Art Story: Comme des Garçons
There is a direct line passing from Athens, Rome, Paris and on to Las Vegas, following the path the simulacrum of art and architecture took, dropping at each pit stop along the way a generation of originality and leaving in its trail an increasing number of depreciated buildings, monuments and representations.
Paris with its stale palaces, arches, columns and obelisks, the New Rome as Napoleon wanted it, is a worrisome reminder of how fake and kitsch the West can become the further it sprawls from its axis mundi, Athens, proving that Jean Baudrillard’s viral notion that, in America, Disney World starts in the parking lot, had long ago spread to the Seine’s banks.
The genius is somehow part of this scheme, another totem created by lost souls in search of a pithy. There are very few geniuses left standing nowadays, postmodernity having thankfully eradicated the absurd need of a father sitting at the head of the table.
Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, Andrei Tarkovsky and Federico Fellini are dead, so are John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, the artist Francis Bacon, Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Marguerite Duras; Bob Dylan is not far behind. And then there is Rei Kawakubo. And she chose Paris.
When Kawakubo arrived in Paris in the early 1980s, fashion was all about Château de Versailles. Her first collections, all black with holes, tears and fringes, was the equivalent of an atomic blast detonating in the bourgeoisie capital of the sartorial world, a sweet karmic revenge on the enlightened West and its patriarchal certitudes, universality and superiority that had led to gas chambers in Poland and nuclear destruction in Japan.
Cristobal Balenciaga, 30 years prior, had used black extensively and made it a staple of haute couture, but Comme des Garçons established the colour and its different shades as a weapon, a black hole. A black sweater full of holes became, in Kawakubo’s hands, lace. Very quickly it became difficult to not look at shoulder pads and cringe.
There lies a delicious poetic justice for the “Orient”, so condescendingly labelled by the West, coming to the heart of Western fashion and making it implode on its own weight. There is also a long tradition of Orientalist blowback Trojan Horse subversion. Once artists, trying to define and harness a vile modernity that had started to sprout up during the Middle Ages, tasted the “Oriental” paradigms by hollowing them out, the academies and conventions of the West were no match. Many forget that Cézanne’s dream was to exhibit his work in the best salons and museums of the West. Some revolutionaries… Already at the end of the 19th century, Japanese and Chinese images were being pillaged by the impressionists and postimpressionists.
Kawakubo had to endure the same treatment from the fashion elite that now, of course, sees her as the goddess of design and an endless source of inspiration. In this sense, Kawakubo is profoundly postmodernist. She brought the “superior” West to its knees. And she has perdured for more than 40 years.
Kawakubo could have chosen New York instead – the epicentre of piled-up trash and perpetual renewal – but she strangely decided to burn Paris down, year after year.
Kawakubo was three years old when Little Boy and Fat Man fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and she came of age in a country awash in the pop culture of the American occupier, a confusing situation that probably had a devastating effect on millions of Japanese.
For decades now, fashion critics have been trying to use her personal life in their quixotic attempt at piercing this petite woman’s mystery, ultimately the most fascinating fashion designer alive. She gives names to her collections, red herrings thrown in pasture to philistines.
With 230 stores worldwide and a £170 million yearly turnover, Comme des Garçons is a steady success by fashion- house standards, and its head designer and CEO has certainly achieved a cult status among her peers. Yet her name and brand have had difficulties blossoming in the land of the free and the brave. Anna Wintour, in charge for a few years of the annual social ball of all balls at the Met, has yet to invite Kawakubo to the ersatz bacchanalia.
The ideas she designs, which could as well have jumped straight out of an Emil Cioran, Yukio Mishima, Duras, Fernando Pessoa or Cesare Pavese book, never jived too well with the American manifest destiny spirit. America has little time for the kind of melancholia and intense soul-searching that Kawakubo subjects herself to each year when she starts the concept of her collections. Europeans are used to cultivating despair, regrets and nostalgia. Cioran named his book Treaty of Decomposition; Pessoa, inheritor of the Portuguese saudade, famously said, “I failed in everything in my life, but since I had no ambition this everything was probably nothing.” Duras wrote a book about a woman performing oral sex on a man in a hallway and finding the come on her face both disgusting and sublime; Mishima performed hara-kiri and Pavese killed himself. Not exactly the kind of topics a football coach might discuss with his team on Friday nights. America deals differently with this kind of darkness, one pill at a time. However, Kawakubo is probably the smartest businesswoman, fashion designer and CEO of the past 50 years, and the fact that she has been able to preserve her artistic integrity and her longevity in a profession inclined to musical chairs is a testament to her acumen.
Comme des Garçons has nine lines, not counting collaborations, accessories and perfumes, which might sound redundant and exploitative, but a closer look reveals a rich diversity and horizontal integration of the brand that allows for its multifaceted and seemingly ad-hoc components to organically coexist while flushing a stream of cash back up to the main lines. It’s a very astute business model that forces the sempiternal foes of creativity and money to cohabitate with fluidity under the same house.
