I desperately want this _
Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons: Deyan Sudjic 1990
I first came across this in the library during my first year at university.
It seems strange now, and it wasn’t even that long ago, to imagine trawling through dusty books and Dewey codes. Google is incredibly useful but nothing can beat the excitement of happening on a great book after hours of fruitless searching in dank, sneeze-inducing aisles – its like its been sat there, patiently waiting for you to turn up. There was no quick fix back then.
In 1999, the Hayward Gallery, on London’s South Bank, ran an exhibition entitled “Addressing the Century: 100 Years of Art and Fashion“. On show were some of the infamous dresses from the Body Meets Dress Meets Body Becomes One spring-summer 1997 collection, or, as it became known, the “Lumps and Bumps” collection. This was a concept Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons had been exploring since 1996 but that show was the most lucid expression of it.
Body Meets Dress Meets Body
It was one of those collections that sent shockwaves through the fashion industry. Dresses were padded with oblong pillows that distorted the female physique. These random, irregular “growths” brought to mind Hottentot tribeswomen, goitre, thalidomide babies, tumors and bodily organs. They also bore a striking resemblance to the artist Georgina Godley’s padded underwear from her Hump and Bump collection. Even visionaries can’t always be totally original! What added to the eeriness was the use of sheer virginal whites that made the protrusions visible in parts and also, the picnic ginghams in pinks and pale blues – an influence still revertberating, if you look at Christopher Kane’s last summer collection of perverse Sunday school girls decked out in razored pastel gingham. What was also clever about that collection but not immediately obvious was that the pads were removable. Double whammy.
Those pieces, along with the Comme des Garçons book, were the starting point of my first essay at university in 1999, “Like Boys”. It seems a million years ago but flicking through it reminded me of how important Rei Kawakubo is. She is 100% pure, no additives Fashion Genius. When is somebody going to do a bloody retrospective exhibition of her work in the UK? Because_
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Autumn Winter 2011
The recent autumn-winter 2011 Comme collection seemed to take its cue from the “Lumps and Bumps” collection. Timely, if you consider that most brands were returning to their core values. However, Comme des Garçons isn’t “most brands” so I found it quizzical. The oddness and shock of the new that characterised Kawakubo’s work and that of her contemporaries, such as Yamamoto, and protégés, Junya Watanabe and Tao, has become so familiar that you almost know what to expect – strange bird’s nest hair, theatrical make up, flat shoes, illogical, complex silhouettes. The most shocking thing Rei Kawakubo could do now, perhaps, would be an obviously sexy, stilletos-at-dawn, hair swept back collection. In a way I wish she would, to paraphrase Anna Wintour, “break out”. It would be so interesting to see her thoughts on celebrity culture filtered through her unique approach. A lot of her recent work seems like a retread, however beautiful it is. Consider this, Kawakubo made black the official uniform of Fashion Folk after seismically dividing opinions in the early 1980s with her black, hole-ridden clothes that were shorn of any obvious sex appeal or ostentation. I now struggle to see her influence on fashion. Rei Kawakubo as the charming old lady? Quelle horreur! I have a feeling that she isn’t completely done with us just yet. Don’t get too close; this one bites…
Lace Knitwear, 1982
The Rei is my shepherd, and I am her weakness…
As a student I worshipped at the Church of Comme. I was obsessed. And also, quite poor, so the very idea of owning a bona fide Comme piece was as alien as the clothes themselves. However I made-do and mended. Literally. Case point. Oversized sky blue Benetton shetland jumper. Boil washed. Yanked to one side and secured with a thick knot of yellow thread. I recoil now in horror but that was the closest I was ever going to get to the Comme look, by way of dip-dyed mass market Italian knitwear.
One of my favourite Comme periods was the tail end of the 90’s/ early noughties. The height of deconstruction, Brit Pop and a re-energised creative London scene. This was the time of The Pineal Eye, Jessica Ogden and Shelly Fox. I recall schlepping off to Brook Street, where the old Comme des Garçons shop was located, to study the haphazard, asymmetric, inside-out collages of tailored jackets and coat dresses trimmed in white cotton. Those pieces were poetry, and I don’t mean that in a pretentious way. The Japanese were on a roll during that period. Remember Yohji’s wedding collection? That incredible crinolined dress with the zippered pockets that contained a veritable trousseau with which the model proceeded to dress herself? Gone were the funereal statements. In was an artsy, lightness of touch.
Catherine Long in Comme des Garçons, Dazed & Confused, September 1998 issue.
Guest edited by Alexander McQueen [RIP]
What I’ve always loved about Comme is that its innovation encompasses more than just the clothes. Kawakubo is a boundary-pusher in every aspect of design, branding and marketing. Forward-thinking retail spaces? From the hallowed concrete halls of the 1980’s through to the red Paris store with moving cubicles and the legendary Dover Street Market in London, Comme des Garçons has tirelessly rewritten the rules on not only what constitutes clothing but also how and where it can be sold. Pop-up stores have recently been all the rage but remember the Comme Guerilla stores from a few years back that popped up in abandoned spaces in the most unlikely, unfashionable areas? Rei got there first. Indeed, the old Brook Street store stood on the periphery of Bond Street polish, close and present but also defiantly distant. On the edge. The Dover Street market site was an unoccupied office building and when it was converted into a modern day souk filtered through the Kawakubo Process it retained a lot of the original, corporate details – halogen lighting, abandoned filing cabinets and industrial fittings. The impersonal was used to create a very personal space.
Perfume? Odeur 53, the Incense Series, all challenging, non-conformist scents… Now everyone’s at it – Frederic Malle, Le Labo, Byredo… Rei Got There First. And how about abstract branding? The Marc Jacobs/ Juergen Teller campaigns, Alber Elbaz’s whimsical shoots for Lanvin, Celine’s new art direction that focusses on just the clothes all owe a lot to Kawakubo’s irreverent, subversive ad-campaigns in which she collaborated with leading artists and tastemakers. REI GOT THERE FIRST.
One of the most direct influences of Kawakubo on her contemporaries is evident in the Versace spring-summer 1998 collection. View the image below and tell me if you get the same sense of déjà vu? Rei most definitely got there first, with her autumn-winter 1997-1998 collection, to be precise.
Spot the difference.
Fashion needs people like Kawakubo now more than ever. Visionaries that aren’t afraid to push the envelope and challenge us. However, the element of surprise is all but gone and the Japanese style has become a little bit predictable and somehow mainstream. No, that isn’t the right word. Acceptable is better, perhaps. The clothes are still innovative, don’t get me wrong. And I’m certain that she is still copied, be it more in terms of garment finishes and details now. What’s missing is the sense of danger, that definitive, driving message that has been absent for some seasons now. Hopefully, it will return, like a dormant volcano waiting to unleash one final attack. In the meantime a retrospective of Kawakubo’s oeuvre is long over due. We need to pay our respects and remind ourselves of what a powerhouse she is.