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Is Style the Art of Fashion?

In a fascinating lecture that marked the opening of the Art of Fashion Symposium, Dingeman Kuilman deconstructed the "Is fashion art debate?" using Yves Saint Laurent's Ligne Mondrian collection.  Interestingly, he found that it might be style, rather than art that we should be focussing on.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 24-09-2009

This week saw a day of debate during the The Art of Fashion symposium, a collaboration between ArtEZ, Premsela – Dutch Platform for Design and fashion, and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam.  The symposium marked the opening of the “The Art of Fashion: Installing Allusions” exhibition that runs through until January 10th 2010.

In Part I of our coverage we look at the views of Dingeman Kuilman, managing director of Premsela, as given in a lecture about Yves Saint Laurent’s Ligne Mondrian dresses that he designed in 1965.  The dresses, inspired by the Dutch painter Piet Mondriaan’s neo-plasticism, represent one of fashion’s finest examples of its potential synthesis with art.  

In his deconstruction of whether the Ligne Mondrian ultimately proves any sort of meaningful relationship between fashion and art, Kuilman worked through the possibilities. He showed that there was never any personal relationship between the two men, and finds that the connection between the dresses and the paintings is minimal at best, both compositionally and in terms of colour – Mondriaan never used taupe, hot pink or dark green, for example, and utilizing a limited palette was central to his ideas.  And of course the three dimensions of a dress are a complete reversal of what Mondriaan was essentially attempting, namely, to destroy volume.

But the most essential difference between Mondriaan and Saint Laurent or between art and fashion is that Mondriaan believed art should be uncompromisingly abstract. “[He thought that the] the New Plastic [was] equivalent to nature and that the work of art no longer bears any visual resemblance to natural proportion,” Kuilman said.  “When Saint Laurent used Mondriaan’s work in fashion, he negated this abstraction: he made the abstract paintings concrete in his ‘natural’ garments.”

Kuilman went on to question what relationship the Ligne Mondrian had with De Stijl, the Dutch modernist movement of which Mondriaan was a key member.  “The members of De Stijl kept well away from designing clothes,” he said. “This was probably not a conscious choice but a question of interest and talent: in principle, De Stijl focused on ‘all facets of life’.  

“This absence of fashion leaves room to speculate about Saint Laurent as a late adherent of De Stijl,” Kuilman continued. “At first glance, a case can be made. The red-blue-and-yellow dress would not look out of place next to Rietveld’s red-and-blue chair of 1918 and Oud’s 1925 facade for Café De Unie. The elements Oud referred to as architecture’s ‘primary plastic means’ are also present in the dress: proportion, rhythm, and tension between the vertical and the horizontal.”

But any kinship between the Ligne Mondrian and De Stijl was, as Kuilman put it, purely formal.  “The visual language of De Stijl is the expression of a utopia in which the balance between idea and matter is restored,” he said.  “But ideology played no role for Saint Laurent. His conception of style was undogmatic and eclectic. He used ‘the style of the future’ as the style of the present. Or, as he later noted in a drawing, as ‘fantasy in the swinging sixties.’”

Kuilman’s conclusion, then, is despite claims to the contrary, there is little substance to the popular notion that art and fashion can be one and the same.  The two men remained strangers, the dresses and paintings conflict with each other in essential ways and Saint Laurent’s aesthetic remained off-focus in terms of De Stijl’s. “Saint Laurent created the illusion of a creative relationship with Mondriaan”, he said, “but in reality, he recreated the painter’s aesthetic system within the sphere of 1965 fashion.”

Saint Laurent, therefore, was only a fashion designer, albeit one who appropriated some of the credible and most importantly immortal qualities of the artist – that of authenticity and iconoclasm.  By incorporating art’s ideals into his own style, he perhaps sought higher moral ground.

And the source of Saint Laurent’s style was of course the event that he referred back to time and again – the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, held in 1925 in Paris.  “There, out of the multiple influences of modern art, architecture, industry and ‘primitive’ cultures,” says Kuilman, “a style was born that would conquer the world in subsequent decades - art deco.”

And it’s here, on the issue of style, where Kuilman discovers that the debate over fashion and art loses momentum.  Using photographs of Saint Laurent’s Paris apartment, he suggests that style is never mentioned but that it is style, a concept that runs morally and physically deep, that is of the utmost importance.   

To delve into this less understood domain of style, Kuilman refers to Susan Sontag’s essay on the subject where she quotes Jean Cocteau.  “Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us, the soul assumes the form of the body. Even if one were to define style as the manner of our appearing, this by no means necessarily entails an opposition between a style that one assumes and one’s ‘true’ being. In fact, such a disjunction is extremely rare. In almost every case, our manner of appearing is our manner of being. The mask is the face.”

So Kuilman’s conclusion, therefore, is that there is no conflict between form and content and thus the opposition that has evolved between art and ideas on the one hand and fashion and style on the other is meaningless.  

“With his Ligne Mondrian, Saint Laurent demonstrates that style is a much more complex, rich concept than the polarisation between fashion and art supposes,” Kuilman said.  “For him, fashion is therefore a vehicle for style, rather than vice versa. In his words, ‘Fashions pass, style is eternal. Fashion is futile, style is not.’ He is implying that he sees style and art as equivalent and that the relationship between the two is thus of a different, much greater importance than that between fashion and art.”

“The Art of Fashion: Installing Allusions” exhibition runs through until January 10th 2010.  It is curated by José Teunissen, a lecturer at ArtEZ and designed by Judith Clarke.

Images: large Yves Saint Laurent in the grand salon of his apartment on Rue de Babylone with model Sibyl Buck, October 27, 1995. They are surrounded by the Surrealist-period Léger painting The Black Profile (1928), and Jean Dunand’s 1925 Art Deco brass-and-lacquer vase.  Small from top - Dingeman Kuilman, the Ligne Mondrian Day Dress - autumn 1965 - Wool jersey in color blocks of white, red, blue, black, and yellow, Rietveld's chair, 1925 Paris expo poster, Yves Saint Laurent.

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