feed off of one another.

As Lagerfeld told the New York Times in 2008, “Art is art. Fashion is fashion. However, Andy Warhol proved that they can exist together.”