Fashion: When Karl met Zaha

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Designers have always loved a highbrow reference when waxing lyrical about their collections, but these days the fashion world seems locked in a battle of art appreciation one-upmanship.

The trend was all over this summer's catwalks – witness Dolce & Gabbana's Pollock-esque paint spatter, Chloé's bold brushstokes and whimsical illustrations at Prada – but those truly pushing their art-loving status are taking things further.

Karl Lagerfeld, for instance, has commissioned architect du jour Zaha Hadid to create a mobile art pavilion for Chanel. A mini-gallery housing a giant handbag (well, a travelling museum holding Sylvie Fleury's outsized model of the iconic 2.55 bag), it is full of pieces by young artists inspired by that most fertile subject, the, er, Chanel handbag. Marc Jacobs, meanwhile, recruited Richard Prince to make his mark on the classic Louis Vuitton bag, cannily ensuring a commercial hit with creative cachet.

The good old-fashioned patronage we've come to expect from the world of couture also continues, with the famously low-key Parisian designer Agnès B backing a Mike Figgis video installation at Somerset House this month. And the Prada Art Foundation, which has quietly supported emerging talent for 15 years, has recently unveiled plans for a €25m Rem Koolhaas-designed Milan headquarters.

But why are all these designers suddenly feeling a need to adopt an artist? Do we detect a sense of inadequacy here? Dolce & Gabanna's summer collection was, it says, "an homage to modern art and its endless experimentation with materials, colours and ideas". Isn't that what fashion is supposed to be about, anyway?