Ephemeral, trend-driven, concerned with surface embellishment and most often a product of mass-production, fashion and clothing are often thought of as a superficial manifestation of popular culture. A craft rather than art object. Nevertheless, since Andy Warhol demonstrated how the symbolic value of commercial design could be applied in the realm of art and postmodern theory turned the art world on its head - redefining and expanding the definition of art - the lines between craft and art have blurred.
The last decade in South Africa has seen a growing affinity between art and fashion. Though it's hard to pinpoint the genesis of this new phenomenon, it's possible it could have been helped by an identity crisis and a desire to forge a new national culture, which clothing is uniquely equipped to address. Certainly it was helped along by a number of high-profile exhibitions of African material culture such as Ezakwantu: Beadwork from the Eastern Cape, which was held at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town in 1993. The beaded garb that was displayed at this exhibition was never referred to as clothing - there was a desire to elevate its status - but shown in a gallery created the notion that clothing had a symbolic significance that aligned it with fine art expression. Just as African material culture can be viewed as valuable markers of cultural and social mores and identity, so too can these elements be gleaned from Western dress. In this regard, fashion's immediacy and its ability to translate often complex cultural issues into readily consumed garments is now viewed as an asset and no longer a characteristic that undermines its value. The ability of fashion designers to capture a moment in time in a trendy fashion item has also meant that such items could be no different from photographs.
As the most obvious marker of identity, clothing has proved to be a useful medium for a generation of artists trying to redefine identity or at least challenge the fixed identities of the past. Lolo Veloko, Lawrence Lemaoana, Nicholas Hlobo, Nandipha Mntambo, Mary Sibande and Athi-Patra Ruga are part of this group of artists employing clothing as their main vehicle of expression. There are also a number of fashion designers who employ a fine art approach to their craft, while there are others who move between both realms - showing their work in galleries and on catwalks. The Strangelove label, headed by Carlo Gibson; Lisa Jaffe of the Guillotine fashion label, David Tlale, Ruga and Black Coffee, whose gallery installation won them the Mercedes-Benz Award - which has traditionally been an award reserved for fine artists - are part of this burgeoning faction of designers.
Ruga had always intended to become an artist but opted to study fashion as one of his central concerns had always been the politics of the body - he felt that studying fashion would better equip him to engage with that theme. After completing a degree in fashion he became embroiled in the seductive world of fashion, but when he resisted taking part in the Afrochic fashion movement - which started in 2000 - he found himself a stranger to that industry.
"I was concerned with the body not expressing a nationality or a South African identity. I felt isolated; I was going against the spirit of the time," says Ruga.
Always imbuing his clothing with layers of meaning, Ruga often found himself creating unwearable clothing and became frustrated with the short life span it enjoyed on fashion catwalks.
"A fashion show is just 20 minutes; I wanted to give my work longevity, an extra life, which I found I could do through performance (art). I became more interested in using fashion and clothing as a mode of expression in art rather than in fashion," said Ruga.
Ruga exploits clothing's metaphorical or symbolic values. He sees fashion as more than a functional object but as a powerful medium of expression.
"It communicates to others who we are and how we feel about ourselves. Before someone even talks, we know something about them just based on what they are wearing."
But just as fashion reflects identity, it can similarly be the tool to redefine one's identity, giving us control over how we are perceived. It is this aspect that has largely appealed to artists seeking to challenge ways in which South Africans are defined by their physicality. Clothing can also help refashion the body.
"It's a way of transforming your body. You can transform your entire silhouette. You can have broad shoulders or a tiny waist," observes Jaffe.
"Everything has become physical and the way things look, the facades. The outside that is the new inside. You may have issues but if you wear a certain jacket you must be feeling good inside."
In this way clothing and its more ephemeral derivative, fashion, are part of a visual lexicon no different from any used in the visual arts - hence its appeal to artists. For designers who are more steeped in the business of fashion, this visual idiom has allowed them to reflexively unpack the nature of their trade.
This has been one of the central concerns in the work that Jaffe has produced for her hybrid fashion/art projects. For the Design Indaba, she produced a video artwork that explored the role fashion has played in defining ideals of beauty. From Saartjie Baartman and Chinese women with bound feet to Madonna, Jaffe looked at how "women's bodies were manipulated to create the ideal body over the ages".
Ruga, through his art, "satirises fashion", poking fun at its conventions and subverting the relationships of power within the fashion industry where "stylists, designers and magazine editors dictate how we should look and what we should wear". This is why Ruga often wears his own clothing and is the subject of his own art imagery.
In 2007 Ruga showed his first gallery exhibition, She is Dancing for the Rain with her Hand in the Toaster, at the Michael Stevenson gallery. In one of the pieces he took a tailored man's jacket dipped it in Rapeseed oil and suspended it from butcher's hooks; the oil reshaped the jacket into a form that resembled the shape of a woman's body.
Clothing has proved a useful tool for those keen on comprehending the societal structures that define gender.
Lawrence Lemaoana covers male subjects in his photographs with all-encompassing pink outfits, undermining their masculinity. Other artists such as Nicholas Hlobo also use the language of clothing.
Drawing from Xhosa and Western dress, he creates his sculptural rubber artworks with pink ribbon trimmings to engage with the visual structures that perpetuate notions of masculinity.
But fashion designers such as Clive Rundle are also interested in clothing's capacity to express gender identity. He has often fused female and male dress codes to challenge notions of gender.
