Who would wear this?

Text - Marcus Correa / Model - Kaleb Samuel / Photography - A-W

As I walked the concrete steps leading to the front entrance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art I feel a tremendous angst deep in my stomach- the nervous anticipation that one gets just moments before being granted something they have waited so long for. The ticket booth at the MET is set up as donation-based with the suggested amount of $12 for students. I paid $5 for my ticket, an amount that implies I am too broke to afford the suggested donation, yet I have too much pride and respect for art to only give $1. As I walk through the crowds to the second floor my excitement begins to escalate knowing I am finally able to see the exhibit I had waited months to view. No, it was not the works of Irving Penn or the groundbreaking art discoveries of ancient China that had me so smitten, but instead the display of work by iconoclast Rei Kawakubo and her renown Comme Des Garcon collection.

In my mind, I had envisioned not only the exhibit, but also the people within. I envisioned fashion nerds and scholars, melding with art connoisseurs to have interesting and respectful discourse about the importance of one of the world’s most talented designers. I expected her to finally receive the mainstream merit she so deserved. Much to my chagrin, the exhibit was a packed house as even Kawakubo herself was worried about the turnout of those wanting to see her work on display.  

As I entered the exhibit I was immediately reacquainted with reality by the very first person I saw in a crowded exhibit. He was a portly middle-aged man directly out of a normcore meme; White polo tucked into his khaki shorts, white tube socks and a pair of orthopedic cross trainers.

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He had this befuddled look on his face while analyzing one of the dresses on display then after a brief moment, he turned to his wife, “I don’t get it, who would wear this?” Though my first reaction was disgust, I later came to terms with the validity of this question. The more I thought about it I realized it was actually a fair question for those not familiar with the brand or its history. Given the extremities of some of her work, it can be hard to make direct connections to her influence. To some degree, this is her point- Kawakubo feels as though she exists within a void outside of what is perceived as normal.

It was not until I heard about the MET exhibit when it became apparent to me Kawakubo indeed functions as a normal human (sort of). As told by her husband and business partner Adrian Joffe in a discussion with the New York Times, he stated Kawakubo was nervous about the reaction of those viewing her work on what is considered to be such an immense stage. She understood many would scoff or not understand, but what was most important to her was the ability to evoke emotion from those that view the exhibit. Kawakubo is certainly no stranger to scrutiny as her entire career has gone against the grain of what would be considered traditional.  Despite her somewhat rebellious work, her success is an outcome of the organic nature in which she handles her business.

Scrutiny from the mainstream began in 1981 at her debut at Paris Fashion Week. To give proper context of that time, this was during an era where hyper femininity and flash dominated the industry. As brands showcased their bright, eccentric clothing accentuating both the male and female body, Kawakubo’s show, a joint effort with designer Yohji Yamamoto, stuck out like a sore thumb. As a designer who worked mainly in black clothing, Kawakubo presented a collection of distressed, oversized garments, asymmetrical unfinished hems, layering, and an interesting mix of both high and low fashion items. The scrutiny she received earlier on in her career was much more derogatory: the collection was distastefully labeled “Hiroshima Chic,” a direct reference to the tattered garments of victims of the atomic bombs which claimed thousands of lives in Japan.

Regardless of the press reaction, her polarizing opposition to traditional Western fashion was noted and appreciated by people from Tokyo to the States. A voice was given to those who rejected this traditional hierarchy of beauty and fashion, and as time pressed forward these ideas of oversized garments, distorted bodices, asymmetry, and mix of high and low have become staples in everyday wear. Though Kawakubo’s shows may suggest extreme and immediate change, the truth is her impact is more of a gradual evolution.  

As the late ‘80s and early ‘90s rolled around, we began to see women dressing more androgynously for a variety of reasons: from desexualizing themselves to comfort and trends. Comme Des Garcons which translates to “Like the Boys,” always had an element of androgyny which suggested gender identity was not a direct correlation to silhouette. This obviously does not mean everyone was necessarily wearing CDG, but it had an influence that began to come to fruition.

The brilliance in Kawakubo’s work is how little she chooses to speak on it. Often times artists constrain themselves by over explaining their work; yet in the case of Kawakubo she has always made the work her focal point while letting those around her derive whatever they want. Andrew Bolton, head curator at the MET, commented on Kawakubo’s dislike for speaking on her inspiration by sharing an anecdote in which a writer for The Times in London asked Kawakubo what her inspiration was for her 2016 S/S collection. Kawakubo responded by drawing a circle on a piece of paper, pointing to it, then promptly leaving the room. Though the fashion community has always loved this about her, it has made her somewhat of an enigma to the rest of society at large.

