Posted:Jun 1, 2022

Art and Fashion: A Game of Their Own

Yusuke Koishi decodes the reasons why art and fashion continue to collaborate.

Nobuyoshi Araki, Yayoi Kusama, Tomoo Gokita, Motoi Sorayama, Yoshitomo Nara, Takashi Murakami, Ed Ruscha, Elmgreen & Dragset, Kaws, Daniel Arsham, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Richard Prince. The artists listed here are just a few who have collaborated with world-renowned fashion brands. In recent years, the ties between art and fashion have only become stronger. Tokyo Art Beat asked Yusuke Koishi to write about why the two fields continue to go hand in hand. Koishi is the head of Kleinstein, a design consulting firm specializing in fashion, and the leader of numerous projects between art and fashion.

S.R. STUDIO. LA. CA. - COUTURE 2021 Photo: Noua Unu Studio

The Great Wall Between Art and Fashion

Collaborations between artists and fashion brands have become a familiar sight. Contemporary artist Sterling Ruby launched his own fashion brand, "S.R. Studio. LA. CA", in 2019 after years of work with the brand Raf Simons. Now is the era for artists to start their own labels. Nowadays, finding a top artist who has never had anything to do with fashion is almost impossible, and vice versa.

In 2015, I spoke to a group of curators working at museums in New York City, many of whom were not particularly interested in the news of the fashion scene and had never heard of Dover Street Market New York on Lexington Avenue, which had opened recently in 2013. This situation began to change gradually after Rei Kawakubo's 2017 solo exhibition “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute was heavily promoted in New York.

When you check bookstores in Japan, art and fashion texts are often displayed next to each other. Fashion and art are sometimes discussed in the same context in Japan. However, when you look at the world, there are still multilayered walls much thicker than bookshelf partitions between these two areas.

Fashion has not yet been fully absorbed into the context of art history, and it is only recently that it has been exhibited in museums. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded in 1870, but the Costume Institute was not established until the 1940s. The Met Gala, held here every May, is perhaps the museum's most well-known event, but it is a fundraising event for the Costume Institute to raise money for its operations.

A symbolic event that illustrates the existence of this “wall” between art and fashion is the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective held at the Costume Institute in 1983. The exhibition was organized by Eleanor Lambert, the founder of New York Fashion Week and a major fashion figure in American fashion. It was held when Yves Saint Laurent was at the peak of his career as a fashion designer and attracted many celebrities. However, the event itself was severely criticized by the art world. Some said it was too "commercial".

The Similarity Between Fashion and Art: "Structure of the Process"

When we talk about art and fashion, we tend to go straight to the graveyard of abstract debates, such as "whether fashion is art or not, or what is a meaningful or meaningless collaboration." In this article, I would like to distance myself from such discussions and think about the relationship between fashion and art.

Innovation in fashion has always come from “hinterlands,” places far from the epicenter of fashion. The new perspectives that emerged from there have influenced the center's values. The similarities between fashion and art are not so much in representation, but rather in commercial and sociological structures. New "styles" always emerge from the processes of denying, ironizing, reinterpreting, and trying to transcend current values and the status quo. Gradually, it becomes a representation with a message transmitted and consumed along with the social phenomenon of fashion. Newly born fashion movements are etched into history as if ancient history were engraved on the Rosetta Stone, absorbed into the vocabulary of fashion, and then become the subject of new updates. If you are interested in contemporary art history, this trend may ring a bell.

In considering this comparison, a useful reference is "The Art Dealers: The Powers Behind the Scene Tell How the Art World Really Works" by Laura De Coppet and Alan Jones. In this book, the development of contemporary art in the United States after World War II is summarized as an oral history of notable gallerists. Reading the interviews with gallerists, it is clear that the history of the art scene has been moving with the same elements as the evolution of fashion. The post-war art scene in New York was born out of the dynamics of gallerists, curators, artists, and collectors large and small. From there, collectors-turned-gallerists like Leo Castelli, curators like Alfred Barr, and stars like Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock were born. The dynamics of desire are as follows: For gallerists, the ultimate goal is to prove their aesthetic sense and make a profit in a way that increases the value of artists whose value has not yet been appreciated. For curators, the goal is to mark a turning point in contemporary history through their direction. For collectors, owning a work of art is a way to prove their aesthetic sense and self-expression of their identity.

