The marriage of high fashion and contemporary art

In March 2008, I travelled to Hong Kong and was hoping to be able to visit the Chanel Mobile Art exhibition, held inside a temporary coil-like white pavillion designed by Zaha Hadid. This year, at least two more venues in Asian cities appear as contemporary art spaces, the Prada Transformer in Seoul and Louis Vuitton has branded Richard Prince’s wrapping of Hong Kong’s. The Hadid space had the temporary fleetingness of a travelling exhibition, placed on the empty rooftop of a carpark building facing the harbor. Spectacular view, discrete structure. The queue was unmanageable, the waiting time too long, and the ticket price too expensive, I was plenty satisfied with walking around and photographing the structure which was coldly beautiful.  Chanel Mobile Art, Hong Kong

Fashion and art share much in common. Fashion designers have long been inspired by art and with brands embracing other art forms and display modes, never has the marriage of fashion and art been so apparent from a branding point of view. We all know that Coco Chanel was a great artist, and Zaha Hadid beats many contemporary artists at the top of their game with her unpredictable forms, let alone the fact that she is a great painter. This being said, the contemporary art shown inside, even if it featured Yoko Ono and Sylvie Fleury interpreting the classic Chanel quilted bag, feels redundant, to say the least. To be honest, the proposition is not very interesting. Of course the exhibition must have had its highlights, but I really felt that the experience of the structure itself was fashionable enough. Despite its aesthetic qualities, the structure is completely opaque – there is no indication whatsoever about what happens inside and we remain circu-ambulating the platform and enjoying the photo-taking frenzy Asian audiences engage in in any cultural venue.

On the same vibe, Prada opens the transformer space in Seoul, but with even more boldness. With the same concept of incorporating the fleeting nature of a temporary structure, Rem Koolhaas, another heavyweight, creates a tetrahedral, portable, shape-shifting cultural pavilion that embodies the essence of its multi-functionality. It is placed near a classical Korean palace and garden which has survived for centuries, thus accentuating the juxtaposition of new/old, fixed/mutable, representational/abstract even more stark.

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Four shapes melded into one structure can be turned and cranked according to whatever is being shown inside. This way, the structure presents a more flexible environment to suit the display needs of whatever is being shown, whether it is a fashion show, an art exhibition, a film screening or a social function. The element of playfulness and participation is interesting here.

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While museums generally struggle with endless ways in which to attract visitors and dealing with costly facilities, Prada provides an alternative that could arguably only have come from a fashion brand acting in an industry where time is counted in seasons and creativity must outpace itself and the competition four times every year. In addition, the Koolhaas structure poses a challenge to a particular “exhibitionary order” by structurally denying many aspects of the fixity of art institutions. Rather, it follows the genealogy of an architectural folly set in a garden, following the classical art pavillion building type from the world fairs of the 19th century. To exhibit in such a space must be challenging and must involve a dialogue with this giant rolling structure that seems to have been thrown in the garden like a random throw of dice.

The relationship between art and fashion is not accidental nor merely inspirational – this is a calculated business move that benefits both sides, the fashion and the art within while strengthening brands beyond the point-of-sale. Fashion houses today are earning enough money to be able to become contemporary art and design’s newest patrons. Whereas these moves are critical remains to be discussed, and it is worth examining if art is seen as a commodity on display like a piece of garment on a hanger, or if clothes take on a more critical dimension and learn from contemporary art and architecture’s constant challenge of their own ‘exhibitionary orders’.

We all agree that most design seems to be shifting from the realm of ‘use’ to that of ‘experience’,  but the realm of experience has been art’s century-long domain, and architecture has always incorporated both. The question is not so much how these fields are taking from each other, but rather what happens when architectural innovation, artistic boldness and a sophisticated fashion brand come together. In fact, the three seem to obey the same logic of display but seem to also articulate the idea of experience as a site-specific installation that conjoins disparate elements into a new form of understanding the new patronage that lies behind the arts and the new arbiters of ‘taste’.

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