The fine art of fashion

Suddenly, high culture can't get enough of fashion. And fashion is loving every minute of it. Just who is hitching a ride on whose coat- tails? Dominic Lutyens on a meeting of minds
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When Vivienne Westwood first bewailed the philistinism of contemporary culture, it put her out on a very lonely limb. Six years ago, La Grande Dame de la Mode aimed to go a cut above tailoring by opening an intellectual salon, remember? Thus could she offer the culturally dispossessed a refuge from stultifying mediocrity, a platform for their achingly sensitive insights. Now Viv's at it again: the salon, she said recently, will happen, this time in Paris.

Yet, somehow, in 1998, the idea no longer sounds so absurd, as "high culture" eagerly embraces the world of fashion. Take novelist Jay McInerney's new book about supermodels, Model Behaviour. Writing in the Guardian, he admitted people ask: why write about fashion? Disappointingly for some, perhaps, his answer was hardly Delphic: novelists must focus on the mood of the day. "Fashion," he declared, "has never been more fashionable." ABC, he pointed out, is adding half an hour to its Oscars coverage next year to discuss the stars' outfits, and will broadcast some Paris collections. Yet, he says, "Fashion was a specialised area of interest when I wrote Bright Lights, Big City, in the early Eighties. The heterosexual man on the street would not have been able to name three fashion designers, let alone three models." So true. Back then, your average bloke was more likely to have heard of Concept Man than Commes des Garcons.

The Hampstead Theatre is about to stage Full Gallop, a play about Diana Vreeland - she of the philosophically mind-blowing statement, "Pink is the navy blue of India." Christie's now holds six clothing sales a year: swank labels, from Courreges to Westwood, sell best. In October, the Hayward Gallery is mounting "Addressing the Century: 100 Years of Art and Fashion". Designed by Zaha Hadid, it will explore the cross-pollination of fashion and art in the 20th century. Besides paying tribute to the influence of Matisse and Man Ray on fashion, the exhibition celebrates various designers' forays into art by, among others, Paul Poiret, Elsa Schiaparelli and Issey Miyake.

This autumn, the ICA will screen film-maker TJ Wilcox's portrait of Thirties dandy Stephen Tennant, played by grand-niece Stella, and his short, The Escape of Marie Antoinette, which incorporates clips from John Galliano collections. They will also show snapper Gavin Fernandes' photos of models backstage at Tristan Webber's autumn/winter 98 collection. Next year, Vanessa Beecroft, a feminist who works with live models to comment on fashion, will be collaborating with Gucci. Michael Raedecker, a fashion designer-turned-artist, is about to exhibit paintings of David Lynch-esque bungalows incorporating stitches at the ICA group show, "Die Young Stay Pretty". The Serpentine Gallery's current show, "Loose Threads", features artists who work with thread, while the Crafts Council's upcoming "Satellites of Fashion" will examine the fashion/craft crossover. "It's the first fashion-related exhibition we've held in 10 years," says Louise Taylor, exhibitions organiser at the Crafts Council. "People are taking previously neglected areas of culture, like fashion and fashion photography, more seriously now. Look at the Photographers' Gallery's recent Juergen Teller show."

Teller aside, recent fashion-orientated London exhibitions have included Emily Tsingou Gallery's show on snapper Henry Bond, Mission's Diesel exhibition (which exposed the fashion label's entire design process, from inspiration to finished product). The Barbican's recent show, "Absolut Cobblers", invited artists, including Martin Fletcher, and designers, such as Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo, to create "shoes as art". And, of course, it put on "The Warhol Look: Glamour, Fashion, Style".

It's not an unprecedented phenomenon. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, the ICA staged fashion shows by designers like BodyMap and Rachel Auburn, while the Victoria & Albert Museum's Eighties Boilerhouse space paid homage to "conceptual" designer Issey Miyake. In the Nineties, there's been the V&A's "Streetstyle" show, the Barbican's JAM - a melting-pot happening, fusing fashion, music, photography and advertising - and Helen and Kate Storey's ICA show, "Primitive Streak", about embryology. Even so, in the late Nineties, fashion is swaggering into the high culture spotlight more confidently than ever. But why?

"Fashion isn't viewed in isolation now. It's about lifestyle," believes Damian Thompson, account director at PR firm Cohn & Wolfe. (With Absolut Vodka as a major client, he was involved in "Absolut Cobblers".) "Gucci and Prada are just as much about pillows and candles as clothes."

