From Prada Mural Coats to Dover Street, Fashion’s Art Moment

The two mediums are increasingly coming together, sharing stages, intertwining collections—and collaborating to find a commercial connection with their clientele.

It seems oddly serendipitous that in the same season when some of the world’s most agenda-setting fashion designers have aligned themselves more closely than ever with the world of art, London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and avant-garde showroom Dover Street Market are hooking up to celebrate their (until now) little-known shared heritage.

Beginning Monday, the retailer’s unique selection—from Céline and Chalayan to Givenchy, Alaïa, and, of course, Comme des Garçons (the Japanese design house that owns the space)—will be surrounded by an installation showing rarely seen archival material that evokes the years 1950 to 1967, when the ICA was based in that very six-story Georgian in exclusive Mayfair. What was once a hub where Pop Art and Op Art came into being is now occupied by a mecca for lovers of the most cutting-edge fashion.

The exhibition coincides not only with the publication of Institute of Contemporary Arts: 1946-1968, a new book about the venue’s years on Dover Street, but also with a period when the worlds of art and fashion are becoming more intertwined than ever.

Consider last October’s Chanel Spring/Summer show at the Grand Palais in Paris. Karl Lagerfeld transformed the venue into a glossy art gallery, filled with 75 different Chanel-themed works, including a robotic sculpture with a giant bottle of No. 5 perfume as its torso and a mounted oversize and overturned 2.55 bag, its chain falling into a pile on the floor. The collection itself was a riot of multicolored art references; there was a paint-chart print taken from a Royal Talens sample board and a bag shaped like an artists’ portfolio case.

“[Designers] want to be part of the art world,” Lagerfeld told reporters then. “But the art world doesn’t want to be taken for fashion.” There were no specific artists referenced or specific collaborations enlisted—just the ever-incisive Chanel designer acknowledging that many of his clients might be wearing their purchases to art openings and, by extension, that the worlds of art and fashion were rubbing shoulders more closely than ever.

While the Chanel show may have received the most attention, plenty of other designers were working with or heavily referencing artists last season, too. Celine’s Phoebe Philo took a new tack with her graffiti inspired collection of brightly colored, paint-daubed designs—inspired by Hungarian master photographer Brassaï. At Prada, six muralists, including El Mac and Pierre Mornet, transformed their venue with enormous renditions of women’s faces, which were projected onto coats and dresses as part of the collection. Anna Wintour and Marc Jacobs have both been out recently in their Prada coats. If there was ever going to be a standout item to convince that fashion could be art, then these might well be it.

Indeed, even art insiders are acknowledging the two mediums have reached a new stage. “In the Noughties, there was a correlation between art and fashion because of a mutual love of bling. Marc Jacobs’ Louis Vuitton collaborations allowed artists to put their work on luxury handbags,” says Gregor Muir, the ICA’s executive director. “Now, it’s more of a collaboration in the direct sense as a genuine exchange of ideas.”

Ruthie Holloway of Beautiful Crime, an art brand that sells original street works and hosts exhibitions, sees an additional motive. “I think fashion brands these days are more willing to work with artists in much more creatively daring ways. Why? Because it makes sense creatively and commercially.”

One most recent example of the new synergy: Raf Simons’ Autumn/ Winter menswear show in Paris, where the Belgian designed the presentation in partnership with American artist (and longtime friend) Sterling Ruby. Simon Chilvers, men’s style director at MatchesFashion.com, describes how the show “just bristled with energy, was packed full of convincing ideas that balanced both signatures, plus it was rammed full of clothes you wanted to rip off the models there and then.’ In other words, an art-fashion hybrid that also manages to be genuinely wearable.

The commerciality factor can’t be easily dismissed. While pieces may be useful day-to-day, a special art connection will surely play a big role in turning pieces into collectors’ items.

It’s marketing, too. London-based design duo Teatum Jones have numerous clients from the art world who put a premium on “authenticity—and an interesting backstory might help move a piece.

“The women, and sometimes men, we dress that are involved in the art world are incredibly expressive,” says Catherine Teatum. “An inspiring story about a print that they can then retell to others” or “an understanding of why certain cuts and details have been used throughout a collection” can be what inspires a purchase over and above simple figure flattery.

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This notion of fashion as a kind of wearable narrative is in evidence at industry gatherings like Frieze and Art Basel. The constant thirst for new street-style imagery has made these dates on the art calendar just as much about what everyone is wearing as what they are buying. The Frieze Art Fair, which comes to London each autumn, is “just as much a smorgasbord of designer outfits and buzz handbags as any fashion week,” says Chilvers. “The image that confirmed this for me was the sight of Raf Simons himself at the fair in London, in 2012, wearing a Prada runway coat.”

At London’s Dover Street Market, they’re quite possibly wondering what all the fuss is about. The art-fashion way has been in place here for years (a New York satellite recently opened). All the designs are merchandised as if they are objets d’art in a gallery. There is an installation by artistic collective Gelchop, which houses pieces by Sacai, and a beautiful temporary space to showcase the Spring/Summer 2014 collection by Erdem, which the designer created himself. And, of course, scaffolding and portaloos dripping with paint—which will house the Comme des Garçons collection. The ICA’s exhibition will fit in just seamlessly.