Designer Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons is like the sun: life-giving and nurturing, but too intense for most people to look at directly without some sort of filter. Let me explain what that means by listing some of my favorite pieces of hers: I call this dress from her spring ’97 collection “The Working Girl Shift For Smuggling A One-Legged Ghost.” Along with a crinkling, funnel neckline and cute cap sleeves, the dress also prominently features a large, leg-shaped lump along the hip. This is “Giant Shorts for Average People”: an all-white look from the ’95 collection that’s basically one massive pair of tweedy hot pants you wear by putting both feet inside one leg. And here is “The Pious Oreo Peacock” from the spring ’17 collection, a ruffle-lined disk with a starched Wednesday Addams collar but no arm holes. "2Night in 2D" treats the human body like a slightly too-small paper doll. "Roomba Lint" looks like what you’d find inside a dust cartridge.
These garments are all fabulous and museum-worthy; which is why the subject of the upcoming Costume Institute's Exhibition at The Met is Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art of the In-Between. But it’s also totally unwearable. Not that it really matters when it comes to Kawakubo. “For fashion people, she is church,” says stylist Kate Young, whose clients, including Michelle Williams, Selena Gomez, Natalie Portman, and Dakota Johnson, are considered some of the more fashion-forward celebrities to walk the red carpet. “Everybody lives for it. So much of what’s important in fashion comes from Rei. Comme des Garcons is regularly ahead of everyone else, and does things that are more exciting, smarter, more forward thinking. And it starts a waterfall of creativity from the rest of the fashion industry.”
For designers, that waterfall oftentimes looks like more agreeable interpretations of Comme des Garcons philosophies — clothes don’t have to be pretty to be beautiful, they shouldn’t have to accentuate the natural body, and what exactly is a sleeve? For enthusiastic dressers, like myself and the other members of the mid-2000s blogging community, that also included mining the vast vocabulary of Comme — red tartan, polka dots, felt suiting, Doc Marten oxfords, too-short pants — and finding affordable substitutes in thrift stores, men’s sections of big-box stores, and misspelled (but genuine) CDG originals on eBay.
With the Met Gala coming up on Monday, May 1, Comme des Garcons as a theme presents a unique challenge for stylists like Young and the glitterati they work for: How do you do antipretty when the purpose of the red carpet is to be attractive, alluring — pretty?
“Never,” Young interrupts me, as I begin to ask her whether she’s ever pulled Comme des Garcons for celebrities to wear. “Neverrrr. I’m not invited to their runway shows. My job is packaging actresses to make the public love them. Putting them in bumpy dresses isn’t a good idea. Comme des Garcons need to be pre-digested by another designer for it to work.”
Stylist Micaela Erlanger who works with Lupita Nyongo, Meryl Streep, Naomie Harris, and Winona Ryder also does not pull from Comme des Garcons showrooms: “It’s not a common brand that I necessarily call in for my clients, but it’s not because of a lack of respect or interest. You see Comme worn a lot more by musicians and stage performers — the avant garde pieces are better suited for them. But certainly the commercial pieces work for celebrities and are much more wearable.”
This is what makes this particular Met Ball so interesting. Solange or Rihanna will not have a problem, but Taylor Swift certainly will. I’m even having a hard time imagining what exhibit co-chair Katy Perry, who recently appeared on the most recent cover of Vogue in a Comme creation, in anything as true to Kawakubo as Pious Oreo Peacock. Besides celebrities, the rest of the Met Gala guest list also attracts an audience who might struggle with the theme: fashion designers who want to promote their own labels, and New York socialites who can afford the $30,000 ticket. If we as an audience are going to view the red carpet as a reflection of Kawakubo’s ethos, our own repulsion might be the biggest indicator of whether guests are doing it right.
And...that’s really weird! For a fashion brand to be so widely beloved within the industry, so often referenced, rehashed, and revered, Comme des Garcon is largely invisible in its pure form.
Rei Kawakubo has been designing for Comme des Garcons since 1969. But I didn’t come across her work until 2006, in the form of one of her many quotes that were floating around Fashion Internet at the time: “For something to be beautiful, it doesn’t have to be pretty.” It struck me as profound, as many things did when I was 19, but in a way that had an immediate impact on my day-to-day. My yardstick for what fashionable had meant included “sophisticated” clothing that had moved beyond girlish ruffles and whimsy, but not so grown-up that things got dowdy. The epitome of style was the long, noodle-thin women on the cover of fashion magazines wearing body-hugging clothes and carrying monogrammed bags. Style was sexy, and expensive, and attractive, and pretty.
But as I fell into the world of Comme des Garcons and Kawakubo, I found myself entranced by images of women wearing those girlish ruffles like battle spikes and rubber-soled combat boots with tulle ball gowns. Their clothes were not pretty, though some of it was sweet, and the whole thing was actually aggressively unsexy though plenty of the tops showed off their entire chest. I fell for it hard. For me and a whole group of fashion nerds on the Internet in 2006 (including Tavi Gevinson, Susie Bubble, and every member of Super Future forums), Rei Kawakubo was ground zero; our upgraded understanding of fashion began with and was framed by her work.
