Fashion retrospectives in art galleries: are they simply good marketing? Do fashion designers, or for that matter architects or any other designer, ever belong in an art gallery?
I promise I won’t get too philosophical on you. Suffice to say that minds far greater than mine have argued about whether great design can be considered art for a very long time. Deyan Sudjic’s The Language of Things has a lot of excellent things to say about this.
One of the strongest arguments for the distinction between design and art is functionality. As Sudjic argues, the less useful something is, the more likely it is to be considered art.
And by this measure, the National Gallery of Victoria’s latest exhibition ‘Viktor and Rolf: Fashion Artists’ is on point.
Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren formed a creative partnership straight out of design school in 1992. The two have been drawn to conceptual fashion bordering on art from the beginning. And although their early collections met critical acclaim, they were largely ignored by buyers and consumers.
Viktor and Rolf have oscillated between ready to wear collections and Haute Couture. From 2008 onwards, they abandoned ready to wear in favour of haute couture where they could experiment more.
Their 2015 Haute Couture collection was Viktor and Rolf’s most obvious exploration of the line between fashion/design and art. Beautiful dresses, complete with hinged frames were sent down the runway on models before being removed by the designers and hung directly on the wall.
The dresses were stunning in person. The frames added an insouciance to the garment while the images on the fabric were all Dutch Golden Age seriousness.
Perhaps this was the designers’ way of saying that their work is both art and design. Although the risk is that, having lost the function of their design they’ve rendered their work neither.
The highlight of the exhibition for me was the Timepiece installation. It was specially commissioned for the NGV exhibition and consists of a porcelain doll walking the run way every 15 minutes.
Between shows a beautiful clock in the form of Viktor and Rolf’s brand seal ticks loudly, marking the anticipation before a show and symbolising the continual cycle of creation, collection, creation. As the doll prepares to appear, pseudo camera lights begin flashing and the sounds of an eager crowd grow louder. As she exits the runway, we are left in silence. Deflated.
For me it was the most visceral and captivating part of the exhibition. And perhaps this is fitting. It was afterall, the only piece commissioned specifically for a gallery space.
For time immemorial, we've held art up as an absolute truth; a beauty that exists for no other reason than itself. When we say of a designer that they are an artist, we are attempting to elevate them above their peers. Yet in doing so, we underestimate the exquisite talent required to take something beautiful and make it also useful.
It makes me think that as much as fashion may be art, it is still at its best when it is moving and shared between those wearing it and those seeing it. That is, when it is functioning largely as intended.