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Going Gaga: Fashion and architecture

At Amsterdam’s 2010 International Fashion Week, fashion designer Iris van Herpen debuted a bolero evocative of dizzying helical staircases. The multicolored fabric strips of several Rodarte spring 2010 ready-to-wear dresses echo Frank Gehry’s Hotel Marqués de Riscal. The white Barrisol ceiling of Peter Marino’s Chanel boutique on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles bears resemblance to the leggings that outfit shoppers below. The aesthetic parallels between fashion and architecture are alluring and plentiful—yet artistic tendencies naturally carry across design disciplines. The really juicy parts of the relationship between fashion design and architecture are when the affair is intentional.

In 2006, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles presented Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture. The exhibition and corresponding book (Thames & Hudson, 2006) unveiled many fashion designers and architects who explicitly borrow from each other. Malaysian-born fashion designer Yeolee Teng, for example, studied the work of Parisian architect Robert Mallet-Stevens in devising a handful of suspension dresses (spring/summer 2006) that achieve voluminous contours through the use of straps.

Skin + Bones also addresses the cross-pollination of concepts and vocabulary between the two design disciplines. “[D]raping, wrapping, weaving, folding, printing and pleating” are garment-derived words now common in the architectural realm. Skin + Bones even explores the plans for Boston’s then-incomplete Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), describing its “continuous external skin that blurs the distinction between walls, windows and doors,” almost like a sheath dress, relied on by women for decades to obscure imperfections. The unconventional firm that designed the ICA, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, in fact generates its own sartorial work, such as an installation made of 18 white men’s dress shirts (1993–1998) and a dress made of meat for the Miss Meatpacking District Gown Contest in 2006.

Skin + Bones curator Brooke Hodge writes that her exhibit “follow[ed] the threads of investigation laid down by Intimate Architecture,” a 1982 Massachusetts Institute of Technology exhibit that examined fashion design through an architectural lens. Hodge asserts that in the years between the two exhibitions, the relationship between fashion and architecture became more intimate for two primary reasons. She contends that as the use of advanced design software proliferated among architects, methods of fashion construction became more easily incorporated into architectural design. Also, fashion houses began to recruit revered architects to design their retail spaces, resulting in rich opportunities for mutual inspiration.

The relationship between fashion design and architecture has continued to develop through the decade, with more collaborations and increasing prevalence in popular culture. In 2007, for example, Derek Lam credited Gehry’s IAC building as the inspiration for his fall line. “Walking to work each day between Chelsea and the Meatpacking District, I get to enjoy all sorts of views of Frank Gehry’s building, from which I got a lot of the impetus for this collection,” said Lam. In 2008, architect Zaha Hadid designed a curvaceous mobile pavilion for Chanel, inspired by the brand’s iconic quilted handbag.

Even more recently, pop star Lady Gaga’s penchant for architectonic designs has brought overlaps between fashion design and architecture into the spotlight. She is known for unusual, even shocking, couture constructions that either wildly exaggerate her hips and shoulders or obfuscate her body and face entirely with facades or objects. (Gaga wore her own meat dress, designed by Franc Fernandez, to the 2010 Video Music Awards.) Her hair is commonly arranged in rigid forms, and her footwear is often skyscraper high. In 2009, Gaga wore a hat designed by Gehry to a benefit for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. It was Gehry’s first millinery foray, initially sketched on his iPhone. The hat was arranged like a demented tulip, with petals of silver leather encapsulating a translucent, glittering orb.

The affair between fashion and architecture is not always met with approval—the differences between the two disciplines can easily render attempts at cross-pollination unsuccessful. Inherently problematic is that fashion is more ephemeral than architecture. It changes with the seasons, and some collections, no matter how innovative or provocative, seem to have little chance as enduring designs. When architecture suffers from inaccessible design, the danger is graver. Most buildings can’t change with the season.

Yet in the challenges they face, fashion design and architecture again intersect: Both must generate designs of increasingly innovative form and more-effective function. Further still, in this era of eco-awareness and cost cutting, both fashion design and architecture are charged with achieving greater sustainability, efficiency and value. In the coming decade, it will be fascinating to see if and how the relationship between fashion design and architecture will evolve to help each meet these challenges.


Liz Rosenbaum has a BA in English from Santa Clara University and an MA in writing, literature and publishing from Emerson College. Her diverse professional background includes freelance writing and editing in a variety of genres. She is fond of hand-pulled espresso, oysters, laughter and her iPhone. Her website is wordstylings.com.

Photo: Prada store, Tokyo. Designed by Herzog & de Muron. Provided by Scarletgreen. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

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