Aesthetically the Japanese have a word to describe Kawakubo’s style, “Jimi,” the artistic aesthetic of working in a dark, non-literal,  introspective way. Though her clothes are sometimes extreme in nature, they never lean in one direction to suggest a definite theme or response. For example, even Kawakubo’s deconstructed and distressed looks are not simply just that, in fact they often times also retain a certain amount of luxury as well. This is where we get the term, “Art of the In-Between. Her art exists in this place in our minds between themes we want to classify it in. Jimi lends itself as an introspective take on fashion, rather than fashion designed with a purpose to directly influence those that see or consume it in a specific way.

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In today’s fashion, and by fashion I mean the popular of style of dress for the masses, not just those fans of designer garments or trends; the popular style is comfort and functionality. People not only want to be comfortable in their outfits but they want to be able to wear them in the multiple social arenas they find themselves in each day. In the past, Western dress separated different styles by occasion, today, busy people no longer want to change as frequently simply for social acceptance or comfort. This is another trend that owes its roots to- you guessed it- Kawakubo. Though of course she was not alone in this, designers such as, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and Kenzo Harada also championed this idea of designing from the inside out.

Traditional Western dress looked from the outside in, as tailored garments were always meant to emphasize features of the body and often overlooked comfort and mobility. Kawakubo was able to liberate the body by oversizing garments and layering them in a way that was both comfortable and fashionable. She has been doing this since the brands inception in 1969 and even carried this approach over to menswear with the addition of her 1978 collection, Comme Des Garcons Homme Plus.

The interesting part of this exhibit is it is not displayed in that of a retrospective, in other words her work is not shown in chronological order, but rather organized by theme. This organizational technique showcases Kawakubo’s abandonment of traditional fashion ideals and trends as pieces from the ‘80s sit next to pieces made in the early 2000s and only a true fan would be able to distinguish the dramatic difference in age. The ability to consistently deviate from classic trends only to make your own, is why we as one culture should celebrate the genius of Kawakubo. By constantly existing in these different transitional spaces, she has been able to affect both consumers and designers alike on a variety of different levels. Designers such as Margiela and Helmut Lang are just a couple influenced by her work along with the entire generation of Japanese designers we currently have.  At Parsons,  everyone takes pages out of her book as they design for their end of the semester projects as she has become fashion design’s Michael Jordan for a new generation.

The high low phenomenon we see today is also a product of Kawakubo’s work and the Japanese movement of the late ‘70s and ‘80s. As Kenzo Harada once said, “Fashion is not for the few it is for all people.”

Kawakubo took this notion and ran with it by redefining who wore her clothing. Her 2005 collection simply titled “Motorcycle Ballerina” took the extremities of both styles and dared the consumer to separate them. By working in such extreme dichotomies, she has caused those who work in fashion and those who simply consume it season after season, to think about clothing and how they style it. This idea of street style challenges a lot of conventional beliefs on dress and social status and contributes a lot to the streetwear movement of the past 20 years.

Overtime, Kawakubo has given us Avante Garde collection after collection, and though many of them extreme, it is rare as a society we do not adapt ideals from them. By existing in the in-between, she makes us feel ok for deviating from norms. As a society, style is no longer only for the rich who can afford the nicest fabrics, but instead reserved for creatives in any capacity. Furthermore, those who dress for utility owe her for her ingenuity in design for all occasions. Her reach is hard to escape as she has influenced the entire spectrum of designers from Dries Van Noten, to the Gap and everything inbetween. The distressed looks or the athleisure outfits seen on red carpets and street corners alike are largely influenced by her. The impressive part of the MET Gala was not all the celebrities wearing Comme Des Garcons, but instead the realization of how many designers have been influenced by her style.

It is hard for us as a society to give Kawakubo the credit she deserves for the simple fact that when we finally wrap our heads around one concept she has already created two more for us to learn and appreciate. Her work can be seen as an exploration of fashion rather than just a series of collections as her work is better defined by ideas than by time. For nearly 50 years Kawakubo has happily inhabited this void in society while everyone around her has tried to fill it. The body of work and how it is displayed at The MET is incredibly impressive, though a single exhibit can not properly encapsulate her influence within the industry. The exhibit is historic- even if it is not universally appreciated. The correlation between a leather biker jacket paired with a pink tutu, and modern contemporary dress is not an easy one to make. In short, to answer the portly man in the white polo or anyone else for that matter who sees Comme Des Garcons and asks, “Who would wear this?” one way or another, the answer is, “you would.”

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