Music and Fashion share much more than a capital letter. They share the crushing lightness of their multitude of possibilities and the taste for challenging the volatility of time. As in any other good love story, the lines of their two worlds were blurred until they became one, in an affair that is written with no beginning nor end – in a sheet with five lines, of course.
I would like to start this article with a preface, a sort of confession: I’ve never been this excited to write an article. I quickly realized though, that trying to elaborate on this theme represents roughly the same challenge as trying to write about art, cinema or any other field where creativity rules alongside the survival of an entire industry that is associated with it. The infinite possibilities are so overwhelming, that I couldn’t avoid being confronted with the inevitable question: “Where should I begin?!”, which led me to the typical block, the deadlock of those that don’t yet have an answer. Ironically, after a couple of hours, and on the edge of convincing myself that maybe I was too ambitious, that maybe the responsibility I had bestowed upon myself to tackle a subject I hold this dear was not compatible with my ability to express it, I found myself listening (and humming) to Puttin’ on the Ritz, by Taco. “Different types of who wear a day coat / Pants with stripes / And cutaway coat, perfect fits / Puttin’ on the Ritz”. Surely some readers will need no further explanations as to why this reference is filled with relevancy but, for the rest of the crowd, allow me to clarify. This hit, released in 1982, was part of the soundtrack for the Chanel Métiers d’Art fashion show, titled Paris Cosmopolite, in 2016. In between the tables of the Ritz Hotel’s dining room, models and brand ambassadors such as Cara Delevingne, Pharrell Williams and Lily-Rose Depp, swirled amongst the guests, who were sitting as if ready to enjoy the most exquisite meal, with a side of Haute-Couture. Every element fell into place within Karl Lagerfeld’s vision, that transported us into a dimension of cosmopolite refinement, where the verb “twirl” could be used literally: the models danced, spun around locking arms with the waiter figurines, sang along the pop version of the original tune composed by Irving Berlin in 1927. I could list a hundred reasons why this particular show is a personal favorite, but perhaps the most relevant one is the celebration of the blurred lines that compose the true elevation of Fashion as art, the explosion of endorphins that can only be achieved through music. The excitement came back – and I started writing.
Ironically or not, having Chanel as a primordial example and a vessel of inspiration for the beginning of this text couldn’t be more fitting. This maison has one of the longest and richest relationships with not only music, but also with the ballet, the fine arts, and all its MVPs (most valuable players, that is), like Picasso, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and many other names that were part of the Ballet Russes troupe. At the time, the innovative ballet company, that arrived in Paris in 1930, proposed, fundamentally, a transversal communion between movement, dance, music, fashion, painting and sculpture. Coco, l’irrégulière, had a spot at the table, sharing it with some of the most influential names of the XX century, and carried on her shoulders the responsibility of assuring that Fashion was respected as an equal to every other art form – and so she did. From that moment on, opinions diverge when it comes to two fundamental topics: if Gabrielle Chanel might have taken the notion of this affair too seriously, since her entanglement with the Russian composer Stravinsky was more on the literal side – and what was the starting point, from a historic perspective; in other words, what was the event that contributed the most for the establishment of this relationship between fashion and music that still holds to this day. I asked Benjamin Simmenauer, Professor at the Institut Français de la Mode, in Paris, his opinion on the latter topic (evidently). “There are two possible answers here. The more ‘obvious’ one would be to mention the moment when music – and pop, in particular – became a showbusiness, involving much more visual parts of performance, as it is the case for dance and even the persona of musical stars at the time. Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and so many other examples, especially with rock influences, were pioneers in this intersection. This is the answer that most people would think of. However, there is another one – a more interesting one – that involves a preface to this story. In German, the expression ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, though lacking a direct translation, represents an idea dating back to the XIX century of an integral, complete and total work of art. The most famous artist to employ the expression was Richard Wagner, the opera composer, who intended on merging all possible forms of art, combining them to create a sort of parallel universe where all human senses would be stimulated simultaneously. Wagner wrote the stories that were interpreted, composed the music that played along with them, and extended his interpretation to the set design, what the characters would wear, even the decoration of the opera itself. There is a very strong sense of origin in that total incorporation of performance. Fundamentally, Fashion wants to be like the opera of Wagner.”
