The sudden and premature passing of Virgil Abloh, artistic director of Louis Vuitton‘s men’s collections and founder of the Off-White brand, raises questions about the sulphureous relationship between art and fashion. His Louis Vuitton Menswear collection for Winter 2021, similarly to his “Figures of Speech” exhibition at the Doha Fire Station, blurs the boundaries between art and clothing. The LV bags are tagged in tuft with slogans like “Tourist VS Purist”, “Somewhere, Somehow”, in the style of the artist Lawrence Weiner, famous for his fragments of sentences spread out on gigantic walls and his juxtapositions of words. His collection is also a representation, through clothing, of Stranger in the Village, a short essay by African-American author James Baldwin, written in 1955 where the author recounts his arrival in a small Swiss village perched in the mountains. People touch his hair, exclaim as he walks by. He is an “exotic wonder”.
Essentially, Virgil Abloh had the genius to put together stories from everywhere, mixing architecture with literature, the personal with the universal, the mundane with the spiritual. From the exaggeration of the LV logo to the sublimation of the Kente fabric, a precious fabric, reserved for notables, made by the artisans from his village of origin in Ghana, Abloh plays with codes, scrambles the language, transforms the body into a vehicle of visible thoughts and uses fashion as a manifesto, a commitment, a force for change to both individuals and communities.
“A second-rate artist”?
Art, in that it questions and sometimes responds, provokes, upsets, stirs the senses, reveals, denounces (as long as we take the trouble to go and discover it in exhibitions and museums,) is both motionless and radiant. Fashion, with its privilege of borrowing life from life itself, inhabiting bodies and sometimes revealing souls, casually, naturally occupying public space, expresses the realities of an era, of a society, of a geography. Each domain eyes the other, as if art envies the proximity of clothing to the skin, and fashion that of art to the spirit.
Fashion is nevertheless classified among the “applied arts”, and its tenors have always refused to take it out of this box. Karl Lagerfeld once said that a fashion designer who calls himself an artist is “a second-rate artist”. Pierre Bergé, the brilliant partner of Yves Saint-Laurent, stressed that “fashion only exists when it is worn by women. Otherwise, it is nothing. It’s not an art”. But what did Saint-Laurent do when he created dresses inspired by Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian? Shyly, he explained that he “just tries to approach the masters, to learn from their genius.”
Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé were obsessive collectors. Christian Dior was a gallery owner and illustrator before converting to fashion. Upon his arrival at the artistic helm of Louis Vuitton in 1997, Marc Jacobs launched collaborations with quirky contemporary artists, such as Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince.
A fierce competition on the art market then began between the two French titans of the fashion and luxury world, Bernard Arnault for LVMH and François Pinault for Kering. Both will build some of the most emblematic museums of our time, the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, at the Jardin d’Acclimatation for the first, and the Punta della Dogana in Venice for the second. It will be understood that this is in no way due to chance.
Venice, and sunflowers
Fashion now knows that it is no longer a distant cousin of art, but its partner of choice. Thanks to clothing, art is popularized and globalized. Louis Vuitton no readily embraces collaborations. Through art, the luxury brand approaches the most diverse communities, for example by making scarves illustrated by the Franco-Tunisian street artist El Seed. With these scarves, El Seed himself, through his calligraphic representation of poems by Taha Muhammad Ali, pays homage to Venice, the only city that, in the 12th century disobeyed, the Pope’s ban on European countries maintaining relations with the Arab world.
Lebanese designer Sandra Mansour, for her part, is committed to celebrating women artists through her collections. The line she created for H&M in 2019 is a tribute, among others, to Bibi Zogbe, a floral painter from the 1930s, whose sunflowers she reproduces in lace.
A sign of this complicated relationship where the two worlds try to borrow each other’s privileges and virtues, fashion itself enters the museum. There is not a thematic exhibition of the V&A in London, the Museum of Decorative Arts or the Grand Palais in Paris, the MoMu in Antwerp, the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, thatdoesn’t pull in tens of thousands of visitors.
Often itinerant, like Savage Beauty which retraced the anthology of Alexander McQueen, or Dior Designer of Dreams, which had already visited 5 cities before settling in M7 in Doha, these exhibitions offer exceptional scenography and bring together audiences from all over the world. In a way, they prove that fashion, like art, has a universal language that is equally loaded with meaning and emotion.