Indeed, for an enterprise such as Comme des Garçons, with hundreds of employees worldwide and an impressive yearly turnover with no debt, it is not surprising that many on Wall Street and in the City are eyeing such a treasure chest of liquidity, apparently for the first time considering the idea of accepting outside investment.
The starting point of Comme des Garçons came about in the late 1960s, when Kawakubo was searching for personal freedom in the very misogynist culture that was Japan. Sexism and misogyny were always heavily reliant on hierarchy, order and respect of the centre. One of the attributes of Comme des Garçons that makes it such a postmodernist brand is Kawakubo’s hatred of the centre, this relic of a conformist West that had, since the siècle des Lumières, relied so heavily on reason and empiricism. The centre and its corollary, the beginning, were tools used by the forces of reaction desperately trying to hang on to power. Many would want us to forget that it was the bourgeoisie, not the people, who cut off the king’s head, both in England and France. Kawakubo is, if nothing else, quintessentially punk. Being centred has only some meaning if you live in New York, Paris or London and try to lose some of that Häagen-Dazs weight on the yoga mat. We learned our lesson with the unfortunate heliocentrism incident that probably cost religion in the West its prerogative on power, but the myth of the universal truth still prevails in most circles.
If Kawakubo is an artisan, she is a tailor by excellence. Where most designers jostle with departing from the axis mundi and explore asymmetry, their main marker is the human body and its preposterous symmetry so often used to define Barbie’s beauty. They rarely depart from the body and, as a result, their play on asymmetry looks tentative, a non sequitur that forces them into the vapid maze of the copy. Kawakubo, unafraid by unevenness, used the body like Michelangelo who, following Plato, saw it as a marker, a route into the world of Ideas. Strait-laced Leonardo da Vinci, the creator of the preposterous Vitruvian Man, once remarked that Michelangelo’s bodies looked like potato sacks. He was right, but which gay genius has ever drawn more beautiful manly women? Kawakubo has no interest in anatomy, and some of her tops have notoriously been deprived of sleeves. After graduating from Keio University, she worked in the advertising department of the acrylic fabric company Asahi Kasei in Tokyo. Her interest in fashion came second to her desire to be self-sufficient, free.
Kawakubo first debuted her women’s collection internationally in 1981 in Paris at the Intercontinental Hotel. Her work was anti-establishment, consisting of a black colour palette; her garments were shapeless but magnificently tailored, with asymmetrical hemlines, a direct challenge to the conventional, sexualised and form- fitting clothing that was in vogue at the time in Europe and America with shoulder-pad designers such as Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, Gianni Versace, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. Her use of different “shades” of black would later become a staple in the fashion world, but at first she endured criticism that bordered on bullying, if not outright racism. She created a rule- breaking collection that turned fashion on its head and still continues to do so to this day. That collection was internationally dismissed by critics not only as “ragged chic” or “appropriate for someone perched on a broom”, but also labelled as “Hiroshima chic” or “post atomic”, outrageous philippics aimed at someone who had to live in a country ravaged by the atomic lunacy of the West.
Roland Barthes’s The Death of the Author comes to mind, with his views on creators being unrelated to their creations, the final stage of a creation coming from a place that allows biographical influence to subside and the subconscious to take control. Her influence on the world of fashion as a designer’s designer is felt all over the world. It is inconceivable to imagine the Urban Outfitters windows in the British and American malls displaying so much black without the import of Kawakubo’s work. Although Martin Margiela and even Karl Lagerfeld have made news by presenting fragmented hems and deconstructed patterns, it surely could never have happened without Kawakubo’s pioneering and experimental spirit. She premiered cross-marketing collaborations with Speedo and Lacoste, J.Crew, Levi’s, The North Face, Nike, Monocle, Undercover and Moncler, but also Louis Vuitton, and it is only recently that Stella McCartney did the same with Adidas. Kawakubo was the first, in 1998 in Chelsea in New York, to ask architects (Future Systems) to collaborate with her on a fashion store, a move that probably incited Miuccia Prada to do the same in SoHo with her store designed by Rem Koolhaas.
Comme des Garçons also has grown to consist of fragrances (she recently teamed up with Pharrell Williams to create the scent Girl) and affordable fashion lines after the 2008 world financial crisis (including a limited-edition collection for H&M). Kawakubo is the point person in all affairs Comme des Garçons, with the exception of her husband, Adrian Joffe, who also heads up the Dover Street Market locations that bring different types of brands together under the same roof.
It is nonetheless difficult not to see the mind-blowing beauty of her collections, where peace and violence often clash. Freud’s The Uncanny comes to mind, as well as the new objectivity movement, such as the Christian Schad painting in which a beauty mark on the naked back of a woman, who could just as well be a man, might actually, on closer inspection, be a fly that just landed there, or the aperture of a bullet hole. But always the refusal of authority, the revolution.
