Painted ladies: Artistic fashion for spring 2014

From gallery sets at Chanel to fine-art collaborative handbags at Louis Vuitton and Prada, fashion has discovered the creative – and commercial – value of an arty tie-in for spring/summer 2014. Alexander Fury reports
  • @AlexanderFury

Art and fashion have generally been uneasy bedfellows. After all, when you think about it, they're diametrically opposite. They're both creative – when done well – and primarily visual, regardless of any intellectual concept embedded in the fabric (in the literal and metaphorical sense). But fashion works on a punishing schedule – it's creativity to order, previously biannual and now four times a year at least. Ah, for the indulgence of an artist – presenting work as and when you see fit, albeit with all the additional pressures of a one-shot show. Not to mention the difficulty of selling one gargantuan, monumentally expensive pièce de résistance, without a score of handbags, perfumes and T-shirts to shore the finances up. Then there's the plain and simple fact that fashion is, by its nature, a fleeting thing. You're in fashion one moment, and out of fashion the next. A good work of art should stand the test of time, not the test of taste.

Nevertheless art and fashion do sometimes fuse, with mixed degrees of success. They fuse frequently, with flaws, in industry hyperbole, where any especially good collection is referred to as "art", rather than what it is: a great piece of applied design. Fashion designers themselves aren't so keen on those epithets: the couturier Christian Lacroix once declared: "We are not artists, we are artisans." And when Coco Chanel referred to her great 1930s fashion rival Elsa Schiaparelli as "that Italian artist who makes dresses", the A-word was a pejorative.

Arty-farty pretensions are usually frowned upon in the fashion world. Yves Saint Laurent could get away with it, with his five-figure hand-embroidered haute couture jackets inspired by Van Gogh's Irises and Sunflowers. Any lesser talent trying to do the same has tended to come a cropper.

Until spring/summer 2014, that is. Art isn't just an inspiration for spring, it's a trend. Designers have mined the art world for inspiration for years – those Saint Laurent homage pieces are the highest example, but it's rare you see a designer mood board without a postcard from the Tate pinned on to it.

This season, however, art has made the leap from the drawing board onto our backs. Prada painted faces across shift dresses and printed them on to classic leather bags; Phoebe Philo at Céline created jacquard knits imitating freehand swirls of pigment; Giles Deacon beaded Warholian lips on to short cocktail dresses.

The most extreme example, as is so often the case, came from Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel – ironically, really, given Coco's feelings about artists-cum-fashion designers. Last October, Kaiser Karl rigged out his show venue as a hyper-fashionable Tate Modern, packed with ersatz, Chanel-inspired artworks in the style of everyone from Jackson Pollock, to Claes Oldenberg and Jeff Koons. The clothes themselves were dappled with paint-spectrum prints, or had detail painted onto them, jackets hanging flat like canvasses against the body. There were even a few art-school student details, such as a giant portfolio quilted like a classic Chanel 2.55, and scruffy canvas backpacks daubed with graffiti and smudged with paint. Those are retailing for just over £2,000.

That price tag perhaps indicates the reason why fashion has chosen to fuse itself with art. It adds capital – monetary, sure, but also cultural capital. Lagerfeld faked his, but many designers hook up directly with contemporary artists to create pieces that genuinely cross the boundary between fine art and fine fashion. Last season, Louis Vuitton menswear head Kim Jones tapped Jake and Dinos Chapman to devise a print based on their trademark monstrous creatures.

"There is a shared territory," said Dinos Chapman of that Louis Vuitton collaboration. "If you buy a print, the artist won't have actually touched it, but you are still buying into that artist. I suppose the people who are buying the bags are the kind of people who would buy the work."

Those bags were commercially available, albeit in limited numbers. Prada took the idea one step further in October 2013, collaborating with Damien Hirst to create a clutch of handbags. Titled "Entomology", the bags contained beaded bugs and real insect specimens, displayed under and over a plexiglass case. Only 20 were produced, sold by silent auction, like… well, like works of art.

The taste for sartorial artiness shows no signs of abating for autumn/winter 2014. In January, the radical menswear designer Raf Simons showed his collection as a joint venture with the Californian conceptual artist Sterling Ruby. Ruby not only worked with Simons to design the clothes and devise the set in a process that both declared as entirely collaborative, but Simons even went so far as to rebrand his label: for one season only, the line is known as Raf Simons/Sterling Ruby.

What does this all add up to, then? The commodification of art? Didn't that start with Dali and Warhol, though, both of whom were keen on an art/fashion crossover. Or maybe it's about trying to add another zero to designer price-tags: see the show, buy the work, then buy the bag that costs almost as much?

The blurring of the art/fashion lines leads to an interesting tension. God knows how much those Prada/Hirst handbags sold for, and whether the buyers intend to use them or merely to display them on a plinth. When asked the same question about his limited-edition Vuitton bags, Dinos Chapman deadpanned: "I imagine the best use for one of those bags is to carry a lot of money around."

The traditional codes of luxury seem to be fading away – you can buy cashmere and beaded coats on the high street, even with a designer label, thanks to boldface hook-ups from the likes of H&M, Topshop and Target. Art has become the new luxury. It's something only money can buy. While the high street can imitate the painterly effects of Chanel and Céline, the genuine tie-ins of Prada and Vuitton remain elusive. Maybe an art-house name has supplanted the designer brand in our desirability stakes?