Even people with a cursory knowledge of Yves Saint Laurent's greatest hits are familiar with his 1965 homage to Piet Mondrian. Those sleeveless, knee-length dresses, adorned with large blocks of red, yellow and blue, were modelled after the painter's iconic geometric prints. Other designs in the collection echoed the canvases of the Russian-born French modernist Serge Poliakoff.
Saint Laurent, who died in 2008, once described himself as "a failed painter." Self-deprecation aside, the designer had strong views on the distinction between art and fashion. "For me, to make a dress from a Mondrian or a Poliakoff is to place their canvases in movement," he said years later. "But there is a danger that the dress becomes a painting. I detest the couturiers who try to make art; my skills are those of an artisan. And the comparison to a painter strikes me as pretentious."
Of course, designers can be inspired by art without claiming to be artists. Nearly 50 years after Saint Laurent's Mondrian tribute, the spring 2014 collections draw from well-known works by, among others, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Daniel Buren and Peter Doig.
Carolina Herrera appropriated the kinetic style of Venezuelan artists Carlos Cruz-Diez and Jesus Rafael Soto for her graphic patterning, while Miuccia Prada recruited niche graffiti artists and muralists to enliven her show space with oversized female portraits that concurrently appeared in the collection.
More broadly, the idea of artistic expression – specifically the exploration of form and colour – is a prevalent theme this season. No stranger to mashing up fashion and art, Raf Simons introduced text and pattern to his collection for Christian Dior in a way that loosely conjured John Baldessari and Ellsworth Kelly. Céline's Phoebe Philo, meanwhile, showed kinetic brush strokes in a primary palette – picture Joan Miro – on silks and as jacquard knits; trapezoidal and spherical heels were more sculptural than sexy.
Perhaps most flamboyantly, Karl Lagerfeld had a makeshift gallery mounted in Paris's Grand Palais for Chanel, showing 75 original artworks that riffed on the house's iconography – the quilting, the perfume bottles, the camellia rose, the tweed. (So cleverly detailed was the mise-en-scène that several pieces were accompanied by a red dot, as if they had been sold to buyers.) As models circled the space in a multicoloured print inspired by paint swatches, fashion's pre-eminent music man, DJ Michel Gaubert, remixed Jay-Z's Picasso Baby: "I just wanna live life colossal/Leonardo da Vinci flows/Riccardo Tisci clothes …" Following the show, Lagerfeld told WWD, "The idea came from people who overreact to art today. It has all become a little too much."
Fair enough. The designer is no doubt referring to those who increasingly criss-cross the globe to attend art fairs with the same dilettante gusto as fashionistas flooding runway shows. Whether they're intent on buying a Jeff Koons balloon dog or simply want to post a picture to Instagram, they are part of the global posse that has made contemporary art trendier than fashion itself.
And, in a way, Lagerfeld's adoption of a tongue-in-chic theme – the invitation to his show arrived on a small canvas board bearing the words "Chanel Art" – isn't all that different from artists who home in on the prevailing zeitgeist and recontextualize it to say something new.
This is not to suggest, of course, that a Chanel backpack is on the same level as a Duchamp ready-made. But as Valerie Steele, the noted fashion historian and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, points out, "Lagerfeld is such an astute person, both artistically and economically. He can definitely play both sides and that makes for a winning combination."
The give-and-take between artists and fashion designers, she goes on, is nothing new. When Marc Jacobs tapped a succession of artists – Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince – to collaborate with him at Louis Vuitton, the brand was no longer just a luxury-leather-goods purveyor, but a new arbiter of cool. Over subsequent seasons, other artists such as Daniel Buren and the Chapman Brothers have both influenced and worked with Jacobs, driving a gotta-have-it urge among hard-core fashion types to collect – and wear – key pieces.
"I wanted to bring something from the wall into women's daily lives," designer Andrew Gn says, noting that the Braque-like violin and bird motifs that appear on his silk chemises for spring are eye-catching images whether wearers pick up on the allusions or not. (Deciphering artistic references is, in any case, half the fun; in Gn's collection, the wood-grained Doig pattern is arguably the most challenging.)
For some designers, the integration of art and fashion emerges from a personal place. Roland Mouret's nod to Buren's permanent Colonnes installation in Paris's Palais Royal was as much nostalgic as aesthetic. The London-based designer was keen to revisit the decade (1981 to '91) he spent in the French capital, a period that, for him, recalls Serge Gainsbourg, sweaty all-nighters at the Bains Douches and the ruckus that arose then over Buren's array of striped columns.
"As fashion designers, we have been asked to project our view of society a year in advance – something that politicians can't even do," he says. "We're asked to be so sure of ourselves and our message. The only way we can do that is related to emotion – and every artistic expression is emotional."
Yet increasingly – and certainly when some artists fetch irrationally high prices at auction – the lines between artistic expression and expensive commodity are as blurred as those in a Rothko colour field. Perhaps this explains why the fashion– art flirtation feels more intense than usual: The end goals are identical. Consider that luxury fashion today is often defined by limited supply or exorbitant price, qualities that also define the art market. As Steele says, "art can be categorized as a luxury good, so it makes a certain amount of sense to have the overlap. But it's a hell of a lot cheaper to buy an expensive handbag than a painting."
There's also the originality factor. A Raf Simons sweater decorated with a Picasso-esque image is no ordinary pullover. No, it isn't art either, but it does become something to collect.
"It's a fine line, the merging," Gn agrees. "Fashion is not fine art; it's more like a craft."
Peter Marino, the eccentric, biker-affecting architect known for designing luxury retail stores around the world, offered a straightforward summation when everyone was filing out of the Chanel show. "I think they're playing off each other and it's an interesting game. I'm not one of those fans of fusion – I don't believe that it exists. I think fashion designers are fashion designers. And painters are painters. And architects are architects."