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NEW YORK — Taking a cue from the fashion industry, Barneys New York is referencing the past.

This story first appeared in the August 30, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Mere designer vintage offerings are no longer enough, however; they now need to have context as well. As a result, Barneys has turned its eye to “art to wear,” the movement born during the countercultural climate of the Sixties that generated scores of brilliantly crafted, ornate, handmade clothes.

“‘Art to wear’ emerged after the ‘Summer of Love,’” said Cameron Silver, owner of the L.A.-based vintage store Decades. “It was about using fashion as art, not so much for commerce, but for expressing oneself.”

While the designs were previously relegated to galleries, private collections or store rooms, Silver unearthed and edited them into a collection of approximately 100 pieces for the Decades area on the fifth floor of Barneys New York. The works vary from intricately woven pieces to embellished leather to dip-dyed fabrics. They include Katherine Westphal’s painted and transfer-print velveteen tops and tunics; sophisticated tie-dyed caftans from Marian Clayden, who worked as a textile designer for the musical “Hair” in 1969; painted silks from Ina Kozel; a cocoon coat from Kaisik Wong; dyed chiffon pieces from Holly Harp, leather patchwork bags from Char de Vazquez, and Dina Knapp’s colorful and outlandish knit pieces, like the Rasta Tam hats she created for Bob Marley. Julie Gilhart, vice president and fashion director at Barneys, was especially taken with Knapp’s hats. “We can sell these in New York until the cows come home,” said Gilhart. However, the specialty items are quite rare, and Barneys received only four, which retail for $450.

Other pieces range in price from $200 for knit scarves to almost $6,000 for more elaborate creations.

Gilhart was keen on featuring the collection in part because, “This is something interesting we wanted to do to spice things up, so it’s not the same-ole, same-ole.”

The “art to wear” pieces will likely be of particular interest to customers because of their craftsmanship, uniqueness and freshness, according to Gilhart, as well as the pervading customer penchant for one-of-a-kind items. “Going into spring, there is suddenly all of this ultimate customization. It’s about making individual statements through your clothes…it’s like the ultimate expression of fashion, and it’s not mass marketed.”

Coincidentally or not, some of the themes of the “art to wear” pieces mirror current fall trends like patchwork bags, chunky knits, painted velvets and folkloric motifs. According to Harold Koda, the curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, similarities between the current cultural conditions and those of the Sixties have served to give “art to wear” pieces a particular relevance today.

In tandem with “art to wear’s” emergence in the Sixties was a proliferation of people shopping at vintage and surplus clothing stores, much in the same way savvy shoppers have in the last several years, Koda said.

“The same thing that would motivate someone young and design-savvy to be interested in a 1960’s Trigère coat is also going to be motivated by these manifestations of the artisanal and individualized. It’s another opportunity to be more personally expressive,” said Koda. He also referenced the controversy that surrounded Nicolas Ghesquière’s sampling last season of a Kaisik Wong vest, but Koda’s point of view depicts Ghesquière as a pioneer rather than a poacher.

“What was so ingenious about it, was he took something that if anybody else had seen at a flea market or at a thrift shop they would have bypassed it because it was still out there enough that it wasn’t newly chic,” said Koda. “He styled it in a way that was completely different from its original content. Rather than a full dirndl skirt, he showed it with the midriff bared and slacks. It became more hard-edged, more urbane, and the context became much more sophisticated. That was counter to the original intentions of that piece, which were to be much more touchy-feely granola. By recontextualizing it, I think it has made our eyes see the pieces in a very different way.”

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