Ready to Wear: After a Long Flirtation, Art and Fashion Have Wed

“You could identify one another in the Castro by a certain leather jacket in the ’80s,” the photographer Catherine Opie

Installation view of "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

“You could identify one another in the Castro by a certain leather jacket in the ’80s,” the photographer Catherine Opie said last Thursday afternoon. “Your jeans rolled up, a pair of Doc Martens and cock rings on your jacket: ‘O.K., I know exactly who you are.’ And then Michael Jackson wore the leather jacket and it fucked us all up.”

Ms. Opie, 50, was sitting on a stage in the basement of the New York Public Library as she explained the sartorial codes of San Francisco’s queer community. She was wearing a flannel shirt, a brown newsboy cap and chunky white glasses. Next to her were sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the women behind Rodarte, the Los Angeles-based fashion label that, after only six years in existence, has reached the pinnacle of couture.

The three women, along with Minneapolis-born photographer Alec Soth, have just released a book through the Swiss art publisher JRP-Ringier. Ms. Opie photographed some of her longtime models wearing the Mulleavys’ clothes. The Mulleavys sequenced Ms. Opie’s photographs in the book. “It taught me to give up some of my control,” Ms. Opie told the crowd, which was filled mostly with women, most of them very young.

Mr. Soth’s role was more unusual. The designers explained that they furnished him with a map marked with California sites that have inspired their work, which he used to embark on a two-week road trip, taking photographs along the way—a project that sounds more like a process-based conceptual artwork than a fashion shoot. Not a single piece of Rodarte clothing appears in his images.

As evidenced by this new book, which includes a text by the chameleonic critic and artist John Kelsey, and Rodarte’s recent show at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the boundaries between fashion and art have, if not collapsed, at least become very blurry in recent years. Not that the fashion/art nexus is anything particularly new: artists and designers have long dabbled in each other’s fields. The midcentury art dealer and patron Peggy Guggenheim once quipped, “I wore one of my Tanguy earrings and one made by Calder in order to show my impartiality between Surrealist and Abstract art.”

“Every few years someone asks, ‘Is fashion art?” Dilys E. Blum, the curator of costume and textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, told The Observer. As Fashion Week drew to a close, we’d called her with roughly that same question, after attending the Rodarte event, and eyeing the banner attendance numbers that the Metropolitan Museum of Art posted for its recent Alexander McQueen retrospective.

But maybe it’s not a very interesting question anymore. Maybe a better one is, “How are the two industries transforming, learning from and feeding off of one another?”

“Savage Beauty” was in almost every way a triumph, bringing in 661,509 people during its three-month run; it’s the eighth-most popular exhibition since the Met began tracking such figures about 50 years ago. Critics, including New York Times art critic Holland Cotter, swooned. Depending on one’s perspective, the response to it seemed to present the possibility of either a terrifying or a tantalizing future for art museums everywhere: blockbuster designer bringing glamour—and the clamoring masses—to their halls.

But perhaps not. “There are not that many real designers who would capture the public imagination the way McQueen did,” Ms. Blum told us. “The risk is that people’s expectations will be that every exhibition is a McQueen, and if it’s not, it’s a failure. These shows can become big extravaganzas, and I think we’re sort of running out of key players.”

Harold Koda, one of the Met Costume Institute curators who organized the retrospective, agreed. McQueen was, in some sense, an easy sell, he said. “The challenge,” he said, “is to bring in other designers who have equal influence who might seem more elusive in terms of what their contribution is because on one level they seem so familiar.”

Take the case of the Guggenheim’s 2000 Giorgio Armani show, which was savaged in part because the Italian designer was reported to have made an eight-figure donation to the Guggenheim foundation. “The art press had difficulty with seeing unstructured suits in one tone as art,” Mr. Koda, who also worked on that show, said. “It looked too much to them like what they saw not only in department stores, but on the street. It was my failure to communicate the distinction of his accomplishment.”

However, it may not be fair to blame curators for that problem. Mr. Koda noted that when Artforum, the art world’s journal of record, put a dress by Issey Miyake on its cover in 1982, it was, like McQueen’s work, intensely sculptural. “People from a fine art focus tend to overlook what they see as more quotidian or prosaic designs when in fact those are the ones that culturally wield the most influence,” he said.

Ready to Wear: After a Long Flirtation, Art and Fashion Have Wed