The advantage of introducing some historic perspective is being able to find (and understand) the references that surround us today more easily. The fascination of certain designers with some artists, the long-term relationships that are established between these two industries, the way they all come from the same intrinsic drive that has always brought the universes of fashion and music together: the goal of achieving a complete experience at every level – from physical to digital, from traditional fashion shows to short-films, from concerts to Instagram lives. “I believe that what brands like Saint Laurent or Dior intend on presenting today is a proposal where the final result of this artistic communion is better than the simple sum of its parts. However, the investment that transcendence requires is the biggest factor of distinction and puts those with larger economic power in the vanguard.”, Benjamin Simmenauer explains. And then, the two largest components of this equation are put forward: the commitment to the elevation of art, and the commercial success. In an industry that moves millions of dollars per year, mentioning creative processes necessarily implies the consideration of their viability, of how “feasible” the creative team’s dreams actually are. Thus, another question arises, amidst the creative process of fashion – that same one that needs to consider its own survival –, that reads as follows: what is the real role of music? Is it just a soundtrack, an accessory to the fashion show? Or is it an integrant, fundamental, indispensable part of the concoction of an idea? The response, as so happens in pretty much any other question based on artistic appreciation, was something like “it depends”, but Benjamin Simmenauer elaborates: “It depends on the brand, and it depends on the creative director. Someone I can mention as an example is Hedi Slimane. In a very old interview – when Slimane still gave interviews [laughs] -, the designer mentioned that the starting point for his collections was music. He would look for some sort of rhythm, something particular and special that would set the mood for creation, that defined a silhouette and gave him an idea of who the people wearing the clothes would be, even their way of moving and the aura around them. The same process would then be extended to the actual fashion shows, where music was also present from the very first moment. I believe there must have been a time where the choice of music for the presentation of his collections was the most important and decisive aspect for the designer.”
Whether it is as an accessory or a fundamental piece, the dogma “Music is an integrant part of what it means to transmit the message of Fashion” is not up for debate – I would challenge you, dear reader, to find a fashion show nowadays that doesn’t have a soundtrack, pretty much since the beginning of the XX century, when we were gifted with the first shows in the format we know today -, something that transcends the tangible and material world, a vessel to reach the dream we see walking down the runway. Perhaps that is the reason why it is also extremely difficult to find a brand that hasn’t yet done some kind of collaboration with a singer, band, DJ or rapper. Nicky Minaj is the last one to drop a capsule collection with Fendi for the summer of 2021, but in 2009, two of the most influential personalities of our time also interned for the Italian brand: Virgil Abloh and Kanye West. At that moment, the epitome of possibilities the intersection between fashion and music has to offer was materialized in what we interpret today as the beginning of a new digital age, ruled by new ways of moving and influencing the masses. In this crossroads of artistic exploration, two stars were born, side by side with so many other cases of fatal attraction between the two universes. Gucci and Harry Styles, Celine and Blackpink’s Lisa, Chanel and Pharrell Williams, Balmain and Kanye West, J. W. Anderson and A$ASP Rocky… The arsenal of collaborations is nothing short of infinite, thus we couldn’t help but wonder: What is the real motivation for this constant connection? Is the affair evolving to become a more consummated, resolute and indissociable commitment? Are we talking about a marriage after all? “When it comes to the interest of the general public, it’s important to consider how the connection with an artist is multifaceted, and oftentimes doesn’t just involve their musical career but also their relationship with Fashion itself. It doesn’t strike me as commercial opportunism, but rather a mutual and constant celebration of these forms of expression. The success of these kinds of relationships, in the long run, demonstrates how the influence between the two universes ends up overlapping, especially when it comes to the celebrity status of artists. The fact that a certain musician or performer ‘fits’ with the narrative of a brand allows for some margin for their own identity to evolve, as long as their purpose remains organic and genuine despite the fame; there are many examples, from musicians that compose specifically for certain shows, to designers that search for collaborations that combine both a defiant and provocative political message”, Benjamin Simmenauer underlines.
There is no universal response, and in a world with no certainties, what we would risk pointing out is the fidelity that both sides insist on demonstrating for one another, as if in a serenade, like a torrid love affair that is assumed before everything and everyone. “One of the most promising aspects of this relationship is the mutual communication path that is established between both industries. In the future, it would be good to see an evolution, for example, in the role of Fashion as a platform that showcases young talent that has not yet been discovered by the algorithmic triage that nowadays rules the world of Music. Having to watch another fashion show with the same playlist on rotation, just because the creative director felt content with the music they discovered 30 years ago, is tiring at most and demeaning at least.”, Benjamin finishes. The references that prove to be the most relevant, and those that indeed inspire the creative process, are the ones that have a personal touch, an affirmation of identity within the fullness of one’s expression. “Who influences who?” is no longer the question, because we are dealing with worlds that are permeable to both the times and themselves, that simultaneously absorb and mirror all that we’re living. David Bowie, Madonna, Freddie Mercury, Aretha Franklin, Prince, Bob Marley... Alexander McQueen, Azzedine Alaïa, Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld... There are no formulas for success, but considering the aforementioned examples, we understand that they were not simply “well-positioned” individuals between the two industries, nor can their legacy be reduced to the countless achievements they have collected throughout their careers. What gathers them in our memory’s hall of fame might as well be the key to the immortality of this affair: they are Music, and they are Fashion. Unconditionally. Indissociably.
Translated from the original, as part of Vogue Portugal's Music Issue, published in june 2021.