Photo by Tim Walker for i-D.
In the 80s, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons undertook an interesting but ultimately ill-fated retail experiment. In her stores, she removed the mirrors from dressing rooms. The intention was to focus attention away from appearance, and instead onto the sensation of how the clothing felt, the affect it had on your body. What a radical notion.
Mirrors have returned to Comme des Garçons; but the powerful sentiment behind that action underlines the work of Kawakubo, now 74 years old, and still rebelling. Rei is the ultimate nonconformist. Notions of silhouette, of fit, of colour and construction, of value and display of wealth - all have been exploded by her, over three decades of relentless experimentation. Today, the label Comme des Garçons is synonymous with an affront to the status quo, with fashion that fights against itself, with an impulse to question and a refusal to adhere to any preconceived rules. It is an approach that continues to inspire generations of designers - a resolute refusal to compromise.
It is, perhaps, difficult to ascertain precisely how revolutionary Rei's work has been. This year's exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first devoted to a living designer since a 1983 show dedicated to Yves Saint Laurent, puts her contribution into perspective. If Saint Laurent can be credited with inventing the style of the late 20th century, Kawakubo's work has reinvented it. In 1982, her second Paris collection consisted of layers of knitted fabric ripped through with holes: Kawakubo called the collection Lace, but her lace was unlike any seen before. Lace was a fabric worth more than its weight in gold; precious, painstaking. Kawakubo used the term to describe her purposefully perforated textiles, elevating the torn and damaged to the level of decoration. The appearance of distress was intentional; the holes created by loosening screws in the machines that knitted the garments, causing them to malfunction and randomly pepper the fabric with rifts. So these seemingly simple sweaters are, in actuality, a complex knot of contradictions and challenges.
They are the rule, rather than the exception, those sweaters. Invariably offered in black, originally proposed in a single size, they caused a sensation when shown, attracting disciples and detractors in equal measure. Some declared they would be as influential as Christian Dior's New Look or Cristobal Balenciaga's chemise dress; others dubbed them, disparagingly, 'Bag Lady Chic.' It wasn't just the torn surfaces of Kawakubo's sweaters, their intentional air of poverty, that represented an affront to fashion conventions; the garments' fit, or rather their lack of, was also revolutionary. As opposed to the complex, articulated garments that defined Parisian fashion in the early 80s, composed of specifically shaped pieces tailored to define the body underneath, Kawakubo proposed baggy layers, softly wrapped around the body, cut flat in the eastern tradition. They were Japanese in ideology, rather than aesthetic. Again, it wasn't about the look, but the feel.
What else could Kawakubo rail against? The notion of wealth has frequently been inverted: those ripped sweaters aped poverty to some eyes, at a high price; today, Kawakubo consistently uses intentionally cheap fabrics to create her garments: polyurethane instead of leather, faux fur, static-y polyesters and nylons. They aren't substitutes for precious fabrics - her autumn/winter 16 collection was a riot of rich brocades, but still had vinyl mixed in. It wasn't about ersatz or imitation - instead, it's about the qualities of those proud synthetics, imbuing them with a new value - maybe a value tied back to that overused word, "conceptual". But also, practically, because they behave differently, with properties all their own that better help Kawakubo achieve the affects she desires. Display of wealth and value through fabric, ultimately, means nothing. The idea holds the value, the design, not the material.
How about colour? Kawakubo is, ironically, responsible for the most fashion phrase of all - the declaration of various hues, from brown to lime-green, as "the new black". In 1989, Kawakubo applied the phrase to red - except, she didn't. Her statement, rather, was simply "Red is black." It's far more powerful. Language is often a tool used by Rei Kawakubo to confound, and even to unsettle. Yet her radicalism is quiet - not in terms of the clothes, which are loud, even strident, but in terms of the designer herself, who rarely explains her clothing in terms beyond a handful of words. If you're lucky, you get a sentence. "Invisible clothes" was the big idea for spring/summer 17, for instance - which sort of explained the walking walls of fabric, bodies hidden inside, with few of the discernible markers of traditional clothing (sleeves, hemlines, waist). For autumn/winter 17, she was inspired by "the future of silhouette." Kawakubo's generally came without sleeves.
Over the past few years, Kawakubo's radicalism has intensified. In the past, she expressed herself through clothing - but, as of spring/summer 14, she's rejected that idea as well. That collection, shown in September 2013, was described as "objects for the body". The "clothes" were abstract assemblages of textile, potentially more akin to the soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg than a dress by Christian Dior. After years of rejecting fashion's conventions, Kawakubo made the ultimate rejection - of fashion itself. It sounds pretentious but, obliquely, it makes sense. As the rest of fashion is consumed by a sense of mass, overwhelmed by commercial concerns, Kawakubo rejects not just the constraints of ease, practicality and production, but of clothing itself. The garments she proposes biannually on the Paris stage are remarkably difficult to wear, even difficult to understand when looking at them. They're not clothes, they're fashion. They're a series of ideas, of concepts, created in fabric. I've previously described them as site-specific sculptures, whose specific site happens to be the human body. It stands true.
Rei Kawakubo's collections generally interrelate; even if they seem, aesthetically, a radical departure from each other, there is always a thread that connects, rarely a true rupture. This latest sequence of Comme des Garçons clothes - of fashion that is something other than clothing - began barely a year after she created a collection of entirely flat garments. "The future's in two dimensions" was her mission statement, and the clothes were indeed as two-dimensional as possible in three-dimensions, sandwiching the body between simple layers of thick felt or velvet. The collection used a handful of loud colours - yellow, red, shocking pink, International Klein Blue - which reminded one of Jean Baudrillard's declaration, in Le Système Des Objets, that "The fact that women's tailored suits tend to be in bright colours is a reflection of the social status of women as objects." Kawakubo didn't want to objectify women, of course - her focus on black in the early years of her career, and her refusal to define a woman's body, suggests a shift away from this objectification of the female form. But in this instance she was commenting, I think, on the fact that fashion frequently objectifies them, with flat, brightly coloured, brainless clothes. The future is two-dimensional - of clothing consumed through images, rather than reality. Except, pointedly, at Comme des Garçons.
Which brings us back to those mirrors, and to the experiential element intrinsic to Comme des Garçons. Rei Kawakubo's work is an exploration of dimension and space. She has designed not only all the garments within the Metropolitan Museum of Art's retrospective, but the galleries and displays they are contained within, a radical reworking of the traditional exhibition space. There is the sense of her clothing doing the same: I often feel that Comme des Garçons is representative of a rare fourth dimension when it comes to clothing - the dimension being internal. Carapaces of fabric that can only be comprehended by climbing inside, figuring out how these "garments" (for want of a better word) fit. Again, language is inadequate in describing Kawakubo's creations: what can you call clothing that isn't clothing? How can something "fit" if it barely touches the body, and doesn't have a size?
The couturier Cristobal Balenciaga, another profound fashion radical, was interested in exploring the space between body and garment. Clothes that floated around the body, skirts that ran a little ahead of ones' walk. Kawakubo's designs have similar concerns, exploring the interaction between cloth and flesh - the "feel" of clothing, both physical and psychological. Her spring/summer 97 collection was lightly mocked as the "Lumps and Bumps" collection; Kawakubo titled it Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body. That is what she is concerned with, what she endlessly explores, with the rigour of a philosopher: the simple idea of dressing a body; using that to make you feel something.