"Fashion has a very broad, immediate appeal," says Yvonne Courtney, who runs Mission. "Within days of a catwalk show, we see it on telly, on a website or in a magazine." Claire Wilcox, a writer and curator based part time at the V&A, proffers a loftier explanation: "Feminist critics and dress historians who've taken fashion seriously have given it some gravitas."

Vivian Gaskin, live arts programmer at the ICA, has another theory: "Lifestyle magazines like Dazed & Confused and the Face have done a lot to conflate art and fashion by mixing them on the same page." According to Fiona Bradley, exhibitions organiser at the Hayward: "More people are visiting galleries than have for a long time. This raises a visual awareness that spills over into other areas, like fashion."

But why are the galleries gaga about it? In the case of the Barbican exhibition, "Absolut is perceived as an interesting organisation," says Thompson. "The Barbican thought we'd attract a different audience, not just those who solely go to art shows. These days, all arts organisations want to expand their audiences. Increasingly, galleries have got development officers, who look into sponsorship. Galleries have to prove they're getting x amount of visitors a week, otherwise the Government won't give them money for their next show."

Clothes Show Live presenter Caryn Franklin, meanwhile, believes: "Museum shows on fashion reflect the enormous surge of energy of British designers. Britain is a very small island with a small customer base, yet its designers have international status, which our museum culture is celebrating."

John Wilson, chief executive of the British Fashion Council, believes the Government is taking fashion more seriously: "During the last government, support came from the DTI, which looked at fashion purely as a manufacturing industry. But the new Ministry of Culture is addressing the importance of creativity, and has earmarked cash for designers." What's more, a Government taskforce - Wilson is a member - aims to pool the talents of bigwigs from all areas of the arts.

Even so, this mixing of the arts (albeit the visual ones) has always been endorsed by the British art school system. And it's a major contributing factor to the cross-fertilisation of fashion and fine art. "We don't have art institutions that are different from design institutions," says Jane Rampley, Dean of the School of Fashion and Textiles at Central St Martin's. "Our foundation students have always worked across different disciplines, from fine art to fashion. Starting from that conceptual base makes it easier for everyone, from fashion designers to ceramicists, to transfer their skills to the sphere of high culture."

Peter York agrees: "There's a strong British art school contingent scattered across Europe who want to do 'art'." Not that he frowns on outre Britfash. "Long may they be ridiculous and pretentious. Who wants the haute-bourgeois tradition of clothes - 'nice', 'appropriate' clothes?"

Franklin, too, is a fan of "difficult" British fashion: "You need the 'high culture' of Hussein Chalayan and co, who provide the space for exploration of ideas. Without them, any sort of debate quickly dries up." If heavily conceptual clothing is ubiquitous now, it's just that it's taken years to filter into the mainstream," says York. This "intellectual" take on fashion is one of the main reasons why high culture is enthralled by what it would have once deemed mere frippery. "Hussein Chalayan and Tristan Webber design deliberately for an art-based context," says Gavin Fernandes. "Their clothes appear in galleries or arty magazines like Visionaire, Purple Fashion, Spoon and It. Chalayan, for example, did a collection about digital progression with models with red lights in their mouths. Like McQueen, their catwalk shows are more like performance art."

Certainly, Brit designers have a monopoly on weird. Forget ivory-tower recluses Martin Margiela and Rei Kawakebo protege Junya Watanabe - whose intellectual cachet, incidentally, is boosted, very predictably, by their interview-shunning policy. Here in Albion we have artist Lucy Orta, whose "Survival Gear" tents double as dresses (we're not talking Seventies maternity smocks, either). Then there's London fashion outfit Vexed Generation. "Their first collection included hoods with masks that covered your face," recalls Thompson. "It was a reaction to the new social environment where CCTV cameras were being placed in the City."

There is, of course, a crueller theory for fashion's exalted status: "We live in a pretentious age. Galleries and designers alike want to think they're important, sociological," says York, jumping for the jugular. "You get fashion PRs saying the most mad stuff. Fashion designers elevate themselves by talking about art, saying they buy art, in case anyone should think they're just making frocks." Glaskin is somewhat kinder: "Everyone wants to be an 'artist' today. But so what? I think the loosening of boundaries is wonderful. It creates a lot of experimentation."