In the book, Ronald Feldman (a New York a lawyer-turned-collector-turned-gallerist known for introducing Joseph Beuys and Shusaku Arakawa) said that art is not just a fad vogue, but it's a “great game.” For the gallerist, the art market is a game of discovering artists and their works, increasing the social and economic value of new creations, then increasing the value of the gallery itself. It is a game in which each player seeks to earn new profits and create scenes from their own perspectives. This series of mechanisms overlaps with those of fashion as if they were parallel universes.

Arakawa+Madeline Gins “Biotopological Scale-Juggling Escalator” Courtesy of Reversible Destiny Foundation, © 2013 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins.

If we carefully observe this movement while considering the roots of fashion, we can see that the act of owning a piece of art is also a part of "dressing up." In today's society, everything in our lives, such as the music we listen to, the artists we like, the artworks we collect, the places we live, and the social media accounts we follow all constitute an "outfit" that represents us in society and ultimately creates the dynamics of fashion.

Complicit, Complementary Games

Fashion brands make clothes and decorations. At the same time, they have used art and music as catalytic symbols to express abstract images that cannot be represented only on the human body. Art transforms keywords into symbols. In the fashion field, "luxury," "avant-garde," and nowadays "diversity" are essential keywords. The artists who symbolize these concepts in their works, and the art market and communities that trade them, are the perfect vectors for fashion brands to amplify their own values and messages.

On the other hand, the value of art is a game world in which value is determined by the networked structure of human society: who discovers it, who owns it, and who evaluates it.  New innovations in that game are created by updating the current values and art history at the center. This update is always fueled by newcomers – influential audiences and capitalists. Sometimes, collectors, fashion designers, celebrities, and emerging wealthy entrepreneurs are newcomers.

Fashion images are produced faster than art. These images propagate like a virus through the real world and social media. 

Simultaneously, the image draws in people who have never been connected to what is behind it. From the standpoint of art, the viral spreading power of fashion provides a medium for the symbols and images behind it to permeate society. The relationship between art and fashion is complementary, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in a way.

Art and fashion are complicities in people's desire for their own identity. They are strongly connected in terms of our actions and how we "dress" ourselves in society. Art and fashion are often thinly separated, and sometimes they overlap, but they maintain a fluctuating distance, like complex human relationships. As long as we have a thirst for exploring our own identity, undoubtedly there will continue to be art/fashion collaborations that connect popular notions and symbols, leaving marks on the histories of both.  

“Louis Vuitton &” exhibition installation view. Collaboration between Louis Vuitton and Yayoi Kusama.

Yusuke Koishi

Yusuke Koishi

CEO of Kleinstein Co. Ltd. / Critic, Writer. Kleinstein is a fashion design consulting firm. Established in 2014 by Yusuke Koishi and Miki Koishi, it is known for its projects for international brands such as Comme des Garçons and the Slovak sneaker label Novesta. Prior to co-founding Kleinstein with his partner Miki, Yusuke worked at Comme des Garçons as a lead planner after graduating from the Department of Biomaterial Engineering at the University of Tokyo. Kleinstein also curates exhibitions and produces its own gallery, Stein Box. Major curations include "Sensibility and Wonder" (Diesel Art Gallery Tokyo), the first solo exhibition in Japan for John Dove and Molly White, pioneers of British punk culture in the 1970s. In July 2020, Kleinstein collaborated with the Brazilian artist Alberto Bitar to create a film for the Comme des Garçons Homme Prus 2021S/S collection show. Yusuke is also known as a fashion critic and writer.