For his summer 2008 and his up-and-coming winter 2010 SA Sanlam fashion week collections, he has deconstructed second-hand men's suit jackets by taking features, such as button stands, collars and cuffs and embedded them in women's clothing or teamed them with soft and pliable fabrics that exude femininity. Rundle unreservedly counts himself as a fashion designer - "we wouldn't dare think of ourselves as artists", he quips, but there are few in the fashion industry who would deny that his liminal fashion sense straddles the fine art realm. Though he keeps an eye on fashion trends, they rarely inform his practice.
Rundle frowns on pretty mood boards that, with fabric swatches, tasteful colour combinations and conventional fashion styles most often define a designer's point of inspiration each season.
Rundle works viscerally: he experiments with fabrics on the dummy in the mode of the couturier until he settles on a fabric combination and style lines. Though he uses glib labels to tag each of his collections - he has labelled his latest range a "lesbian wedding" - they are just expedient sobriquets that come in handy when people inquire about his collections. They do not define the collection, he says, and suggests that in his catwalk collections he works towards creating clothing that transcends verbal descriptions. He aims to tap into the human condition and create clothing that is not only visually stimulating but also reaches into the viewer's psyche.
"I think about how the collection has an impact from an emotional point of view. I think about what your heart is going to say when you see this. I am trying to engage with your emotional character. I want people to feel like the clothes touched them somewhere that they can't fully understand," says Rundle.
Despite the intangible quality that he strives to evoke in his clothing, he suggests that each collection has its own special musical pitch, which he tries to identify during its development.
"I might feel that one collection is a 'C-sharp' and another is distinctly a 'G-flat'."
In developing a synergy between his creations and a musical pitch Rundle feels he is able to achieve the tone and mood of the collection. Rundle's catwalk collections are different from the collections he sells in his shop. He considers the clothing he creates for the ramp to be in a "raw state", and while some of his clientele are eager to buy these garments, they are mostly reworked and refined into more conventional garments. Rundle doesn't consider this actuality to be at odds with his artistic process.
"It is not a compromise to make things wearable because to create a product that is both beautiful and can fit the human form is incredibly difficult, is a challenge; it is the ultimate challenge."
So challenging is this procedure that it sometimes takes three or four years before Rundle's fashion show garments are available in his shop. Jaffe's catwalk and retail ranges are one and the same, thus for her striking the balance between her collection's conceptual impetus and wearability remains a challenge each season.
"I have to look at trends and what looks good on a woman. I can have amazing conceptual ideas, but if you have a big bum or small bum how is this design going to work?" says Jaffe.
Like Rundle, Jaffe relishes the challenge of translating concepts into functional three-dimensional objects.
"I love that fashion directly interacts with the body," she says.
Rundle suggests that his art only truly comes alive when it is on the body. "We are always working with an unknown quantity until the garment is worn. The results can be unpredictable and unexpected," says Rundle.
Unlike Rundle's visceral approach, the genesis for Jaffe's collections begins with ideas that she teases out in the form of writing. From there she begins sketching and then shifts her focus to the fabrication. Her Winter 2010 range is dubbed "Nature in Waiting". It is a conflation between nature and the manufacturing processes of different types of fabric and how they operate as metaphors for the dichotomy between urban and rural lifestyles. Jaffe has also created an image in her mind that articulates the conflicting energies that weave through the fabrication, design and themes of her collection.
"I picture this lady in waiting. She is dressed well and is sitting in her boudoir waiting for the next thing to happen. There is this tension: we don't know who is going to walk into the door and what will happen next. She is passive but also in control and there is a buildi-up of pressure between these two characteristics," says Jaffe. For this collection, Jaffe is working with cushion covers that resemble dated antique décor pieces. The covers are mass-produced but appear to be the product of meticulous handwork.
Jaffe has teamed mass-produced and slowly crafted fabrics in her collection to comment on the intensity and rhythms of urban life, where value is determined by time. Jaffe employs style lines as part of her language of expression, but the fabric in this collection is the main vehicle of communication.
Appropriately, her winter collection will include a range of jackets and coats fashioned from blankets, the cheap sort that are sold in Joburg's inner city, which provide warmth to the impoverished and also feature in some traditional ceremonies, where their symbolic value is also exploited. Jaffe enjoys reinvesting the everyday with meaning or at least drawing attention to its significance.
"It's about taking this single object that every one needs and overlooks and changing it into a magnificent tailored jacket. I take it outside of its obvious function and give it a story, it becomes crafted. It becomes more than a two-dimensional object on your bed or on the side of the road."
Jaffe makes extensive use of reconstituted fabrics taken from disused clothing found at Hospice shops, such as jerseys that are shrunk and cut into modern accessories and embellishments. Rundle, too, has used a lot of reconstituted fabrics in his ranges. A lack of resources and paucity of locally produced textiles have driven many designers to recycle garments, but the process also lends itself to reflecting the country's social and political conditions, which have been defined by moral and political regeneration or renewal - or, at least, a desire to remodel old systems.
Interestingly, this is mirrored in art produced by the likes of Kay Hassan and Kagiso Pat Mautloa, who are part of a generation of artists who create work from recycled objects. At Hassan's mid-career retrospective, Urbanation, he filled a room with second-hand clothing, eliciting a dialogue about the parallel worlds of the rich and poor and how such displays add to the visual character of the South African urban landscape. The exhibition further cemented the affinity between art and fashion and how the two disciplines and practitioners enrich each other's work.
For designers, it's important to create fashion that reflects and comments on the status quo: she couldn't create clothing without a conceptual grounding, says Jaffe. "If I didn't, I wouldn't care about the jacket I am making and what it looks like." - published in The Sunday Independent, 13 September 2009.