BY Natasha Degen in Opinion | 20 SEP 23

Fashion’s Growing Pains

Natasha Degen on luxury fashion’s shallow ascendency into the art world and its transformation into a ‘cultural brand’ 

BY Natasha Degen in Opinion | 20 SEP 23

Why is frieze launching its first issue devoted to art and fashion now, at this particular moment? For the same reasons, I imagine, that I recently wrote a book on the subject: the world of culture is flattening and the lines between creative disciplines, long separate and siloed, are blurring.

Across the creative economy brands are rejecting their narrow identification with specific industries, eager to widen their reach. Art Basel now calls itself a ‘global platform.’ The Tribeca Film Festival is now simply the Tribeca Festival. In the luxury field, the shift is even more striking. Louis Vuitton, according to LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault, is no longer a fashion company but a ‘cultural brand’. 

In the 1990s Louis Vuitton broadened its business, as did other heritage brands. By introducing a ready-to-wear line, it began its transformation from a luggage manufacturer to a €20-billion-a-year behemoth. Today we find luxury in another moment of expansion, as the biggest brands have again outgrown their core businesses and must enlarge their purviews if they are to continue apace. By harnessing art’s hallowed status, brands see a way to maintain their allure while sustaining growth.

Virgil Abloom at Louis Vuitton
Virgil Abloh, Louis Vuitton, Menswear Spring/Summer 2020. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Pascal Le Segretain

Fashion’s need to grow has put new pressure on its creative directors, especially those at leading brands. In addition to producing several major collections a year, they are expected to advance their vision via social media, advertising, shop design and brand collaborations. ‘I’m not a designer,’ the late Virgil Abloom claimed in 2018, soon after his debut show for Louis Vuitton. He deemed the term one ‘for traditionalists.’

The evolution of the creative director thus parallels trends in artistic labour. Since the 1960s, with the rise of minimalism and conceptual art, artists have turned away from hands-on artmaking, often outsourcing the physical execution of their work to assistants and fabricators. Some have assumed the role of managers, overseeing studios with dozens of employees. Fashion’s creative directors, supported by sizable design teams, need not be couturiers either.

Bernadette Corporation
 Untitled, 2023, 

Bernadette Corporation, Untitled, 2023, basketball. Courtesy: the artist and Greene Naftali, New York; photograph: Zeshan Ahmed

While the practice of art and fashion have both taken managerial turns, their output has converged too. Fashion has co-opted the aesthetics of art and many of its strategies of presentation. Artists have made fashion their medium – as did Bárbara Sánchez-Kane and Bernadette Corporation before her. Both have shown their work in gallery exhibitions and on runways. Such projects seem to suggest that, following conceptual art, which freed art from traditional categories and materials, the distinction between art and fashion has become moot.

Indeed, as the two fields draw closer, the most conspicuous difference between artmaking and fashion design has become the relative autonomy of artistic labour. Designers, unlike artists, face constant pressure to produce and their ideas are filtered through corporate hierarchies and often constrained by commercial agendas. It’s no surprise that many designers, seeing the advantages and freedoms that visual artists enjoy, have begun to make art themselves: Hussein Chalayan, Helmut Lang, Martin Margiela and Hedi Slimane among the most prominent.

Hussein Chalayan, Kinship Journeys, Autumn/Winter 2003
Hussein Chalayan, Kinship Journeys, Autumn/Winter 2003. Courtesy: Wallpaper Magazine; photograph: Brigitte Niedermair

Meanwhile, artists see opportunity in the resources and reach of corporatized fashion. Artist-brand collaborations have become ubiquitous, in part because art has abandoned its fear of commercialization and become an ever-more-willing partner. Yayoi Kusama’s collaboration with Louis Vuitton earlier this year comprised more than 450 products with a massive marketing campaign to match, including ads featuring top models and entertainers, installations at the brands’ stores, city-wide ‘takeovers’, billboards, pop-ups, pop-ins, Instagram filters and augmented reality experiences. All, ostensibly, in the name of art.

In reality, this unprecedented campaign underscored the fundamentally corporate nature of the collaboration while all but guaranteeing its success. It was a safe and comfortable partnership for LVMH, which later boasted to investors that the collaboration provided a ‘renewed emphasis’ on Louis Vuitton’s ‘cultural dimension’.

Pedro Almodóvar, Strange Way of Life, 2023
Pedro Almodóvar, Strange Way of Life, 2023. Courtesy: Saint Laurent Productions

But is it art? The question looms over this new age of cultural and commercial blurring. If fashion companies are to plausibly present themselves as ‘cultural brands’, they cannot merely license images of artworks and call it a day. They will need to create culture, not just borrow it – whether engaging an artist in a creative dialogue, commissioning architecture, producing original films or staging exhibitions. Given their ambition and deep pockets, there is great potential; luxury fashion excels at bringing impossible visions to life, from the extraordinary mise-en-scène of its resort collections to the exuberant fantasies of haute couture. But there is risk too: that art becomes a means to someone else’s end.

Main Image: Bernadette Corporation, Diagram (World’s End, Erasable), 2023, MDF, markerboard laminate, dry erase marker, 213 × 366 × 2 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Greene Naftali, New York; photograph: Zeshan Ahmed

Natasha Degen is the author of Merchants of Style: Art and Fashion After Warhol (Chicago University Press, 2023).