Even the most rarefied of fashion designers is unlikely ever to describe him or herself as an artist. That would be rushing in where angels fear to tread. Art is art – a highbrow and only ever a coincidentally commercial pursuit – fashion is fashion, catering to the pretty, privileged and vain. Or so any purists out there might argue. It's a far from modern view, though. Witness the Louis Vuitton flagship store that opened on London's New Bond Street earlier this year with its Michael Landy kinetic sculpture, Damien Hirst monogrammed medicine chest and hugely successful bags designed in collaboration with Takashi Murakami to see how these two apparently very different disciplines benefit one another. Or how about the Prada Foundation in Milan, home to some of the most innovative artworks of the age. The brains behind it – Miuccia Prada and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli – are presumably more than a little aware that if designer fashion is aspirational, fine art is even more so and any association only serves to heighten the outside world's perception of a brand's status and power.
On a more individual level too, practitioners from the world of art and fashion appear to be exploring one another's territory more than ever before. With this in mind, perhaps, next week, Aware: Art Fashion Identity opens at the Royal Academy featuring the work of both artists with more than a passing interest in fashion's expressive powers and fashion designers who demonstrate a cross-disciplinary approach that reaches beyond the creation of pretty clothes for pretty clothes' sake. Work by Marina Abramovic, Grayson Perry, Gillian Wearing, Maison Martin Margiela, Cindy Sherman, Helen Storey, Sharif Waked, Alexander McQueen, Yohji Yamamoto, Andreas Gursky, Yoko Ono, Yinka Shonibare and Hussein Chalayan and more is included. All approach the subject very differently – from Sherman's famous studies of her own identity through clothing to Wearing's exploration of uniform, and here specifically police uniform, as the ultimate coding of cloth. At least part of the strength of the show also lies in the fact that, for at least some of those involved, the very concept of any art/fashion crossover, as well as the notion of both fashion and art as central to a more consumer-driven society, is questioned.
Take Perry whose 2004 Artist's Robe is in pride of place as a prime example. His alter-ego, Claire, we all know, is a permanent fixture on the fashion scene. Any interest in fashion – or indeed anyone moving in art circles who deems themselves fashionable – is tempered by much of his output, however. The title of one pot in particular – Boring Cool People – is a case in point. The Walthamstow Tapestry, meanwhile, that went on display in London in 2009, features as its centrepiece the "Madonna of the Chanel Handbag", a weeping fashion victim with Virgin head-dress (Hermes scarf?) clutching a quilted 2.55 bag. "Maybe she's just realised how bleak the orgasm of purchase actually is," Perry has said.
"The exhibition is based on the exploration of the role of clothing in the artistic practice of a number of contemporary artists," says co-curator Edith Devaney. "They are not restricted by working on any one discipline and many work across a variety of media. In the past, artists tended not to stray from the medium of their formal training. Now it is not unusual for artists to cross over into other disciplines in the creation of their work." And fashion designers, in turn, are ever more preoccupied with more purely artistic pursuits. Helen Storey is a fashion designer-turned-artist/scientist. For some time now, she has been working with a handmade enzyme-based textile of her own making that dissolves or, in the words of Storey herself, "auto-destructs" upon contact with water. Previously, these impossibly delicate, and very beautiful, pieces have been hung from a scaffold then lowered into water-filled bowls to demonstrate just that. "The idea was to create an artistic metaphor that enables us to talk about issues, which fashion, among many other industries, has great difficulty in discussing and resolving," Storey says. "Fashion remains one of the most powerful communicators of our times and therefore by harnessing this medium to engage the public it allowed us to open up a debate about the future of our world and the use of increasingly rare resources. The dresses I created took three years to make and 15 seconds to destroy/dissolve. What better way to make the scale of the challenge immediate."
Think back to the mid-1990s. The Brit Art movement was in its infancy, Brit Pop was on the rise and two young fashion designers, the aforementioned Chalayan and Alexander McQueen, were taking the world by storm with some of the most remarkable, elaborately conceived fashion experiences. Often described as having more in common with art installation than the conventional catwalk presentation, these functioned not only as vital marketing tool but also as highly provocative performances in their own right. The subject matter, in both cases, was far from restricted to any forthcoming skirt length or seasonal colour, focusing instead on some of the most pertinent cultural issues of the age. "When Lee [McQueen] and myself were designing in the mid-Nineties we were poor so we had to find other ways of being creative," Chalayan says. "It was a great moment to create a new energy, a moment where there was room for new-ness."
In fact, Chalayan's position today is unique. Alongside designing his twice-yearly women's wear collections that are shown as part of the Paris ready-to-wear season, he makes a living as a fine artist, selling limited-edition installation, film and sculpture to collectors the world over. "I could always have studied art," Chalayan told The Independent earlier this year. "I was encouraged to study art in my foundation and I have that way of thinking." Like McQueen, he ended up studying fashion at Central Saint Martins nonetheless. "The best part of Saint Martins was that it wasn't so segregated then as it is now. I studied fashion but we mixed with other departments, went to each other's studios. I really always felt that I went to an art school."
"Hussein Chalayan is a perfect example of a fashion designer whose thinking and creativity is completely in keeping with that of an artist and the sense of development of complex ideas is very clear in his work," Devaney says. For Aware, the designer has created a dress inspired by the 300-year-old Japanese tradition of bunraku puppet theatre, an idea that permeates his spring/summer 2011 collection that is inspired by that country's rituals more broadly, but is here presented in rather less obviously commercial – or perhaps simply less functional – form.
For his part, McQueen consistently referenced fine art in his collections. The work of Marc Quinn, Joel-Peter Witkin, Sam Taylor-Wood, the Chapman Brothers (he collaborated with the latter two on more than one occasion) and more all found its way into his oeuvre. Then, of course, there is the designer's final collection to consider, surely the most poignant meeting of art and fashion of them all. For this, McQueen referenced some of his best-loved old masters – Heironymus Bosch, Hugo van der Goes and Jean Fouquet among them – the Gothic woodcarvings of Grinling Gibbons and the grand and golden flourishes of Byzantium, digitally manipulating any imagery before weaving it into the finest cloth. For Aware, the focus is on this designer's impact as a performance artist, however, drawing in particular on his autumn/winter 1998 collection, Joan. Presented on a lava catwalk and accompanied by a soundtrack that crackled with flames, the designer's portrait of the famous martyr saw her in clothing that nodded to historical French armour culminating in her dressed in a blood-red body suit that covered her face entirely and surrounded by a circle of fire.
"I mix art history with modern art and concept, whether it's Flemish old masters, the Chapman Brothers or Sam Taylor-Wood," McQueen, who was himself an avid collector, once told me. Did he consider himself an artist? While others have long been quick to label him thus, the late designer himself was characteristically pragmatic on the subject. "The idea behind Brit Art – the conceptualising of something, which you then take down to a level which will appeal to more than just a few people – is something that I have always identified with. I also like dressing people, though. I want my clothes to be worn.
GSK Contemporary - Aware: Art Fashion Identity, from 2 December to 30 January (020 7300 8000; www.royalacademy.org.uk)