Fashion & Beauty / An Intellectual Fashion

Germano Celant

Since the 1960s, Germano Celant has played a crucial role in defining and shaping the nature of contemporary creativity. Today, he stands as one of the most important voices in the curatorial and critical field.

Salvador Dalí,
 Aphrodisiac Dinner Jacket, 1936 (1964)
Salvador Dalí,
 Aphrodisiac Dinner Jacket, 1936 (1964) Courtesy Fondazione Prada, 
Photography by Attilio Maranzano

Since the 1960s, Germano Celant has played a crucial role in defining and shaping the nature of contemporary creativity. Today, he stands as one of the most important voices in the curatorial and critical field. He famously coined the term “Arte Povera” in 1967, and has organised several major exhibitions on that topic – the latest in 2011, when he curated an exhibition in seven Italian cities. A contributing editor of Artforum and Interview Magazine, he was appointed Senior Curator at the Guggenheim in 1988, and has since then curated many ground-breaking exhibitions, such as “Italian Art, 1900-1945” in Venice in 1989, and “Italian Metamorphosis, 1943-1968”, at New York's Guggenheim Museum in 1994. At the same time as he has considerably influenced the evolution of art, he has played a significant part in connecting the fields of art and fashion: since 1993, he has served as Director of the Prada Foundation, in Milan, and now Venice, and in 1996, he curated the first Biennale della Moda in Florence. The exhibition he curated in 2012,  “Ars Multiplicata” at the Prada Foundation in Venice, deals with the concept of multiples inside and outside of art.

How would you connect fashion to elegance?
Elegance is a very old-fashioned concept, whereas fashion has more to do with glamour, with the fact of being trendy. It also has to do with creating a new language for the body, a new language in the way you present yourself through the objects that are used on the body. It has to do with producing signs in order to communicate your identity, which can be copied, imitated, invented, oppressed, or oppressed by the media. Fashion is a history, a history that should be written. As a word, it does not only relate to clothing, but is used to describe the way taste changed in culture. I realised it when I did the first Biennale della moda in 1996: the problem was not so much to understand elegance, but to understand the linguistic contribution of fashion. Fashion, as design, is a very serious language, which should be analysed as every other language in the context of contemporary communication. It is the system used by people who want to look at other people, or who want to express themselves.

What is the role of history and art history in your conception of fashion?
It is a problem in fashion history, which is, today, still seen as something a bit superficial. Fashion has do with creating images, images to look at, images to abide to, and that played a major role in constructing a political awareness. It would also be a linguistic history of reality. Umberto Eco started it ages ago, but this history could play a major role in understanding art. Until, say, the French Revolution, art was fundamentally a representation of the divine. But inside of that representation there was a sense of reality. From the very moment that you represent a body, which can be naked, or idealised, it has to do with fashion: the fact that, at a certain moment in history, men were bearded or weren’t, is in itself a sign of fashion.

"Fashion, as design, is a very serious language, which should be analysed as every other language in the context of contemporary communication."

Would you describe fashion as a language and a discourse, as Barthes did?
In the 1960s, with semiology, we learned the logic of analysing signs. All signs became of equal importance. Someone like Warhol used every language in a very democratic way: he opened the way to a democratisation of language, in the way we look at advertising, at self-portraits, at painting... He used everything as a way to communicate. It was a great moment of democratisation, and also, of trivialisation, which is very much part of the concept of "pop". We have to deal with this democratisation of languages, which is not gone yet. The idea that something happened in every form of language, including fashion, is still an operation that is quite difficult to put together, and which remains very necessary.

The word "intellectual" was coined in a time of great political distress. Does fashion have a political role? And in what way?
It has a political role in the sense that it communicates sexuality. When fashion indicates changes in the way one looks at the sexual parts of the body, it opens up new ways politically. It is very much the case in the recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Schiaparelli/Prada”. Schiaparelli, and fashion design in the 1930s, challenged the bust because at that time it was impossible to talk about feminine sexuality. It was a moment of great liberation, it was Giacomo Balla’s moment, and Isadora Duncan’s. Miuccia is interested in the lower part of the body, from waist down . The time of the mini-skirt was very important too. And we have to think that this time was, philosophically, Marcuse’s time, the sexual liberation and it was the time of the Beatles as well.

How would you relate the concept of "fashion" to the one of "style"?
Style is a word we cannot really use anymore: style was a form of affirmation for language. In a time of research, of avant-garde, it enabled the consumer to identify the writer or the conceiver: Picasso’s style, Fleming’s style, Kubrick's style... Yves Saint Laurent had his own style, but it is a very rare thing now. Today, an artist has several languages. When you look at the great fashion designers, they are the ones always looking for rupture, for ways to negate themselves, to challenge themselves. It’s quite similar to Boccioni, who was a futurist, and then a realist. It is not a way of becoming a traditionalist, it leads to a change in signs. Fashion does not need signs of identity anymore. Some fashion houses need them, because they already have their consumers, and these consumers are not young anymore. But fashion needs to live with the new generations, and with the acceleration of changes. Fashion doesn’t consist in style anymore, but in the ability to jump stylistically from one style to another. That way, you become trendy, you become an opinion-maker.

What does fashion have to do with intellectuality?
A lot. Fundamentally, fashion is a language and a utility. And since there is no distinction between “pure” and “impure” anymore, there can be a constructive dialogue between the different languages: with art and architecture. If they don’t, they lose track with reality, which is so diverse. And the other thing is that fashion has a global audience, like cinema. Maybe it’s the reasons why intellectuals are afraid of fashion. Fashion, too, sometimes, is scared of becoming theoretical. But when they get together, they build a remarkable force.

"Fashion doesn’t consist of style anymore, but in the ability to jump stylistically from one style to another."

You have worked extensively on the avant-garde movements. Why was it so important for artists such as Giacomo Balla or Sonia Delaunay to include fashion in their project?
It was an attempt to reach as many people as possible. The avant-garde movements, in Italy, in Russia, still believed in the utopia of changing the world. They wanted to change everything. Therefore, they wanted to deal with utilities as well: books, advertisement, even toys and cups, and of course clothing. They strived to intervene in the social world: someone like Delaunay even considered launching a line of ready-to-wear... It was a desire, perhaps a narcissistic one, to contaminate the world with an aesthetic virus. Today, this desire still exists, but it has become individualised. The desire of the avant-garde resisted up to a certain point, in the 1980s, with the end of great ideals, and then it got lost in a powerless reality, and ended up being part of the market, as it is today.

Another of your topics of interest is performance: in what sense is fashion a performance of identity?
The fact of presenting yourself to the world is already a performance. It’s a very old thing, even if we only started to register it not so long ago. It has to do with the awareness of time, which was given to us by photography. We are now much more aware of performativity than we ever were. Today, fashion is a creative performance of people walking on the streets. It’s a widely-reaching performance, which is boring when it becomes repetitive, but stays interesting because the individualities on the streets remain really creative.

In two weeks Donatien will be interviewing the founders of Opening Ceremony and Creative Directors of Kenzo Humberto Leon and Carol Lim.