Writing Art History Since 2002

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Ever since French fashion designer Paul Poiret let his love of Russian Impressionist paintings spill over into his dress designs, there’s been an undeniable borrowing of art in the fashion world.

A generation after Poiret’s pretty dresses, Schiaparelli commissioned her Surrealist friends Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau to create fabrics. In the 1960s, Paco Rabanne took inspiration from Bauhaus, while Yves Saint Laurent’s shift dresses carried images by Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Piet Mondrian. More recently, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac showed wearable art, in the literal form, of painted canvases cut into dresses,while Giorgio Armani was the subject of a retrospective at the Guggenheim.

And what of artists dipping into fashion? Some say the connection has been around forever. Fashion was not lost on the artists of the Renaissance, and neither was its importance coincidental in 17th century Flemish and Dutch portraiture. While some critics continue toargue that functionalism takes away from existentialism, or rather that if something can be worn and used it is not art, local fashion designers and artists alike continue to merrily crossover into one another’s camps.

Strangelove design duo, Carlo Gibson and Ziemack Pater, are best know as fashion designers. But Gibson, who along with a diploma in Fashion Design also has one in Fine Art (and another in Jewellery Design), has no intention of being contained in just that field. “I don’t believe in limiting ones potential by being labelled,” he says. “Strangelove have always done things this way; only now people are taking notice.” This past November, a chair designed by Strangelove was exhibited as part of the Made in Africa exhibition, at the 4th International Design Biennale, hosted in St. Etienne, France.

The chair — valued at over R5 000 — took over a month to make by hand. Its design is also quite unique, thanks to the corrugated fabric, a concept that Gibson first worked with a few years ago when he and Pater designed three sculptural clothing pieces. Layers of fabric are sandwiched together to form a single entity, like the cross section of an onion.

The concept of cutting through something is retained by leaving the edges of the fabric untreated to fray at will. The wooden frame follows the fabric in concept, with layers of wood laminated and glued together before being hand-carved. And if you’re wondering if this masterpiece is all form and no function, think again: the designers took special pains to ensure comfort too.

Strangelove is currently working on a three-year fine art project with artist Leora Farber, one of their early pieces having been selected for this year’s Brett Kebble Art Award (BKAA). Overthe past months, they have also staged performances at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, and are working on a project that marries art and sport, while also dabbling in lighting designs. Then there’s Gibson’s ambitious 21-year project, which involves making clothing for his son; the work will only be exhibited on his son’s 21st birthday.

Concurrent with Strangelove’s activities, many local artists are playing with fashion. Over the past six years, Sharlene Khan’s work has focused on street life. Her subjects are the people who live, work and walk on the streets (she seeks to subvert stereotypes of street people as beggars and misfits), and her tools are oil paints and mixed media. But for Walking The Line, her one-night only performance piece at Wits (September 3), Khan sent garments sewn with oil paintings and ink drawings and various street objects down the catwalk in the form of an art-fashion show.

Doreen Southwood, last year’s inaugural BKAA winner, doubles as a fashion designer too. Joint owner of the clothing boutique Me, Me, Me, which sells her own label, amongst others, Southwood is as comfortable at the country’s two fashion weeks as she is in the white cube. While Southwood doesn’t blur her disciplines in the actual objects she creates, she does divide her own energies placing them firmly in both the fashion and the art camps. If there ever was a line dividing fashion and art, one thing is certain, it’s always been a blurry one.

Nadine Rubin is a freelance fashion writer currently based in New York

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