FT Weekend

November 2010

Art of the dress

Next weekend luminaries of the art and fashion worlds will be converging on Miami for the Art Basel Miami Beach art fair but they are not the only sign of the increasingly close relationships between the worlds of fashion and art. For this season a new crop of young designers is using everything from trompe l’oeil to painterly brushstroke prints, bold graphic patterns and even a spot of collage, to create masterpiece-inspired dresses.

“Independent designers and brands have to work harder than ever to put their own unique stamp on their garments in order to get noticed,” says Henry Graham, co-owner with his brother George of Wolf & Badger, a Notting Hill boutique that opened last February and aims to showcase the “next big thing” in fashion, jewellery and design. “Fortunately, this results in a greater variety of unique and interesting signature pieces from up-and-coming designers.”

“Even though I’m a fashion designer, I would also class myself as an artist”, says Edinburgh College of Art graduate Iona Crawford, who launched her eponymous women’s wear label in 2007. Along with Holly Fulton, Mary Katrantzou and Michael van der Ham, Crawford is spearheading the current boundary-blurring trend.

From a studio in Stirlingshire she paints the guinea fowl, rare-breed cattle and stags she sees at her parent’s farm. But before the inky watercolours go on show at the Ealain Gallery near Glasgow, Crawford takes a section of each image, has it digitally enlarged and then printed on to a blend of coarse Scottish linen and soft cashmere, which she makes into dresses.

“Capturing my rural surroundings on canvas is so important to me and my work,” says Crawford. “But the key is not to be too literal. I mean, I could easily paint a chicken on to a dress, but it would be far better to allude to a bird with subtle colours and feathery brushstrokes.”

Crawford is not, of course, the first designer to blend art and fashion: Elsa Schiaparelli took a cue from the paintings of Picasso and Georges Braque; Emilio Pucci borrowed from Op Art legends such as Bridget Riley; and Yves Saint Laurent famously was inspired by Mondrian. And now an exciting set of new young designers are following their example.

Dutch-born Michael van der Ham made his debut at London Fashion Week in September with a collection featuring collages of different fabrics, colours and shapes that combined to produce something new and unexpected, and is now one of the British Fashion Council’s Newgen award-winners.

“Michael is one of the most-watched designers coming up through our Newgen scheme at the moment,” says Caroline Rush, joint chief executive of the British Fashion Council. “The craftsmanship and originality in his work make his collections and shows attention-getters every season.”

“A lot of my work is based on Andy Warhol and the composite dresses he made from existing designer gowns such as Oscar De La Renta, Halston and Valentino,” says van der Ham. “They were made for an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1975, curated by Diana Vreeland.”

Holly Fulton is a Scottish designer who cut her teeth at Lanvin before going solo in 2009. Her signature print dresses feature bold neon colours, images of skyscrapers and crystal embellishment and, she says, subconscious references to art deco. She also cites pop art, architecture, aboriginal art, the jewellery of Jakob Bengel and Jean Despres and the artwork of Eduardo Paolozzi as influences.

“If you looked inside my head, I think it would look like Paolozzi’s ‘Wittgenstein in New York’ painting,” she says.

Then there’s Felicity Brown, who made her debut at Fashion East in September, and whose collection of hand-dyed plissé dresses was inspired by Toulouse-Lautrec’s showgirl paintings. Each coloured ruffle and fold, looking as if it has just been brushed with a stroke of delicate watercolour, is an example of the art of illusion also apparent in the work of Athens-born, London-based designer Mary Katrantzou, who staged her first stand-alone show at London Fashion Week in September.

Known for elaborate trompe l’oeil prints, Katranzou focused on a rococo theme for autumn/winter, making reference to the paintings of Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Jean-Marc Nattier, with vintage pearls, ornate brooches and gold medals printed on necklines and cuffs.

Belgian-born, Paris-based designer Anthony Vaccarello’s little black dresses, which sell exclusively at London store Browns, encompass elements of art deco and futurism by way of cut-out shapes and slashes, artfully placed to serve as a frame in which to highlight angular one-of-a-kind pieces from his latest jewellery collection.

“Designers like Vaccarello and Katrantzou stand out because they have strong signatures, be that colour, embellishment or fabric,” says Brown’s women’s wear buyer, Rebecca Osei-Baidoo. “Their clothes are instantly recognisable on the shop floor, which is great. As pieces, they actually draw customers in.” But then, that’s the art of fashion.