Susan Mc Ateer
Frills, bows, belts, ribbons, pleats; I’ll have them all please, but let’s keep it two-dimensional and let’s try sticking to sequins for good measure. This is the offering that has come from Gucci since Alessandro Michele took the helm at the Italian fashion house in January 2015. Promoting maximalism over minimalism, these detailed, referential collections are a breath of fresh, busy air. Fashion and fine art frequently intersect, but rather than referring to a particular artist or period Michele has employed a trompe l’oeil painting technique to create bold details. In a time obsessed with minimal design, Gucci has opted for giving us all the trimmings, and not in a way we expected.
The trompe l’oeil technique developed during the Renaissance, as painters played with perspective and illusions to bring the two dimensional canvas to life. This technique was refined in the 17th century, alongside the development of still life painting. The French term, trompe l’oeil, literally means to trick the eye, so having explored linear perspective some artists thought that they would really go to town and create scenes that would trick the viewer into thinking they were looking at three dimensional objects. The subject matter varies, but a lot of painting in this style depicts objects that appear momentarily or casually strewn on a surface such as a desk or a drawer. This type of painting is referred to as a quodlibet (art really digs French terms that make you nervous to say). Some artists also toyed with the boundaries of the canvas, with subjects or objects emerging or tumbling from the frame, blurring the line between the realities occupied by the painting’s subjects, and that occupied by the viewer.
While not a common style of painting in contemporary art, there are certain artists who work with this technique, such as Lucy Mckenzie, a Scottish artist based in Brussels. Mckenzie’s practice is varied including film and design, and she is trained in 19th century technique of decorative painting. Mckenzie has created various quodlibets but she roots this traditional style in the contemporary by depicting contemporary materials such as cork boards scattered with objects including facsimiles of her own photographs, an issue of a 1990s Riot Grrl fanzine, Edna O’Brien book covers, or sketches for her own clothing line, Atelier EB, which she runs with fellow Scottish artist Beca Lipscombe. Through painting and clothing design, Mckenzie challenges cultural history and representation and provides alternative insights. Collections for Atelier EB have taken inspiration from various sources including Chanel and their contribution to shaping the modern woman, and Cleopatra with sharp Egyptian motifs forming visual themes.
Although she practises both, Mckenzie has not fused trompe l’oeil technique with clothing design, however, throughout the years various designers have been influenced by this style. Elsa Schiaparelli incorporated knotted bows and ties in hand-knitted sweaters in the 1920s, encouraging a more relaxed and playful approach to casual wear for women. This hand-knitted medium created quite sharp, geometric graphic designs. In 1952 Herbert Sondheim took a modern and fluid approach to trompe l’oeil at Hermes by screen printing simple graphic details directly onto plain fabric, creating simple dress silhouettes and straight-line raincoats. The printed details depicted lapels, buttons, collars, stitching and neck scarfs. These dresses and coats feel crazy contemporary and have a playful air, while still retaining a refined elegance. During the 1970s Venetian designer Roberta di Camerino also experimented with trompe l’oeil creating two dimensional pleats and draping, and crafting entire shirt and blazer combos with drawn details (hello instant trick outfit). To delve further into visual trickery at the hands of di Camerino, visit their website for a beautiful, trippy introduction.
Fashion notoriously borrows ideas, revives and reworks, often from its own archives, but it also tunes into art and culture to re-appropriate styles and techniques. Trompe l’oeil has been explored in fashion before, and Michele’s collections at Gucci certainly echo Di Camerino’s designs, but he presents it with such a fresh perspective and with astute attention to detail, clashing textures and colours, and eclectic styling. This re-appropriation makes the collections feel relevant and interesting. Or maybe I’m totally wrong, and all these designers were looking to save a buck by skimping on those expensive trimmings and just drawing them on, those tricksters.