Your background is as an arts curator and writer, but in recent years you’ve also begun to take an interest in the cultural significance of fashion, and address the relationship between the two mediums. The debate around ‘art and fashion’ often centres on contemporary artist and designer collaborations. Do you think this discussion would also benefit from a more historical perspective that includes past precedents for crossovers between art and fashion?
I think it’s impossible to talk about current collaborations without looking to the historical precedents of Elsa Schiaparelli for example or Yves Saint Laurent for context. To that end, artists have always collaborated in the fields of theatre, music and dance; think of Paul Poiret and the Ballet Russes for example. What is perhaps different now is that the current crop of contemporary collaborations could be seen to be driven by economic forces; fashion has reinvented itself as an economic force, fashion houses appear on stock exchange lists, fashion is increasingly accorded more column inches in newspapers and in online and print media (locally in the Australian Financial Review for example) as compared to historically. Similarly, the marriage between fashion and cinema (think of the most ubiquitous recent example, The Great Gatsby and Prada) is commercial almost before it’s creative. There is a greater commercial imperative for fashion, which increasingly looks to art and artists to differentiate itself in a saturated economically competitive market. Ultimately, fashion is a commodity that is bought and sold, in the same way that art is.
On the surface, art holds the promise of bringing something unique to fashion; the aura of an artwork and the concept of originality. The imprimatur of an artist lends originality to an item that even though it may be ‘limited edition’, is still produced in significantly large units. Consumers might be understood to be seeking or craving authenticity. In collaborating with artists, fashion lends itself an authenticity. Potentially those items are more collectable, more valuable, and thus have more longevity, and can exist outside the fashion cycle which used to be two seasons but is now more like four and sometimes six, with the addition of cruise collections for example. The pressure on fashion to reinvent itself many times in a year is relentless, and I do see the rise of art collaborations as a direct response to the need to be original. From my perspective as an art curator I am interested in the way in which fashion brands such as Trussardi and Prada have become the new art patrons; Prada presents and collects some of the most significant art in the world.
Do you think that fashion has to equate to luxury, or can local variations and approaches to the notion of fashion also be valid? For instance, Queensland (and Australia generally) is often accused of being overtly casual without much interest in fashion. Do you feel this approach is inherently ‘un’fashionable?
I think there is capital F fashion and small f fashion in the same way there is small a and big A art. I think that the reason luxury fashion is discussed so often is because the luxury end of fashion wields significant economic might; fashion houses are floated on the stock exchange and fashion has moved into the realms of culture. It is interesting that what equates to luxury now is the idea of that which is bespoke or singularity – faced with a surfeit of everything, the consumer seeks that which is better quality, more enduring, or imbued with the authentic history of the brand. The iconic quality of a brand is what many customers seek to buy as much as they may be buying a handbag. There is an implied value or worth.
Earlier this year the Australian Financial Review sponsored a major summit on luxury fashion held in Sydney at which speakers such as the CEO of Mr Porter spoke about why Australia is a growing market for them, and Marion Hume talked about Australia’s inability to compete with companies with an artisanal history, such as Hermes for example. Although just recently it was announced that RM Williams has been purchased by LVMH, precisely because it has both history and a history of making artisanal products. This is where local brands such as Easton Pearson or Gail Sorronda for example can in fact triumph by virtue of their smaller very specific output; they have the advantage of being very niche, something that customers ultimately value greatly. It may not carry the economic weight of the larger luxury houses but these smaller brands have a better shot at longevity.
Back to your question, I think that Queensland does have a very casual approach to fashion, a relaxed attitude, that is generally associated with climatic conditions. However, I am always aware when I return from abroad of our nation’s collective sartorial approach; it’s quite laissez-faire, this relaxed attitude is not exclusive to Queensland. A company like Easton Pearson for example, is exemplary when it comes to making luxury casual fashion. They understand the Queensland style and have articulated it in a luxurious form, using beautiful fabrics such as silk to glamourise casual shapes. I think this is something Queensland designers do well. Perhaps the way we ought to look at it is that Queensland fashion describes a boho luxe lifestyle, as opposed to a casual lifestyle. This is a great place to live: sun, sand, surf and fashion.
Tell us how you came to be interested in fashion…
My mother always had a love of the finer things, underlined with a Scottish ascetic sensibility. In her day she was an It Girl in Johannesburg and had an enviable wardrobe. I think this partially informed my interest but I also think fashion has this marvelous ability to describe the Zeitgeist and capture the moment at the same time that it is firmly located in a historic framework. It speaks to a commonality of experience at the same time that it suggests a kind of folly. I bought American Vogue as a school girl and I saw then that fashion magazines could also carry good journalism; I recognised early on that to be interested in fashion didn’t have to preclude one from ideas or intellect. It is interesting to me that fashion is often denigrated as something silly, or frivolous. It is a serious economic force and more than that is such an important aspect of history. Fashion photography too has created some of the most enduring imagery of the twentieth century; some of the most significant photographers have been fashion photographers too.
Where do you look for inspiration on matters of style?
I have an interest in vintage fashion because I do think there is a surfeit of clothing in the world, and we are now at something of a crossroads when it comes to ethical consumerism; witness the fires in Bangladesh etc. I have a ridiculous addiction to fashion magazines, but I also love the work of photographers such as Slim Aarons and the style of the late Diana Vreeland for example. I love to shop, although I don’t like to follow trends. I have a penchant for the 1980s and vintage YSL in particular, and I buy a lot online. I find contemporary women like Tilda Swinton very inspirational. Tilda in the film I am Love is a collapsing of so many threads in which I am interested: art, film, fashion. I visited Villa Necchi in Milan where it was filmed and you can see the wardrobe of one of the spinster sisters in whose bedroom it is all neatly laid out, including her personalised silk Christian Dior scarves. I found it very touching, and exemplary of fashion’s ability to describe history and imbue it with a personal relevance.
What is your most treasured dress-related object or memory?
There are so many, but most are associated with my mother. I remember her crocodile Salvatore Ferragamos that were subsequently too small for me (the tragedy!), Pringle cashmere cardigans (I spent early years in Scotland) her wrap around batik skirts and big frame sunglasses—a style I have worn ever since I started wearing sunglasses, which was not the trend when I was a teenager. I remember too my grandmother in South Africa always wearing gloves to drive. I always thought they were both very stylish women, mostly because they always had a sense of occasion or propriety. My mother is yet to wear track pants! I think this sense of dressing well, not expensively, is important to me. You should look as though you care, and have respect for oneself, even if that means dressing as a punk. I love sense of occasion dressing too. I need little impetus to ramp it up!
Give us three words, people or places you associate with Queensland fashion…
Colour – we do colour really well. Whenever I wear what I wouldn’t hesitate to wear to an event in Queensland to something in Sydney or Melbourne, which is frequently, I definitely stand out! I remember an event at the Art Gallery of New South Wales where I wore a vintage leopard skin dress, a hot pink jacket and green stilettos and everyone else was in black.
Thongs – not a trend I love. I tend toward espadrilles instead.
Is there such a thing as a distinct Queensland style?
I think it is perhaps better described as an attitude; relaxed, unaffected and easy.
Published in Issue 5, on October 22, 2013.