Perfect match: How the crossover between fashion and art inspires creations on canvas and the catwalk

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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future