Art in Fashion: Written by the clueless for the clueless

June 30, 2016

by Gracia Ventus

Undercover Borremans

I'm not going to answer the question whether fashion is art as that debate has been rehashed to death. Indeed we are still having problems defining what is art and what isn't. Same thing for fashion really. There has always been this dichotomy between fashion vs style and fashion vs clothing in our sartorial discourse. Let us abandon that for the time being, and look into the love and hate relationship between fashion and art.

For the most part, art has always been relegated to the highbrow section of the cultural library while fashion belongs to the world of design, which unlike art, exists to provide solutions. Sometimes I see design as art's close cousin who's a sellout. Yet despite the quibbles and fraught relationship, art and commercial fashion always find themselves grinding each other in the club. The collaboration between fashion and commercial art did not begin until early twentieth century, as that was the time when commercial fashion began to take shape.

Undercover Fall/Winter 2015

Undercover Fall/Winter 2015

Jun Takahashi is not a name I often talk about on this site. I did love Undercover's Guru Guru collection from ten years ago, but most of the time I just keep up with his works like I would with an acquaintance on facebook, scrolling past photos that are presented to me without clicking further. Women's Undercover in the early years was too raw, flimsy and messy for my liking.

In the last few years, Jun has been shifting his direction ever so slightly with every season. Seams become less sutured, fabrics are given some structure. Then the Borremans collection came along. Models glided to the tune of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails (a clichéd yet timeless choice from one of my favourites), donning wool garments with art works from a Belgian contemporary painter - Michaël Borremans. What would otherwise be classic (ie. boring) outerwear became wearable paintings. I fell head over heels in love.

Borremans's subjects don't seem to be happy campers. They're usually painted in solitude, refusing to meet eye contact with the viewers or turning away completely. The surreality often lies in the subject. What looks like porcelain figures are painted in fleshy, lifelike skin tones. But the brush strokes. Oh the brush strokes. They are bold, unashamed in their imperfection, but so very arresting.

Undercover borremans Mask

Undercover Mens Fall/Winter 2016

Undercover Mens Fall/Winter 2016

Most fashion historians agree that Charles Frederick Worth was the grandfather of modern fashion, though his business did not stray from the world of couture. He had an equally famous disciple whose name was Paul Poiret. Allegedly described by Jean Cocteau as a man who looked like a chestnut, Poiret too was a couturier, and a brilliant one at that. While Worth kept making fancy corseted dresses, Poiret came up with new silhouettes like the straight cut chemise dress, bell tunics and harem trousers we still wear today. Modernity was his game, though he did not know it back then.


As his fame grew, so too did his clientele. They included heavy-weight artists and patrons of the arts. Naturally they developed a symbiotic relationship in which Poiret collected art works and championed contemporary art movements while inviting artists to collaborate with him in his business, from the dresses to the packaging of his items. He was a savvy marketer who understood that fashion was no longer relegated to clothes. It was also the hats, the baubles, the lifestyle. Before his rival Coco even thought of sewing two pieces of cloths together, he was already selling perfumes alongside his garments. They were packaged in super fancy 'hand-painted bottles; individual works of art that were specially created to harmonise with the perfumes they contained'. Naturally he had famous actresses endorsing them as well. They were dubbed as the 'True Eau de Cologne'. He even set up an art school that made furnishings for his atelier and stores. Before Poiret, there had never been a couturier who 'insisted that chairs, curtains, rugs and wall-coverings should be considered in the choosing of a dress, or rather that the style of a dress should influence the interior decorations of a home'. Margiela may have learnt a thing or two from this guy.

In order to maintain the exclusivity of his products to appeal to the bourgies of his time, he had to avoid the mass marketing tactics prevalent in the 20th century. He did not do large scale advertising (unlike Louis Vuitton). He called himself an artist, not a dressmaker. In his defense, he was still making made-to-measure clothes which could pass off as artistic visual works (unlike Louis Vuitton). And most importantly, he 'appropriated the fine arts to promote the originality, uniqueness, and aesthetics quality of his designs' (ironically very much like Louis Vuitton). But the tide of fashion was changing and even the great Poiret could not help but change his marketing strategy.

Since the dawn of mass production, the creative industry has been forced to conform in a manner that does not allow unique creations to remain an exclusive right to the maker. The industrialised economy would sooner or later reproduce any creation regardless whether permission has been granted by the originator. In the case of Poiret, he made himself so famous through his trailblazing marketing tactics that the demand for his clothes far outstripped the capability of an ill-adapted atelier, one which could only create a limited quantity of high-quality, work-intensive products. The gap between supply and demand was plugged by factories that churned out copies on a mass scale, a precursor to prêt-a-porter as we know it today. He only discovered the damaging consequences of industrial capitalism on his voyage to America for his trunk shows, where counterfeit of his works, alongside many other couturiers', were manufactured with standardised methods and distributed widely in the American market. In order to adapt to the new production and marketing paradigms, Poiret launched a subsidiary line of 'genuine reproductions' of his clothes in America, a departure from hand-made, one-of-a-kind pieces the couture business was based on. Much like Duchamp's 'artwork', the only thing that separated these genuine repros from commodified garments were the labels, the sole mark of originality for a piece of work that was no longer unique.

During the couture years, Poiret saw fashion as the rightful partner of fine arts, both existing alongside each other while basking in the esteemed status of originality. Today, fashion no longer sits on that throne. 99% clothing is made in bulk from a utilitarian perspective - which is a great thing in my opinion - most of them hardly differentiated from one another. But whenever the art world extends its helping hand, it elevates the status of plebeian mass-produced (albeit expensive) goods to artefacts that command an aura of exclusivity, thus validating its higher price tag. Think Louis Vuitton and Murakami, or Yasumasa Morimura and Issey Miyake.

Undercover Borremans

As for Poiret, despite playing a large role in revolutionising modern silhouettes and marketing tactics, he was not someone who was savvy with his money. World War One took a toll on his business, and instead of tightening his belt, Poiret went back to his lavish and soon-to-be-outdated couture ways. In the end, the poor man died a pauper while Coco took over the throne in her little black dress.

Sources for Paul Poiret:
1. Mcdowell, C. (2015). Paul Poiret (1879-1944). Retrieved June 30, 2016, from
2. Troy, N. J. (2010). Poiret's Modernism and The Logic of Fashion. In The Fashion History Reader: A Global Perspective (pp. 455-465). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. Available on Ebay and Amazon

(one comment)

One thought on “Art in Fashion: Written by the clueless for the clueless

  • paul kaufman

    by paul kaufman on June 30, 2016 at 10:10 pm

    beautifully written, as always! thanks!!


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