When is a dress like a house?

A new exhibition explores the relationship between fashion and architecture. Rhiannon Harries dons a hard hat to report on the controversy it has sparked
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A visit to a Prada "epicentre" superstore in New York, LA or Tokyo is all you need to understand the relationship that exists between the worlds of contemporary fashion and architecture in its most basic and direct form.

Whether it's Rem Koolhaas's frontless shop-front on Rodeo Drive or Herzog & de Meuron's dazzling steel and glass structure in the fashionable Aoyama district of the Japanese capital, these are buildings which have made an architectural statement to match the audacity and brilliance of the clothes inside. And, of course, that's precisely what the Italian label had in mind when it commissioned them. A particularly fruitful – if relatively straightforward – case of brand extension, one might conclude.

However, an exhibition opening this week at the Embankment Galleries in London's Somerset House suggests that the dialogue between fashion and architecture goes far beyond such earthly, commercial concerns. "Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture" instead explores the shared concepts and techniques that exist between the disciplines and charts the sociological history of works in both fields since the 1980s.

Such a seemingly academic treatment of the subject might sound off-putting – it's fair to say this is probably not the place to go for ideas on what to wear to go out on a Saturday night – but the resulting collection of photographs, films, architectural models and garments is a satisfying survey of some of the most exciting fashion design and architecture created in the past 20 years.

The London show is a condensed version of an exhibition originally shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, conceived by US curator Brooke Hodge while she was working on a project about the avant-garde Japanese label Comme des Garçons. In a foreword to the "Skin + Bones" catalogue, Hodge says that she was struck by the "visual similarities between clothing design and architectural structure", as well as the aptness of "architectural terminology when describing [Comme des Garçons founder] Rei Kawakubo's garments".

Much of the exhibition, this time designed by Czech architect Eva Jiricna and Somerset House curator Claire Catterall, is devoted to this visual exploration of conversant forms, juxtaposing buildings with garments to highlight the way architects and fashion designers often borrow from each other's language.

A film of the runway presentation of a wedding dress by Yohji Yamamoto in 1999, for example, demonstrates the designer's experimentation with space and volume – the garment's hooped skirt stands so far from the body that it takes on the dimensions of a marquee. Meanwhile, the palanquin hat that crowns the model is so large that it has to be lifted into place on poles by four men in a scene more reminiscent of the TV programme Grand Designs than a fashion show.

Elsewhere, Future Systems' voluptuously curvy Selfridges store in Birmingham shows how architects are able to mimic the organic shapes that clothing achieves by drapery. In this case directly inspired by the 1960s sequinned dresses of Paco Rabanne, the shimmering aluminium discs that cover the building like paillettes also illustrate architects' ability to reproduce the effect of materials only available to fashion designers.

Whether there is any real dialogue occurring between the two fields, however, is a subject of debate. Future Systems architect Amanda Levete and Yamamoto both seem adamant that there remains a fundamental separation between their respective worlds.

"With each building or collection we both want to push the boundaries and take people into different territories," says Levete. "But while we are both contributing to a visual culture, the sensibilities are very different. In architecture you are responding to a brief and a site. Fashion designers are always dealing with the same body to clothe and there aren't necessarily any constraints on how to do that."

Yamamoto, in his characteristically quirky and endearing manner, agrees: "We both work around 'construction', maybe. My structure is the human body, shoulders, backbone. An architect deals with numbers, dos and dont's, computers, design assistants. A fashion designer is using his skills for a moment of beauty, mystery and charm. And he can do it all by himself. It's magic."

Perhaps, then, it is in the differences between the two creative practices and their effects where the real interest of this exhibition lies. Both architect and fashion designer ultimately deal with human bodies – whether individually or en masse – but the extent of the power they wield over us differs.

As Levete points out, "Very few people have the privilege of commissioning an architect. For the majority of people, buildings are there whether you like them or not and they have a profound effect on people. On the other hand, fashion is about choosing a designer who reflects the way you think about yourself and makes you feel good."

What one finally takes away from "Skin + Bones" is a notion of the way fashion designers empower us by giving us a means of control over one aspect of the relationship between our body and our environment. In a very small way, we perform a daily architectural process of our own when we dress ourselves.

Yamamoto sums this up, "We make people happy – where they live and what they wear. The two worlds are apart, but the air is the same. Is a dress like a house? Is a hat like a roof? I ask women, 'May I help you?'"

Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture is at Somerset House, London WC2 (020 7845 4600), from Thursday to 10 August. A book of the same name, by Brooke Hodge and Lisa Mark, is available now

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