Men's fashion special It is a question that is raised repeatedly: does fashion constitute an art form? A show at London's Victoria & Albert Museum may answer it.
Works of art, ready to wear
London's Victoria & Albert Museum is playing host to an exciting new fashion display. Future Fashion Now: New Design from the Royal College of Art showcases the designs of RCA graduates, featuring highlights from their final collections and aspects of their design process through preliminary sketches, illustrations, models and finished garments. The display features 55 outfits of men's and women's wear, as well as accessories and sketchbooks. It is divided into four sections to explore elements of the design process, ranging from concept and form to technique and detail.
In presenting the creative process in its entirety, the exhibition raises the question - does fashion constitute an art form? Looking at the originality, imagination and creativity of the RCA's Katie Eary's military-inspired crystal-encrusted jacket, Heikki Salonen's sharply tailored womenswear, Nina Hjorth's extreme high-heeled shoes, Siri Johansen's men's oversize cableknit jumper, Iacopo Calamandrei's padded silk dress printed with digitally manipulated images, Benjamin Shun Lai Ng's crystal-studded footwear and Adrian Sommerauer's beautifully detailed menswear, fashion's encroachment on the world of art becomes evident. The graduates create their work using both traditional and modern methods such as laser cutting, bonding, digital printing and sophisticated rapid prototyping.
Yet despite such creative merit, fashion like this has suffered from a lack of critical analysis, denied artistic agency and relegated to the realms of the superficial while contemporary art is celebrated as commentator and zeitgeist-capturer. With such artists as Damien Hirst and the Chapman brothers siphoning off the production of their work to team members in far-flung factories, it is refreshing to be reminded of the wholeness of the artistic process. "A lot of people don't understand how the original concept is developed," says Professor Wendy Dagworthy, head of the school fashion and textiles at the Royal College of Art. "Personal research spurs you on to produce a different collection every season. It is interesting to have an appreciation of the designer's motivation and craft.
"The designs on display at the Future Fashion Now exhibition are very progressive. These are designs that challenge the status quo. At the RCA, we encourage students to look forward, not to repeat what has already happened, but instead to do something innovative." "Designers like those included in the exhibition are taking menswear in particular to a new level. They are confronting stereotypes and shifting expectations. Menswear is always slower to adapt to change, but we aren't talking about moving a lapel or adding an extra button here. This is forward-thinking fashion."
It is fitting that the RCA show is being held in conjunction with the V&A, a museum that has always granted fashion the kudos afforded to art. Its collection includes dress from the 17th century to the present day, with the emphasis on progressive and influential designs from the major fashion centres of Europe. "Fashion goes hand-in-hand with art", says Dagworthy. "It doesn't need to be either or. Ultimately for the designers in our show it is the clothing that is important, whether it is desirable and beautiful and whether it conveys their message. For them, art and fashion are worlds that feed off each other."
This interrelation means that designs by John Galliano and Osman Yousefzada can sit comfortably next to work by Zaha Hadid at a Design Museum exhibition, or that the Prada Foundation can build a museum in Milan to host new art projects alongside their own fashion collections. Fashion, in its ability to shape identity, doesn't need to be categorised as art. Great fashion warrants gallery space. It deserves to be looked at and admired. But it also deserves to be worn and celebrated for exactly what it is.