Rowley on Art (and Fashion) at SAM

What Cynthia Rowley and Nick Cave had to say about art and fashion at SAM last week.

By Laura Cassidy April 4, 2011

It’s not that I was suspicious about her motives when I heard that Cynthia Rowley was coming to Seattle to speak publicly with the artist Nick Cave at SAM, but I did assume that she and her team would use the opportunity to do some heavy lifting while here to get her line into one of our shops. (At present, if you want to buy this skirt you have to go to to do so; the brand is not carried in Seattle or on the Eastside.)

But at the end of a half-hour pre-SAM conversation that I had with the visiting New York-based designer at BOKA last week, I asked her about securing some Seattle stockists, and I got the distinct impression that she wasn’t really concerned with that particular goal.

‘The actual collection … we don’t … we don’t really …. try that hard to sell it,’ is how Rowley eventually put it (while wearing the above linked skirt), explaining that licensing deals, collaborations, and partnerships —in addition to the online shop of course—do a good job of taking the brand where it needs to go.

At first I was mildly offended—vaguely annoyed might be more accurate—because I thought, Well why aren’t you dying to sell to us?

But then, when I took my big fat shopping ego out of the equation, I realized what it meant: Cynthia Rowley really did come all the way to Seattle to talk about art, not fashion.

Later that evening at SAM, deputy director of education and public programs Sandra Jackson Dumont introduced Rowley and Cave with a slideshow meant to illustrate the on-going cultural buzz-fest between the disciplines. There was Kiki Smith doing knit jersey for the Gap, YSL referencing Mondrian on a dress, Kanye West with a Keith Haring design shaved into his head.

It was an interesting beginning because back at BOKA, Rowley had expressed that most art-and-fashion tie-ins consist of one artist (usually the fashion designer) simply lifting another’s (a painter perhaps, a photographer) work and basically pasting it onto their medium. This, to her, is totally boring. And while it’s exactly what YSL did with Mondrian’s primary colors, it doesn’t feel modern or inspiring anymore. Jackson-Dumont’s slides proved Rowley’s earlier assertion without even knowing it; at this point, art-and-fashion basically means making T-shirts.

Unless you’re Cynthia Rowley.

Her collaborations tend to involve conceptual ideas about abstract things like processes in the fashion industry. Yes, that translates to denim and paint, but it’s sure not $40 T-shirts.

While she and Cave, whose work is currently causing a city-wide fervor from inside the walls at SAM, have not formally collaborated on one specific project, the two friends constantly ‘share ideas and inspiration’’ and in that way they’re always ‘working independently together.’ As Rowley put it on stage at SAM, ’Nick’s work uses familiar materials and unfamiliar forms; my work is with familiar forms, but I try to use things like glass.’ (To make a skirt, that is.) They’re a good complement to each other.

‘The way that Nick incorporates wearable aspects into his work. The craft, the process, is similar to couture and yet it’s totally unfamiliar,’’ she told me. And later on stage, she said of her own work that she craves the narrative. She wants to tell a story, and is frustrated (she said, ’it’s a drag’ in this very drool way that she has of saying things) by the industry’s rigidity and the perceived need to stay within its boundaries.

I think it’s fair to call Rowley a reluctant designer. She identifies as a frustrated artist, really. ‘I guess I have a hard time accepting the title of fashion designer because there are so many shallow or negative, superficial things that can go along with that, and I don’t like those associations. I didn’t start in fashion because I wanted the fashion part of it. I did it because I like to make things and I wanted to be creative in a way that was comfortable for me. Because things have to be commodified, it became fashion.’

Which is an interesting reluctance for someone who is very commodified. You could take another click through the links I provided earlier on about licensing and partnerships and see that yeah, good and services are definitely being bought and sold.

And there’s nothing inappropriate about that. I myself am in the business of encouraging it. But what I felt myself wondering, in the public forum at SAM, was what the average Cynthia Rowley girl knows about her designer’s concepts and art world ideas. Since most of Rowley’s artist collaborations happen during her runway shows and aren’t always really reported on, how much access does the fashion consumer have to these artful discourses on the industry and its complications?

In answering that, Rowley talked about exaggerated ideas and themes that translate to performative measures and then sooner or later get carried into the nuts and bolts, day to day aspects of retail—the trickle down of the artist, his community, and the zeitgeist I guess—but Jackson-Dumont had another idea. She suggested Rowley take a page from museum display and design garment hang tags that name and succinctly describe the runway show art piece that they belong to.

‘Or I guess I could just print it right on the garment,’ said Rowley with her dry sense of humor. ’Here’s what I’m thinking about this season…’

Chances are good, actually, that someone around here would wear that.

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