This was exactly what she was going for. “I make clothes for a woman who is not swayed by what her husband thinks,” Kawakubo said. The word husband can be a stand-in for any other entity — consumers, the status quo, a first date — who might care to see a woman presented as pretty, sexy, or down-to-earth. This philosophy is why Comme des Garcons’ clothes have been considered the paragon of avant garde fashion for nearly five decades.
Kawakubo began making clothes in 1969 that were in stark contrast to the sultry look of Halston disco or the sweet, feminine style of Laura Ashley prep. They were more punk, but without the sex — like Ziggy Stardust without the glitter and Vivienne Westwood without the bustiers. Kawakubo created black, shapeless separates in “dowdy” materials like boiled wool and linens — the aesthetic was so severe that Japanese media called her followers “The Crows.”
It was a hit. By the ‘80s, she was showing dramatic, controversial collections in Paris. By the ‘90s, she had a dozen off-shoot brands. Today, Comme des Garcons International is a lucrative privately owned company, operated by Kawakubo’s husband, Adrian Joffe. And even though she’s made it clear that she has a decidedly un-capitalistic approach to growth, business is healthy: The Guardian reported in 2015 that the brand’s profits are $250 million a year. For comparison, Prada — a much bigger company with mass brand-name recognition and more accessible products (read, shirts with just two sleeves) — earned $377 million last year. But unlike most other fashion brands, the business is not driven by growth, but rather by Kawakubo’s dedication to her art, and all the conflict and alienation it entails. Obviously, this has sometimes led to problems.
It’s no surprise then that for a designer who’s built a brand around deliberately attacking the idea of “good taste,” sometimes the real world would describe elements of Kawakubo’s world as tasteless. She has cited the homeless, itinerant “bag lady of New York” as a source of inspiration as long ago as 1984 and as recently as 2009. That collection prompted The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Robin Givhan to say, “[Kawakubo] had found inspiration in the plight of the homeless, the defeated and the desolate. When designers take creative license with the aesthetics of the less privileged, the less powerful, it feels as if they are stealing the very souls of those people.”
Her runways, too, are one of the few remaining places where you’ll find a completely whitewashed model lineup, a surprising thing considering that the most of her clientele are men and women of color. Most designers would get reamed for that fact, but Kawakubo has mostly escaped widespread criticism for it. That’s because it’s accepted that she treats her models as mannequins instead of stand-ins for her ideal consumers, covering their faces with makeup, wigs, and garments, sometimes completely obscuring their identities. To Kawakubo, the runway is not a place for people to use her clothes for their interpretation; it is a place for her to use people to relay her interpretation through clothes. To some, it’s fascism on the runway. To others, it’s art, full stop — and that argument is buttressed because most of the time, what’s shown on the runway is not actually for sale.
Today, the Comme des Garcons family has 18 different, distinct lines of varying degrees of avant garde. The most popular (and commercial) is Play — its polos, T-shirts, and mariner tops with the tell-tale heart with eyes attract young Hypebeasts and graying art teachers alike. Its wallets and pouches, too, are wildly popular. The other lines read like a marketing team brainstorm, with names like Comme des Garcons Comme des Garcons, Comme des Garcons SHIRT, Comme des Garcons SHIRT Girl, Comme des Garcons SHIRT Boy, Comme des Garçons Girl, and Comme des Garcons Homme (designed by Junya Watanabe) — not to be confused with Junya Watanabe Comme des Garcons Man.
All of these brands are housed in Comme des Garcons’ NYC flagship store in Chelsea. Walk through a calamari-shaped metal tube and enter a white-and-golden shrine filled with racks of clothes in varying shades of black, red, white, and gray. Occasional fluorescent florals break up the color story, and a plexiglass altar containing Play merch is conveniently situated by the door and the register.
Clothing on the racks doesn’t actually include what you see on the runways, but rather toned-down versions that allow for real human activity, like sitting and using your hands. I was shown two shoppable iterations of a black jumpsuit that appeared like the bottom half of a goth Gingerbread costume: The more advanced one looked like a pair of fly-fishing waders made of black wool ($1,219). The more wearable one was nearly indistinguishable from a typical pair of cropped black trousers with attached suspenders ($435). According to brand spokespeople, the runway looks are often distilled into a varying number of pared-down variations per look.
Despite the fact that I didn’t see another customer during the hour I was in the store on a late Monday afternoon, a store clerk assured me that they had a busy month fulfilling orders for the Met Gala — and that the garments people picked were thankfully more advanced than wearable. They also told me that Rihanna had been upstairs earlier in the month, rummaging around in the archives for a runway original from a past season.
Rihanna and the the handful of adventurous red carpet celebrities aside, expect to see a lot of attendees combat the challenge by opting for Comme des Garcons motifs rather than the anti-pretty Comme des Garcons spirit: a lot of polka-dotted gowns; red, ruffled dresses; and nubby black skirt suits, in attractive, flattering renditions.
“Challenge is good,” Erlanger posits. “The Met Ball allows people to embrace the art of fashion in the sense that they’re wearing masterpieces that are meant to be worn and showcased in a theatrical way.”
And next Monday while I’m covering the affair, I feel like I owe it to my 19-year-old self to also mind the theme. I’ll be wearing a pair of patchworked Junya Watanabe Comme des Garcons pants, and a Comme-in-spirit-but-not-in-label Victoriana blouse that I love but — more delightfully — my fiancé absolutely despises.
It might not be pretty, but it’ll be pretty perfect.