There are a few things you can always expect at a Comme des Garçons fashion show: a bare-bones, out-of-the-way location; folding metal chairs obscurely numbered (and rarely occupied by celebrities), and one small gesture of hospitality — wine or coffee served in small plastic cups.
What you can never anticipate is what the clothes might look like, given the mission statement of iconoclastic Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo, who turns 67 this year: “Every collection has the same starting point, the same aim: to make clothes that didn’t exist before,” she says, her answers to a written questionnaire as blunt as her signature bobbed hairstyle and translated by her husband, Adrian Joffe, who is also chief executive officer of Comme des Garçons International.
It is nigh impossible to watch a Kawakubo show and jot down descriptions in typical fashion shorthand—Seventies, punk, hippie, etc. — nor to get the designer to elaborate beyond her customarily brief and oblique statement about her inspiration and references. This season it was “wonderland.”
“I was interested in a world that couldn’t exist: an illusion, a fashion wonderland,” she explains, noting that the venue — a chilly and nondescript television studio in the 12th arrondissement — was all part of the theme. “When one enters a wonderland, the surrounding space is the same as if it wasn’t there: therefore, I wanted a characterless space,” she muses.
The clothes were anything but characterless, mixing military jackets, rustic blankets, nude tulle and pearl embroideries to spellbinding effect, rewarded by the heartiest and most sustained applause of Paris Fashion Week. (Though not answered by an appearance by the designer, who remained backstage and, she claims, indifferent to the crowd reaction: “The only thing important to me is making clothes.”)
Asked about her ingenious constructions, which had blankets and tailoring mingling in fascinating ways, Kawakubo reveals her simple précis. “Wearing one rectangular piece of fabric as clothing was the main design element,” she explains. Asked why she used so much nude tulle, she replies: “In order to make it look as if you were wearing only half a piece of clothing: the expression of illusion.”
For editors and retailers alike, it was visual magic, and a powerful design statement amid acres of tried-and-true fashions. “In a safe season of few surprises, this collection was a brilliant standout,” enthuses Ed Burstell, buying director at Liberty in London. “Any collection that evokes such an emotional response, so beautifully moving — but with an almost painful undertone — was indeed very brave.”
“What was so thought provoking about the Comme des Garçons collection was the delicate intrigue of enveloping layers,” adds Andrew Keith, president of Hong Kong-based Joyce. “The cocooning effect of the silhouette and the suggestion that, rather than going out and fighting aggressively in tailored jackets and black leather, the alternative approach is one of self-protectionism.”
For her part, Kawakubo downplays the global financial crisis as a factor in her work. “The crisis has no connection to the source of creation, or the process,” she says. “I always work by searching for something new, for things that I haven’t seen or experienced before, no matter the economic climate.”
The designer insists that there is danger in playing it safe. “Comme des Garçons never gets as affected by recession as big companies whose only aim is to make clothes that sell,” says Kawakubo, a woman who does daring fashions without the safety net of a pre-collection.
“Our runway collection is 100 percent our collection for the season,” Joffe notes, reporting order tallies came in 13 percent over budget, due partly to 15 new clients, including four in America and five in Italy, its two biggest export markets. “Everything you see on the runway is in the showroom as well as additional variations and interpretations.” He credits “extremely faithful and long-standing clients” for cushioning the $170 million firm from economic ups and downs.
“This customer wants product that is inspired by original thought — nothing overly commercial or overly distributed,” observes Burstell.
Keith at Joyce lauds the shrunken cardigans, full skirts with topstitched pocket details and fitted jackets as accessible pieces for new customers to mix into their existing wardrobes, while Comme des Garçons devotees will likely go for the trench-inspired ponchos and khaki twill coats with taped seams and pockets.
While some in the industry assume more commercial lines like Comme des Garçons Shirt, Play or Homme Deux are what support Kawakubo’s experimental runway fare, Joffe notes that the main Comme des Garçons collection, Junya Watanabe and Tao represent more than half of its turnover, with nine other lines supported by the “central creative engine” that is the main collection brand.
To be sure, retailers say Kawakubo’s influence is broad. Burstell says the designer not only “challenges your eye with regard to form, function and beauty,” but also “challenges your intellect by presenting a completely different and original world view.”
Keith says Joyce has worked with Comme des Garçons for 20 years, and over that time “the influence that Rei Kawakubo has had on fashion is immeasurable.…She is probably the most influential designer working today and I am sure that we will see many of the ideas that she showed this season resurfacing in various guises over the coming months.”
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