Is Fashion Art? Ft. Balenciaga and Anna Sui

One of many Anna Sui Mood Boards at the Fashion and Textile Museum London

One of the many perks of living in London is being spoiled with world class exhibitions, celebrating many of the world’s great visionaries. This particular weekend saw the opening of two such visionaries – both very different in their own ways – Anna Sui and Cristobal Balenciaga. Interlinked with Sui drawing influence from Balenciaga, and both sparking food for thought.

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum recognised the 100th founding anniversary of “The King” of couture with a retrospective “Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion” (until 18 February 2018). The fabled  Spanish designer has been considered by Christian Dior as “The Master of us all” and by Coco Chanel “as a couturier in the truest sense of the word… The others are simply fashion designers.” Being such a pivotal figure for modern fashion shaping design, the expectations were high to do his creations and visions justice.

X-rays by Nick Veasey, 2016 © NICK VEASEY

Having pre-booked my ticket for the exhibition’s opening, I wasn’t anticipating the mass of other visitors which resulted in a bit of a push and shove fest on the very cramped floor level which featured the designer’s original designs. I found it a shame that these iconic pieces were squashed in this tiny space. To read the information plaques, everyone was peering over one another’s heads to catch a few phrases for context. Nevertheless it was a joy to see these sculptured pieces up close, appreciating each meticulous detail. The X-Ray images of two evening dresses by Nick Veasey added an excellent layer of appreciation in regards to craftsmanship and the talent of the pieces’ creator revealing the intimate secrets of the dress’ unusual shaping. It also was fascinating to see the pieces ordered by Balenciaga’s loyal customers, reminding us of a extinct time when luxury meant true luxury. Again, it was a shame to cramp these iconic works of art.

In contrast, the upstair level of the exhibition was gigantic in comparison, featuring designer’s work who were either mentored by Balenciaga himself, such as Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, or Paco Rabanne or influenced by his work such as Molly Goddard, and Rei Kawakubo among others.  Naturally, pieces by Balenciaga’s successors Nicolas Ghesquiere and Demna Gvasalia were featured emphasising that design house codes are alive and well even today. Yes, it was nice to see the comparisons of original Balenciaga and those influenced by him (even loosely), however the exhibition curated by Cassie Davies-Strodder struggled to fully capture the essence of one of the original fashion greats.

Green silk gazar dress, 1961 Balenciaga

Balenciaga Coat 1950

Custom Balenciaga design for one of his many American clients

Spiral silk hat, Balenciaga for Eisa, 1962, Spain

On the other hand, “The World of Anna Sui” at the Fashion and Textile Museum carefully led the audience onto a psychedelic journey, to follow the footsteps of one of America’s great designers – from her early inspirations, to mood boards from this season’s collection. Curator Dennis Nothdruft truly brought the spirit of the designer’s rock and roll romanticism into the museum tying everything together beautifully. The exhibition was a complete narrative from Sui’s inspiration as a young girl growing up in Detroit to her rapid accent to success in the early 1990’s to her reigning influence today. As the collections were not behind glasses displays, you felt more connected to them as they became part of your own world and not something separate – like the clothing Anna Sui creates. Her eclectic punk (with optimism) brought unity to each display (including Nomads, Hippies, Punks, Surfer, Androgyny to Rock Star) and made you appreciate that it’s not the tailoring of techniques themselves, but the lifestyle and spirit Sui exhibits. Pure unfiltered happiness and unabashed “what you see is what you get”.

Mohair dress suit inspired by Balenciaga

Anna Sui William Morris Inspired Collection

Anna Sui Punk – Classic Avril Lavigne 😉

Nomad Collection Anna Sui

I personally did not know how much Sui shaped the aesthetics of the early 2000s. Her interpretation of punk was adopted by pop culture icons including Panic at the Disco, Simple Plan, Avril Lavigne and even my 3rd grade idol Hilary Duff  sparking a real #TBT moment. How strange to now look back at youth with nostalgia.

After the exhibition, I treated myself to a delicious gelato from Borough Market (chocolate and mango flavours), strolled across Millennium bridge and processed the significance of fashion exhibitions. Is all fashion art? Is some fashion art? Are fashion and art two separate mediums? *SPLAT* [as the chocolate gelato drips onto my blouse]

Apart from these curated exhibitions, a recent example imposing this art/fashion question is the recent collaboration between Jeff Koons and Louis Vuitton producing scarves, key chains, small leather goods, and of course hand bags. The collaboration featured five of the most famous paintings in history, including the “Mona Lisa,”  Fragonard’s “Girl With a Dog,” and Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field”. These masterpieces – priceless in their cultural value – are plastered on Louis Vuitton handbags such as the “Never-full” with each bag decorated with bling-age: fat gold or silver letters spelling the artist’s name similar to icy-fresh hip-hop jewellery. One bottom corner features “JF” – Koons’s initials and in the other corner  Louis Vuitton’s logo, with Vuitton icons sprinkled across the rest of the “canvas”. The result is at best a tacky souvenir from a museum shop.

Jeff Koons x Louis Vuitton Masters Collaboration

The collaboration has in my opinion been best described by Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times:

“On one hand, Vuitton is exploiting art for its own gain. On the other, an artist is selling out. In the middle, consumers are being introduced to great art as if it is disposable.”

Nothing else needs to be said on the Koons x LV subject.

This example makes the case that fashion simply leeches off art, crunching raw human emotion and interpretation into calculated commercial outputs. However, when seeing the structural draping of  a Balenciaga, the marriage of fashion and music of an Anna Sui, the silhouette revolutions championed by a Dior of a Chanel, or the paradigm shifting provocation by a Martin Margiella, Yves Saint Laurent or Alexander McQueen – fashion and art are synonymous, they are one and the same. Oozing expression with imaginative purpose. But with short term profits overshadowing long term value, I fear we will see more Koons x LV and less Cristobal Balenciaga’s. Let’s hope I’m wrong!