Gilbert & George

Today we’re used to the idea that artists are as much entertainers as they are creators. Would Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst be household names if their reputation rested solely on their work? You know the answer. We are all aware of them because they have learnt the mantra of fame: first catch your audience by any means you like – and the rest follows.
When being an entertainer is your art, then the equation is less crude. Take the conceptual artists Gilbert and George. They started their careers by apparently doing little more than dressing immaculately. Long before designers thought of it, they showed that dress can, literally, be a form of art. They subverted their traditional 1930s-style English suits and highly polished shoes by painting their faces and hands gold and singing songs. By such simple means, they turned themselves into works of art. They also created a look more instantly recognisable than most fashion designers ever manage to pull off.
The key to their enduring success, both as artists and style icons, is that they have never changed their appearance. They’ve been copied, of course. In the fashion and entertainment industries, an individual’s signature look is now accepted as a valuable way to focus the attention of a notoriously fickle public.
Karl Lagerfeld is rarely far from a shirt with a 6in-high collar, a tight black suit and a handful of Hell’s Angels jewellery; Gwen Stefani is generally decked out as a peroxide Betty Boop; and imagine Pete Doherty without a hat. These images can be scary, but they are potent, and work for the same reason that the appearance of Gilbert and George works. They are memorable.
And then there are Viktor & Rolf, fashion’s own equivalent of Gilbert and George. Their appearance – matching glamour geeks – is always quaint, while their catwalk collections simultaneously subvert and expand fashion, having fun with it by making fun of it. Just like Gilbert and George have done with their art since way back in 1969 when they started out – and long before they were famous.
(First published January 2006)

Picture: Gilbert and George, coming 1983. © the artist and Jay Joplin/White Cube, London