Fashion & Beauty / An Intellectual Fashion

An Interview with Richard Phillips

Donatien Grau meets artist and marketeer Richard Phillips

Richard Phillips, Death in June (after Don Ashby) 2006
Richard Phillips, Death in June (after Don Ashby) 2006 Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

Richard Phillips’ work deals simultaneously with beauty and with the market. A painter living in New York City, he has shown extensively across America and the world, from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago to Le Consortium in Dijon and the Kunsthalle in Zurich. His work has been included in such contexts as the TV series Gossip Girl and MAC Cosmetics, and his images have been presented in magazines such as Elle, Vogue China, and Visionaire. He is represented worldwide by the Gagosian Gallery.

How would you connect fashion to elegance?
Without fashion, there is no understanding of elegance. Fashion's structural bridge with humanity is the armature on which elegance sits. In itself, elegance is a constructed idea, a conceptual aversion to the humanity it adorns and defines. It a manifestation of the imagination of that which is beyond the essential necessities of the human community and is enacted as a means of subverting reality. The formulation of fashion, the changing of it, in order to come up with a super version of humanity, offers but does not guarantee the condition of elegance. In the end, fashion is the medium used to reach that exo-corporal construction called elegance.

What is the role of history and art history in your conception of fashion?
My conception of fashion is distorted by history, and art history. Believing in a certain trajectory of history is a submission to fiction: we know little of history, and we make so much of it up, while calling all of it “history”. It is part of a larger fictional system that is our world as it escapes reality. Fashion is an important part of creating that fiction, as it is about creating the coded vehicles of fiction's image. These fictions are constructed to protect interest and to control ideas that flow through to following generations. Fashion, in the way it cloaks, and changes, and involves our ideas about ourselves, is a very important medium of influence, which corresponds and works with history. It defines how we are self-conscious of ourselves, and at the same time can be revised or distorted in the same way as history itself. Fashion and elegance create intra- and extra-personal propaganda for social, sexual, and political influence.

Would you describe fashion as a language and a discourse, as Barthes did?
I absolutely would agree with that. In my early work, I looked at fashion as the single focus, and established it as a platform for discourse in my art. The very first exhibition of portraiture I did was purely related to fashion, with no attempt of producing an external narrative to it. We need to acknowledge that fashion is an absolute legitimate form of communication that carries with it its dialectical illegitimacy. Fashion has always been present as discourse in art. Yet through arcane hierarchical bias it has often been left on the side, even though it had so much influence on culture on the whole. We need to continue to insist on developing the way we look at it.

"Fashion has always been present as discourse in art...We need to continue to insist on developing the way we look at it"

The word "intellectual" was coined in a time of great political distress. Does fashion have a political role? And in what way?
There’s no question about it. Fashion has maintained the role of identifying movements, and people, and creating touchstones for how people react to their immediate environment which can carry positive or negative consequences. For example the NSDAP used fashion for their movement by identifying themselves as “brown shirts”. They appropriated the unused desert uniforms from the previous war and took what was available, and made it their starting point, in order to propagate their political ideas. Fashion can be used to create separation, institute control and at the same time it may used to overthrow it and reject it.

How would you relate the concept of "fashion" to the one of "style"?
Style is a component of fashion. You may have both, or none. Style is a concept used to manipulate our perception of fashion. We think that style is original, and we buy fashion in order to have style. It is actually the opposite: we created style in order to feed fashion. Style is the moveable element, whereas fashion is the stable form.

What does fashion have to do with intellectuality?
Fashion has the capacity to change our relationship to others and ourselves, and challenge embodiment of the world. It is a form of communication that supersedes the parallel communicative languages involved. It speaks straightforwardly, and universally. It can be created, appropriated, re-appropriated, misappropriated and be used by, for, and against oneself, often at the same time. It offers a theory and methodology of communication that involves every aspect of the human condition from which intellectuality emanates.

Your work deals a lot with culture. How do you include fashion in your view of culture?
Fashion leads first. We address fashion before we get to culture. It is our face, our vehicle within which we go to culture. Fashion is also an articulation of a methodology within the transportation of ideas within culture: we get to appear and remove ourselves from cultural interaction with the presence or absence of the cloaking devices of fashion.

Your work equally deals with the contemporary meaning of beauty. Is there, in your view, a relationship between fashion and beauty?
Beauty is a tool of fashion and it is an experience connected to fashion. We can’t understand beauty unless we’re confronted with the elements that, in some way, negate or refute it. Those elements are as much as a part of fashion as the notion of beauty. Fashion is the song that is comprised of all these notes. We can either foreground beauty or that which is not beautiful in order to gain access to expressive potentials within the greater sonic dimension of fashion.

In two weeks Donatien will be interviewing Vanessa Friedman, fashion editor of the Financial Times.