Why This Year's Met Gala Is a Really Big Deal
A long-awaited look back at Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons' massive impact on the fashion world.
BY scott christian | Apr 19, 2017 | Fashion
In the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, only two exhibitions have ever been mounted to honor a living designer. The first was for the legendary Yves Saint Laurent in 1983. And the second, which opens to the public on May 4, is for Rei Kawakubo, the Japanese fashion visionary behind the highly influential label Comme des Garçons.
For anyone whose knowledge of Comme des Garçons only stretches as far back as this month's Supreme collaboration, the Met's "Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: The Art of the In-Between" illustrates how the Japanese designer's brand has been turning out cutting-edge apparel and accessories for the better part of five decades. Kawakubo is credited with some of the most influential aspects of modern fashion, like pop-up shops and black as fashion's signature color.
Founded in 1969, Comme des Garçons began as a sportswear line sold in boutique shops in trendy Tokyo neighborhoods such as Ginza. Though she had no formal training in fashion—she only began designing clothes when, while working as a freelance stylist after a brief career in advertising, she couldn't find the pieces that she wanted for fashion shoots—Kawakubo quickly established herself as designer to be reckoned with.
By 1980, Comme des Garçons had 150 franchised shops across Japan and annual revenues of around $30 million. Despite the brand's popularity in Japan, it remained largely unknown in the West. To gain a wider audience, Kawakubo brought her first collection to Paris Fashion Week in 1981. While the show received favorable reviews, it was the following year that blew the doors off the Western fashion establishment.
For her third Paris show, 1982's "Destroy," Kawakubo sent models stomping down the runway in inky black neo-Gothic clothes with smeared war paint on their faces. The collection included leggings with sweater cuffs at the ankles, scaled-up and deconstructed overcoats and tunics, and famously oversized knitwear full of holes, which Kawakubo cheekily referred to as "Comme des Garçons lace."
Rarely does a true gauntlet get thrown in fashion. This show was the exception.
"Few if any spectators were left blasé," wrote Judith Thurman in her 2005 New Yorker profile of Kawakubo. "And some went home dumbstruck with rapture, while others lobbed back at the invader what they perceived as a blast of barbarity, tagging the look 'Hiroshima's revenge.'"
Kawakubo eschewed representational clothing in favor of wearable abstract fashion. The moment she crossed over from "clothing designer" to artist, she set her future in motion.
"I never intended to start a revolution," Kawakubo told the New Yorker in 2005. "I only came to Paris with the intention of showing what I thought was strong and beautiful. It just so happened that my notion was different from everybody else's."
Over the years, her notion came to include: aggressive deconstruction, unfinished seams, loose flaps, androgyny, and asymmetry. It wasn't just an asymmetrical hem or sleeve, but a total abandonment of the human spine as a central axis for clothing. She made a radical departure from what constituted clothing architecture. Jackets sleeves didn't come in equal pairs; her jackets either had no sleeves, or an excess of them. They looked more like art installations than outerwear.
Despite such challenging clothing, over the course of 30 years CDG has attracted a large and loyal following. Much of this comes down to the fact that Comme des Garçons gives comfort to the wearer and discomfort to the beholder. On the one hand, it is liberating to put on one of Kawakubo's designs; on the other, it is disorienting for viewers to look at.
Of course, it isn't only Kawakubo's singular and highly influential vision that has sustained Comme des Garçons's place as a sartorial trailblazer. It's also a cadre of designers that are both championed and financially supported by the brand, including: Junya Watanabe, Kei Ninomiya, Chitose Abe, and Eastern Bloc star of the moment, Gosha Rubchinskiy.
In an increasingly corporatized world where homogenization is a constant threat, we need visionaries like Kawakubo and her ilk, perhaps now more than ever. After all, how interesting would the world be without oversized sleeveless puffer clothes made out of something resembling mylar to pull from our closets?
From: Esquire US