Extreme Artistic Vision: The Role of Excess in Fashion

Extreme Artistic Vision: The Role of Excess in Fashion
Versace Spring/Summer 2013 Runway
(Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

Is there a place for excess in fashion today? This is the question that journalist Colin McDowell, art director Ronnie Cooke Newhouse, stylist Bay Garnett, writer Camilla Morton, and I set out to answer last Friday when we gathered to take part in a panel discussion on Showstudio.com. The website is holding several such panels during key shows throughout fashion month. Our particular chat took place during the debut of Versace’s spring 2013 collection. Naturally, while chatting about the clothes, we strayed from our intended theme — perhaps because the underwhelming nature of Versace’s structure-less crinkled silk and lace mini tunics and short shorts was the polar opposite of the excess the brand has come to represent. Nevertheless, it’s a subject worth exploring.

Given the international economic crisis, it may seem frivolous for designers to show extravagant looks with lofty price tags, like Altuzarra’s fall 2012 “Karma Embellished Crystal Cotton Dress,” which retails on Net-a-Porter for $10,920. Believe it or not, items like these sell. Last year, Mary Katrantzou reported that she sold 18 units of her fall 2011 “Jewel Tree” dress. The sculpted velvet frock, which was embellished with lace, enamel flowers, and Swarovski crystals, retailed for over $13,000. Even in a recession there’s a market for super luxury pieces, as women who can afford to shop are putting their entire budgets toward one or two exceptional items rather than investing in an entire new seasonal wardrobe.

But when it comes to the actual role of excess in fashion – that is, its purpose and relevance – it’s not about people who can buy $30,000 dresses. Rather, it’s about creating a fantasy for the consumer. The act of dressing can be aspirational. Not everyone is going to be able to buy a crystal-embellished dress. Nor would they want to. But it is essential for luxury brands, like Chanel, McQueen, and Gucci, to push these “fantasies” forward because they are what motivate consumers to purchase real money makers, like perfume, accessories, and beauty products. Would you want to invest in a $120 .25 fluid ounce bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume if the house stood for jeans and T-shirts, rather than the image of power and femininity that Coco created and Karl perpetuates today? Lagerfeld’s new age tweed suits and couture collections keep the dream alive. And when we buy one of the classic Chanel rose broaches, or a lotion, or Chanel No. 5, we’re purchasing bits of that dream.

This brings us to the fantasy of the fashion show, a topic that we did, in fact, briefly discuss on Friday. Once reserved for the eyes of editors, retailers, and big-money clients, fashion shows are now live-streamed world wide via Facebook, Style.com, and brand websites. In fact, Morton mentioned that more than one million viewers would be watching Versace’s spring clothes strut down the catwalk on Friday evening. With this in mind, Morton asked us if shows were becoming, or should become, more “commercial.” And while many of my fellow panelists answered with resounding yesses, hypothesizing that women appreciate a “what you see is what you get” approach to fashion, I have to disagree. The fashion show, along with an ad campaign or a flagship boutique, is the designer’s (or the brand’s) opportunity to express his or her extreme artistic vision. Lee McQueen was a master of producing runway performances with wildly styled models or, in the case of his spring 2006 show, a hovering Kate Moss hologram, and then translating these visions into commercial items. Or, at least, items that could sell.

Versace has traditionally perpetuated similar degrees of fantasy on the runway, like when Gianni sent out a gaggle of mini-dress-clad supermodels, linked arm in arm on the catwalk, in 1991. Or when Donatella reinstated Versace couture last July, using Paris’s Ritz hotel (where Gianni showed his collections before his death) as the stage for a parade of hyper-sexy gowns and frocks. Shows like these make all elements of the brand more desirable; they make us want to own a piece of that vision, just as an ad campaign is meant to do. And aren’t these ridiculous, excessive moments why fashion is so much fun in the first place? Fashion is an indulgent means of escape. Where are we being transported with a ho-hum show that simply replicates the rack of clothes we’ll see in department stores? 

The joy of dressing often lies in extremes and frivolity. But more importantly, fashion is about the confidence and pleasure these indulgences propel. Sure, we could strip fashion down to the minimum, ridding ourselves of the artistic embellishments or elements that some would deem superfluous, like extreme silhouettes, embroideries, lux fabrics, and accessories. But in times of difficulty and uncertainty, isn’t it nice to put on your favorite lipstick, or pull out an adored handbag, and lose yourself in the fantasy, no matter how excessive it may be? As the spring collections continue in Paris, let’s hope we can all tune in, lose ourselves in shows and, perhaps, have a little fun. 

Click on the slide show to see images from Versace’s spring 2013 collection.

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