An amorphous white dress, like an alien wedding frock, crafted from 14,000 rubber gloves; a black leather ballgown bristling with 43kg of dressmaking pins; mind-boggling numbers of latex balloons hand-knotted into a floor-skimming fringed opera-coat – are they art, or are they fashion? The answer could be both.
In fact, however, the above are not avant-garde couture but pieces of fine art by Susie MacMurray, whose work currently features in the Victoria & Albert museum’s exhibition “The Power of Making,” and also a solo exhibition at the Agnew gallery in Mayfair. “Power/fragility, seduction/repulsion, terror/wonder – I am drawn to materials that help me make sense of these juxtapositions,” explains Ms MacMurray, but her words could just as well apply to much of the autumn/winter collections, from Marc Jacobs’ lacerated patent leather inch-squared sequins at Louis Vuitton to Sarah Burton’s pieced bodices in shattered porcelain at Alexander McQueen; Prada’s shifts splattered with giant pailettes and coat’s frotted with fake fur; and even Céline’s coats of multicoloured mink clashed with bonded wool and a natty line in walnut-print sateen. They are all, as curator and gallerist Carrie Scott of CS &P Art Advisory says of MacMurray’s work, “landscapes of touch and feel; graceful visual diaries of a process.” Put another way: in fashion, as in art, it’s the texture that makes the difference.
Young London designer Michael Van Der Ham’s creative approach to clothing, for example, was inspired by Andy Warhol’s “composite” dresses of 1975, where the artist hacked up garments by leading designers and combined them into new creations. “I loved how naïve they look and how funny the idea is of cutting up luxury dresses from De la Renta and Valentino,” Van Der Ham says. Accordingly, he has used everything from humble Liberty print cotton to brocade and velvet to jigsaw his inventive garments around the body.
Meanwhile, Dries Van Noten has patched and woven fabrics together since his career began. “For me, the idea of mixing and marrying different colours, fabrics and textures is always a challenge,” the designer says. “Part of what I try to do in each collection is to really work on elements that I think can’t go together.” Case in point: this season’s Ballets Russes/Ziggy Stardust juxtaposition, jarring contrasts of sharp, androgynous seventies tailoring with the flowing fabrics and brilliant colours beloved of Nijinsky and Diaghliev.
“No one is able to control and combine textures and patterns the way that Dries does,” says Ruth Runberg, Buying Director at Browns. “Within weeks of delivery, we had sold out of his black and white graphic print silk blouse covered in a panel of tiny gold rectangular sequins.” Yet Van Noten has recently decided to push his signature mismatch approach a step further, with a made-to-order version of his £880 ‘Daya’ dress, a sleek sheath patchworked from five panels of different fabric. At Berlin boutique Andreas Murkudis each customer can select their own choice of fabrics from the Van Noten archives to be worked into their own take on the Daya. It’s a clever twist, playing to the make-do-and-mend folksy connotations of clashing textures, while at the same time giving them a high-fashion, haute couture gloss of exclusivity.
Indeed, couture may be the ultimate practical (using that word in relative terms) expression of what Scott describes, vis-à-vis MacMurray’s garment sculptures, “as a sort of exercise in balancing decadence against the purity of the completed composition.”
Simply consider Riccardo Tisci’s recent couture collections for Givenchy, exactingly focused on dazzling and intricate surface texture, with slim, floor-length gowns pricked with embroidery and smothered in feathers. If MacMurray seizes the found object to transform the mundane into the divine, Tisci takes the already-pretty-sublime and pushes it where no petite mains have gone before: into a column dress entirely crafted from a honeycomb of lace and tulle sequins that took 3,000 hours to hand-cut and sew.
The real question posed by all this, of course, is: Can I wear it, or is it art? Given the cost of today’s high fashion, whether ready-to-wear or couture, perhaps the best answer is both. As Michael Van Der Ham says, “I love it when girls tell me they bought a dress of mine not just to wear, but also to hang on their wall.”
Alex Fury is Fashion Director of Showstudio
‘Susie MacMurray: The Eyes of the Skin’, until December 2 at Agnew’s. www.agnewsgallery.com
‘The Power of Making’, until January 2 2012 at the V&A, www.vam.ac.uk