Rei Kawakubo, the Japanese designer and mastermind behind Comme des Garçons, the company she founded in 1973, is often regarded as light-years ahead of her peers in the fashion industry not just in terms of her design capabilities, but also her vision that brought shopping experiences like Dover Street Market to life. But it seems like the latest subject of a Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute retrospective isn’t as progressive when it comes to inclusion and diversity.
On Monday, Kawakubo presented Comme des Garçons’ fall 2018 collection, and for the first time in 20 years, Black models appeared on the runway. The last time Comme des Garçons featured an identifiably Black model was Chrystèle Saint Louis Augustin in the fall 1994 show, Elle reports. Four of the 16 models who walked in the fall 2018 show were Black, with two earning the highly coveted opening and closing spots. While this ratio should be applauded and is certainly more inclusive than most lineups this season, it’s 2018, and it shouldn’t have taken so long for Kawakubo to get with the times. Diversity on the runway isn’t a new or unheard-of initiative.
Refinery29’s Connie Wang noted that Comme des Garçons, and Kawakubo herself, are often able to sidestep criticisms and accusations of racism by treating runway models as literal mannequins, covering their faces with wigs or makeup. She wrote, “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.” But the lack of racial representation, especially when Comme des Garçons counts Black celebrities like Rihanna, Pharrell Williams, and Tracee Ellis Ross (who all wore the label to the Met Gala) as fans, still feels intentional.
Stylist and consultant Shiona Turini touched on this on Instagram. She posted a photo from Monday’s show of a Black model, captioning it: “I have always been deeply conflicted about my undying love for @commedesgarcons and the fact that I’ve never seen a Black model walk in the show ...But yesterday my heart sang as I watched a Black queen open the show. Then another one followed. Then two more - with one closing. They like so many models before them performed the label’s ceremonious runway dance, an unhurried empowered strut. The show is always a highlight for me particularly because of Rei Kawakubo’s vision.”
For Turini, a self-described admirer and longtime customer, she’s “over the moon to know that that actually does includes Black women, women who look like me. I left that show so moved and so hopeful for the change that I’m seeing in our industry. Black representation matters.” If that's all it takes to further endear industry players like Turini to the brand, then Commes des Garçons shouldn't think twice about maintaining — or upping — its diversity in future seasons.