Photo courtesy of Serpentine Gallery.

Fashion Is Fine Art at Atelier E.B.’s New Show

Beca Lipscombe and Lucy McKenzie’s exhibition, “Passer-by,” is “equal parts local museum display, contemporary art show, and functional salesroom.”

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Oct 12 2018, 12:39pm

Photo courtesy of Serpentine Gallery.

Cult label Atelier E.B. has become the first fashion brand to stage an exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery.

Artist/designers Beca Lipscombe and Lucy McKenzie—dressed in white couturier’s coats ahead of the show’s opening last week—have a VERY off-schedule approach, producing collections two or three years apart. Their exhibition, Passer-by, is appropriately meta: equal parts local museum display, contemporary art show, and functional salesroom.

“We’re making all these associations between fine art and fashion, but it’s not the obvious ones,” says McKenzie. Among the unearthed treasures in Passer-by: a Rootstein mannequin modeled on Elaine Paige; a manual on window displays written by Frank L. Baum before The Wizard of Oz; wooden figures by the Tyrolean carvers responsible for Jeff Koons’s 1988 Banality series; and an ad for Fogal tights by Allan Jones, infamous for his sculptures of women in fetish garb.

True to its window-licking title, the show includes sections on display mannequins and the bygone art of “window trimming.” Passer-by asks where the distinction lies between sculpture, mannequin, and doll (all, not coincidentally, perennial fetish objects.)

During Fashion Month, art is ever the bridesmaid, never the bride: an attention-grabbing display mechanism for the main event, whether it Jon Rafman’s high-tech tunnel at Balenciaga, Christian Marclay’s cartoon-sonic embroideries for Celine, or Isa Genzken’s mannequin sculptures dressing the runway at Proenza Schouler.

Flipping the tables on such fleeting collabs, in Passer-by, the display mechanisms become the main event. Artist friends, including Anna Blessmann, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, and tapestry weaver Elizabeth Radcliffe (Lipscombe’s mom) have all contributed objects that are unapologetically artworks and functional “mannequins” in one.

Atelier E.B doesn’t have the wherewithal to make much in house, so there are partnerships: Vionnet for tailoring; Ratti, in Italy, for the printed silk; cotton basics from Fruit of the Loom. Their knits are made by local manufacturers on the Scottish borders. “Because we’re Scottish, it’s all a bit seasonless,” says Lipscombe. “It’s the same outfit all year, it just depends if you’re wearing one jumper or two.”

A signature accessory from the new collection is a mass-produced lanyard with a small, signed painting inserted in place of an ID card. “I love all those shows with the tough lady cops—I love the way that with a lanyard you can kill any outfit,” says McKenzie. The lanyard is still ugly as hell—its outfit-killing potential undimmed—but now it’s (theoretically) valuable.

There’s also a brooch inspired by “the little silver vase with a rose” that Hercule Poirot wore. TV detectives are only a sub-theme in a collection inspired by neoclassicism, and even neo-neoclassicism. The bold Grecian patterns used on this season’s Atelier E.B. tracksuits and knits were lifted from gowns designed by Hollywood legend Adrian in the 1940s. The grandma-approved palette—blue and cream, rust and black—is from the neoclassical designs of Wedgewood’s Jasperware pottery.

With long pauses between collections and limited production, Atelier E.B’s customers are few, and excited to encounter one another. Lipscombe and MacKenzie have launched a social app—Cleo’s—to help them connect. “So many brands love to promote the fact that they have a special connection with their audience: we really do.”

Atelier E.B: Passer-by, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, through 6 January.