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Hot design debate

Tanya Carlson - photo by Carolyn Ebrey
Hailwood NZ Fashion Show 2017 - image by James Yang.
Fredrik Tjærandsen’s ballon dress (2019) - image via designboom
Evelyn Ebrey explores a hotly debated topic with local design voices.


Whether or not fashion is considered as art has been hotly debated countless times over the years. As New Zealand Fashion Week 2019 kicks off today, it’s the perfect time to revisit this discussion, see what some local designers think and get to the bottom of the matter.

To figure this out, let’s start with the definition of art which the Oxford dictionary describes as "The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

That kind of sounds like fashion, right? Fashion is the result of skill and the imagination of the designer and is definitely appreciated for its beauty. Anyone who has attended a fashion show that moved them will attest to fashion’s ability to stir emotion.

Hailwood hits the right notes

Adrian Hailwood’s NZ Fashion Week show in 2016 was one of those for me. It was dedicated to his late mother, and aside from the phenomenally beautiful outfits on the runway, everything about the show hit just the right notes and it was definitely a moving experience. As a live choir sang some of his mother’s favourite songs the crowd was entirely silent, you could even hear the rain on the roof as the models sashayed gracefully down the runway. It was a pivotal show for the designer and one I’ll never forget.

Hailwood NZ Fashion Show 2017 - image by James Yang.

There was definitely masterful artistry on display but would a fashion show and fashion in general be considered art? Not according to designer Tanya Carlson who has been designing womenswear collections under her Carlson brand since 1997. “On a personal level I don’t believe that fashion is art,” says Tanya. “The main point of the functionality of a garment is to wear it. That is at the core of making clothing and there are elements that do cross over but I think that designing and making clothes is a refined craft process. In terms of fine art, I don’t think it’s relevant for fashion to be included in it. I wouldn’t call myself an artist I would call myself a clothing designer.”

Functionality is certainly an important part of making fashion, we’ve all seen the whimsical and often wacky creations that circulate on social media after international fashion weeks. It’s amazing that some of those garments actually make it down the runway albeit some seem to be holding on by a thread. But no matter how crazy or impressive they are, say for example Fredrik Tjærandsen’s incredible balloon garments that caught the world’s attention at his graduate show for Central Saint Martins’ BA programme. Even those fantastical pieces are designed to be worn, although how practical they are to wear to the supermarket or out to lunch is debatable.

Marilyn Sainty's thoughts

Retired fashion designer Marilyn Sainty who worked in the industry from the sixties up until she retired in 2005 says that while fashion can be artistic, it’s not so much a fine art as an applied one. “Fashion is an applied art and like other crafts, it is more likely to be influenced by fine art than influence it,” adds Marilyn. “I think the fact that there are now many exhibitions reflects a strong interest in fashion.”

In the past couple of decades, there has been a huge rise in the number of fashion exhibitions often hosted and curated by art galleries which could be where some of the confusion comes from over whether fashion is considered art. It’s not uncommon for fashion exhibitions at London’s famed Victoria and Albert Museum or New York’s iconic Metropolitan Museum to sell out. Particularly if the exhibition is focused on some of the world’s most legendary designers like Christian Dior or Alexander McQueen.



Fredrik Tjærandsen’s balloon dress (2019) - Image via designboom.

While some might consider those visionary designers artists, would they have considered themselves artists? Often those who are considered artists are those who are particularly innovative or create work that captures the imagination or the heart. “Rei Kawakubo could be seen as one of the most innovative fashion designers in recent times as many others who have elevated the craft,” adds Sainty. “Issey Miyake comes to mind. Alexander McQueen, Phoebe Philo, there are many.”

Tanya Carlson explains the difference

Fashion is without a doubt a craft and definitely one that speaks for itself in many ways. “We don’t explain our work as an artist does,” adds Tanya. “You see it a lot with the young designers when it’s judging time for the iD International Emerging Designer Awards. They’re trying to figure out what their work says when they present it. But as time goes on that changes and the reality of making clothing to sell sets in because ultimately fashion is commercial.”

The proliferation of retail clothing shops everywhere you go certainly reinforces that fashion is commercial and it’s a big business too. While not every designer is in their profession to become a household name, the reality is that everyone has to wear clothing. It’s a pretty key part of everyday life everywhere in the world.

I think we’ve gotten to the bottom of it now, so let’s make it clear; while fashion can be spell-binding and a feast for the eyes, ultimately, because of its purpose, fashion is not art.


Written by Evelyn Ebrey.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

27 Aug 2019

The Big Idea Editor

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