Her designs are postmodernist in the sense that they tend to always mix high and low culture, as though aiming to annihilate culture altogether. Fabrics associated by reification with luxury, such as silk, are depressed and those attached to a working- class stigma, such as polyester, are given the spa treatment.
“When I hear the word culture I pull out my cheque book,” a character in Jean- Luc Godard’s Le Mépris famously said. It is not uncommon for models to be sent down Kawakubo’s runways sporting the most elaborate, refined and intricate of top garments over a pair of ripped-up slacks. A coat is usually randomly slashed in the back, a lining is either showing or left unsewn in places. Fringes are left pending, hems are uneven or unfinished, impeccable tailoring is coupled with an extra piece of fabric left uncut, as though to show the process of the design, which has led many to incorrectly see her as a modernist. Wearing a Comme des Garçons piece is prolonging the careful thinking that Kawakubo has placed in its making, continuing its conception in real life, espousing a philosophy, a way of life. There is no distinction to be made from the studio to the street, it’s a total, all-encompassing process. Some designs combine in the same piece different steps of that process when they are not simply composites, hybrids of completely dissimilar styles.
Kawakubo has no respect for style, this all-enslaving fetish that most consumers of fashion confuse for clothing. It is not even certain that what she makes are clothes. Many of her designs envelop the body, placing it within a principial cocoon or egg, the fabric becoming shell. In these cases, the fabric can be seen as protective, like a carapace. Most of her designs are outgrowths, whether they are amorphous or architecturally structured, but always somewhat organic. There are restraints everywhere – harnesses, ligaments and tendons, making sure that the armour that never lets anything in will also bar any attempt at flight. They are reminiscent of the self-imposed restraints in the work of Matthew Barney, but they mainly recall the magnificent Slaves of Michelangelo lining the path to David at the Accademia in Florence. Stuck in marble and fighting to get out, the neoplatonist sculptor saw our condition as marred by our constant desperate attempts to elevate our souls from the venalities of this world into the world of Ideas, our bodies being dragged back down to earth after each attempt by a glue only glanced at in our worst nightmares. The body seen as a tomb and Kawakubo’s designs as extraordinary and beautiful coffins.
Kawakubo doesn’t own factories, 10 houses or a Gulfstream G550. Many, bonded by the tyranny of influence, have seen markers of the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras in her work, and even if she has played with tradition, it is in the dichotomy between revolution and tradition that her interest lays.
In this sense, Kawakubo is less of an avant-gardist and more of a Romantic, the kind that sprouted up in the late 18th and early 19th centuries on the heels of the revolutions and who, while working within the strict confines of the academies, ignited implosions that would have massive ripple effects for centuries to come. These artists started painting fires, ruins, floods, people with their backs turned to the viewer and destructions; they became obsessed with fragments, a proto-postmodernity already challenging the absurdities of the siècle des Lumières and its absurdist overreliance on science. A direct lineage could be traced from Friedrich Schlegel’s unfinished novel Lucinde, subtitled Confessions of a Blunderer, to Kawakubo’s work. His attempt at “shaped, artistic chaos”, as he himself proposed, at a work “meant to be chaotic yet systematic” echoes throughout Kawakubo’s work, in which the fragmentary line of her tailoring never impairs the wholeness of each piece presented. For Schlegel, “A fragment, like a small work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself, like a hedgehog.”
Each model walking down the aisle at a Comme des Garçons show clashes with the preceding and following design of fragmentary tailoring, strangely creating a whole, or that “chaotic universality” so dear to Schlegel. But Kawakubo is also a dadaist, her work ultimately being highly political. In Berlin, George Grosz and John Heartfield explored with montages as well as, on the heels of Vladimir Tatlin and the constructivists in Russia, with the notion of the artist as an engineer. A work of art could now be phoned in, with the artist literally calling his assistants on a phone in a lab with his instructions as to how to produce the work. I recently asked Kawakubo, “Aren’t you in some ways a dada engineer?” “Yes, I really like that idea,” she answered. “Find me more documentation on this,” she asked an assistant.
The punks and Kawakubo had this in common. They all knew from the get-go that, while they would destroy the norms, the world of conventions would ultimately win. And the scars are here to show exactly that. John Lydon went from brilliant political animal to fat, balding blowhard, and his recent concerts are exercises in ultimate sadness, while Kawakubo shows signs that this endless search for the new might very well be akin to a morbid exhaustion. The myth of the 49 Danaïdes comes to mind, those young women condemned to fill up a bottomless basin after they had killed their husbands on their wedding nights on the order of their father so he could settle a power issue with his brother.
Kawakubo might not be a feminist, but she is nobody’s instrument. The forces of convention and conformism might be greater and more dangerous than anyone with a desire to confront them might ever have imagined.
Text by Jacques Hyzagi
Photograph from Comme des Garçons SS16
Taken from Issue 56 on 10 Magazine, STRENGTH WOMAN SUPREME, on newsstands now…