The highest of high-concept fashion used to be reserved for the runway. The fall 2008 collection for Yves Saint Laurent sent down an army of models resembling futuristic utopian robots with matching black bowl wigs, slivers of rectangular sunglasses and expressionless, colorless faces stamped only with precise, inky black lipstick. It was a jolting moment in fashion, as the temper of the collections up until that point felt Victorian and romantic, lush and cinematic. And here was this misfit collection, a manic allegiance to austerity and tailoring, refusing to bend to emotion, tradition or even color, and the global fashion community could not catch a breath. Before the black lipstick could even be wiped off, the dissection for meaning began.
We could cite many examples of landmark shows like this: Alexander McQueen’s Highland Rape collection in 1995, Hussein Chalayan’s theatrical spring 2000 show, Rei Kawakubo’s supremely original spring show in 1982, which all seemed to catch us off guard, both visually and philosophically. What is it about clothing, specifically, that has the power to be both simple and complex, both ephemeral and ethereal?
And these days, when high and low, left and right, up and down are all put through the motor of the social media blender, high-concept fashion is everywhere. Last month, New Zealand born artist Simon Denny opened a new show called “Security Through Obscurity” at a San Francisco gallery for which he intended to explore capitalism, income inequality and the coping of humans in a digital world. On display are Patagonia puffer vests (notoriously worn by venture capitalists and C-level employees of technology companies) whose nylon shells were replaced by silk scarves once belonging to Margaret Thatcher. Another series involved Patagonia mummy sleeping bags also covered in more of the former prime minister’s scarves to nod to the growing homeless population in San Francisco.
Of course, fashion has long been used as a vehicle to confront social issues: Takashi Murakami’s graffiti art for Louis Vuitton, Moschino’s Happy Meal bag, the Glock handgun in Tiffany blue. And as life continues to become visually driven, clothing and fashion have become even more of a mechanism to signal, both subliminally and explicitly.
The reason why fashion works in art as well as it does in practical life is because it functions both as a need and a want, is fully accessible along the socioeconomic spectrum and will never reach obsolescence. And for artists like Denny, fashion is an especially important point of entry because it can speak to a niche of people as well as the masses, at the same time. No matter if it is the wool harem pant from Gucci, linen paper-bag shorts from J.Crew or Levi’s 501 rigid denim, everyone universally understands what pants are and their role in life. It is fashion’s closed circuit in transferring from humble to otherworldly and back again that gives it a constant power and relevance in life and increasingly in art.
In the fall of 2008 when YSL’s collection landed in stores, I beelined to a Neiman Marcus counter, heart racing, to buy the limited-edition lip gloss that was formulated for the runway show. When I applied it, I felt an uncontainable sense of adrenaline, delight and transformation. Not surprisingly, the squid ink colored lip gloss did not go over as well when I debuted it at a dinner party later that night. Nobody mistook me for a model cum automaton that night, but the moment, which still swims around in my consciousness today, forever cemented my allegiance to fashion, and to robots.