The Art of Design

Four industry visionaries weigh in on the age-old discussion on art in fashion and the retail environment
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Posted November 26, 2012
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This summer, in an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “Impossible Conversations,” Miuccia Prada took on Elsa Schiaparelli’s bold statement that “dress designing is not a profession but an art.” Said Prada, “Whether fashion design is art, or even if art is art, doesn’t really interest me. Maybe nothing is art.”

And so the long debate over the relationship of fashion and art goes on. If nothing is art, as Prada contends, what is art? Schiaparelli says, “It’s the way we live.” So is fashion art? Does art have a place in the retail environment?

Because I can no longer speak with Schiaparelli, and Prada probably won’t return my calls, I turned to four people who believe in the role of art in the fashion and retail worlds: Ignaz Gorischek, Joe Mimran, Ralph Pucci and Joseph Abboud.

Neiman Marcus has the largest art collection of any retailer in America and displays it prominently in its stores. Ignaz Gorischek, vp, store development, says, “Our collection is extremely important to us. It was started in 1951 by Stanley Marcus and we’ve been collecting ever since. Art plays an important role in our store environments.”

Menswear fashion designer Joseph Abboud, now president and chief creative officer of HMX Group, says the company’s art collection is invaluable to its brand. “Precursors to photography, our early commercial illustrations from 1907 to 1915 were art. They depicted the style and romance of the era by placing clothes in interesting environments, with wind whipping through a woman’s hair and a man’s collar elegantly turned.”

The focal point of the new Joe Fresh store on Fifth Avenue is a 1954 sculpture by Harry Bertoia. Creative director Joe Mimran says, “There are different pillars of retail, including density, turns and productivity. Branding is where art comes into it.” Art is an everyday part of Mimran’s life and he feels it’s meaningful to integrate it into the retail environment. “The way artists view the world is what affects retailers.”

Mimran credits Ralph Pucci, president of Ralph Pucci Intl., for elevating mannequins to an art form. Pucci believes we owe it to customers to elevate the in-store experience. Artistic sensibilities within the retail environment are “a must to endure and thrive in today’s economic climate. Stores must create a unique identity and message, and communicate it quickly and clearly.” Pucci bases his mannequin collection on artistic sensibilities, including lines inspired by modern dance, music and sculpture.

Abboud strives to be different: “While fashion and store design are commercial endeavors, they move emotions when they strike a point of differentiation. We want people to understand the thought process of design. I’m most inspired by visiting museums rather than thumbing through fashion magazines. I look at how artists see color.”

Gorischek believes any form of visual expression can be defined as art, including show windows. “With windows and art, balance, positive negative space, light, dark and proportion influence the overall impact. When these design principles aren’t used, the window goes from a creative art to a ‘window display.’ ”

Pucci feels the soul of fashion is art. “Fashion designers are inspired by art, whether it’s a photograph by Richard Avedon or a painting by Ellsworth Kelly. Their collections are a reflection of this art form.” Mimran adds, “Like art, fashion is sociology. It’s a mirror of society; just look at the running shoe.”

John Wanamaker and Stanley Marcus were visionaries who created unique and successful stores by promoting and believing in what was new in the world of art, architecture and fashion. Being so numbers-driven, retailers today are less courageous. This has impaired their creative instincts.

Successful business leaders understand the importance of the creative spirit in any business model. Why do we love Apple? Naturally, we’re drawn to the brand because of its technology. But equally compelling are its fashion-forward aesthetics. Apple understands this; its $8.8 billion in net profits for third quarter 2012 underscore the importance of holistic design and creativity in the retail process. So for the bean counters, design is a generator of profit, but fashion and art are also vital aspects of our lives, and they’re integral to the retail experience.