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Artful fashion

  • Washington Post
  • Published Sunday, March 31, 2013, at 9:55 p.m.

“Is that art?” is the eternal question usually posed in gallery spaces and art museums. But for spring, the same could be asked about some of the original and complex fashion shown on the runways of New York, Paris and Milan.

Marc Jacobs’ striped suits and evening dresses swirled around models’ bodies in geometric precision, recalling the 1960s op art of Victor Vasarely. Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler patched together pieces of satin fabric, multi-hued reptile skins and silver grommets with photos from the Internet, in a self-described homage to Gerhard Richter’s painterly collages.

Which brings us back to a twist on the age-old query: Can a piece of clothing be art, and can a designer be an artist?

Maybe, says Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Most designers are reluctant to say they’re artists, even though every creative person goes through the same process to express an idea,” Koda said in a recent interview. The problem, he contends, is an economic one. Because our culture continues to believe in the romantic notion of artists working for art’s sake, Koda says, designers, whose careers are often dedicated to the dollar, can be dismissed as unworthy of the artist mantle.

But every now and then comes a designer or a piece within a collection that goes beyond the notion of what will sell.

“They will do something that crystallizes the zeitgeist, something that’s technically innovative and aesthetically provocative,” Koda said.

Nancy Pearlstein, owner of the Washington boutique Relish, will stock Jacobs’ latest collection.

“I don’t know yet how it will be received, but it’s a new dimension in suits and dresses. I can’t say whether it’s art or not, but if art is something that you relate to and are instinctively drawn to, then he’s touched on something right.”

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