Fashion, Comme What May: Michelle Elie on her Devotion to Japanese Design
If you were to go fashion spotting during the Paris shows, one of the big names to tick off would have to be Michelle Elie. The American-Haitian former model and jewellery designer is the woman who wears the avant-garde. You could say Comme des Garçons is her weakness, but actually it’s her superpower. Her heart belongs to Rei.
Elie takes the art of dressing up to extremes. From the infamous SS97 Body Meets Dress collection – often talked about as the “lumps and bumps” show – to the flat, 2D foam dresses or rubber farthingales, she buys and wears some of the Japanese brand’s most challenging pieces. For her, Comme is not just an aesthetic, it’s a way of life. This year, her personal obsession has even become an exhibition, at Frankfurt’s Museum Angewandte Kunst. Life Doesn’t Frighten Me: Michelle Elie Wears Comme des Garçons is on until November and features 50 mannequins, each sculpted in Elie’s image and wearing her extraordinary collection.
Elie’s Comme obsession started in the early 1990s, when, as an aspiring young model in New York, she would hang out downtown. She would often walk past the mysterious, cave-like Comme store in Chelsea and feel a siren call. “I never had the nerve to go in and of course I couldn’t afford anything,” she remembers. That changed when she got a Maybelline campaign. “I earned quite a bit of money, and the minute I got my cheque I went to Comme des Garçons and dropped five grand on several pieces.”
Photograph by Tommy Ton.
The shopping experience was unlike anything she’d had before. “There were very few clothes on the rack. Everyone wore black and they never said,‘Can I help you?’ That’s usually the first thing [salespeople] say when you go into an American shop, but at Comme you were allowed to discover the clothes yourself. It was only when you took something to the dressing room that the conversation would be opened.” She walked out of the store with a white cotton menswear-style suit, worn with a dress over the top. “I’d never experienced the bridging between male and female before. I thought, can you really wear a dress with a suit? Actually, why not?”
She describes the pieces she bought that day as being, “the most important of my collection. It was the beginning. I was experiencing Japan without being there. It was a different way of seeing clothes. It was allowing me to be in my own imagination.” From that moment on, she became a firm part of the Comme cult. “When you wore Comme you only wore Comme. If you wore Yohji you only wore Yohji. A designer brand used to be part of a movement and, if you bought it, you were part of the movement – especially the Japanese.”
But what is it about Rei Kawakubo’s designs that provoke such a strong response in her? “First, I love that she’s a woman. There’s a certain sensitivity. There are issues she addresses in her collections – marriage, separation ceremonies and death. She deals with life issues and she deals with women’s issues, too – the body changing, body parts deformed and forming. I like that. I relate to it.” There are other things that Elie appreciates about the Comme world: the fact that Kawakubo is self-taught (Elie didn’t train as a jeweller before launching her collection) and the “made in Japan” element quells her ethical concerns about who makes the clothes.
Photograph by Styledumonde.
The outsider element of being a Comme woman in a Kardashian world also appeals. “I was already an outsider from early on, when I think about it,” says Elie. The youngest of five children, she was born in Haiti. When she was eight, the family emigrated to America, settling in Brooklyn, New York, where young Elie quickly evolved from being an awkward Haitian immigrant who couldn’t speak English into a style-savvy New York schoolgirl. “My mother used to dress me as a little Haitian girl with a ribbon in my hair – I was teased. But after a while, I used to change my hair when I got out of the house and tried to fix it the way mother did it when I went back home.” She learnt early on that what you wore changed the way you were treated.
In her hardworking immigrant family, all the children were encouraged to be independent and work. “I find myself repeating my mum’s sayings the whole time. She was very, very strong. She’s still very present in my life, even though she passed away 12 years ago. I do a lot of things based on her,” says Elie. Her mother encouraged her to be a model so that she could see the world. “She said, ‘You need to go and see what’s out there because you will have the opportunity I never had. Take it and go. Open your eyes and see.’ She was very much about that. She came from a small village but she was way bigger than her village.”
Elie dreamed of Europe and the culture and sophistication she had read about in American and Italian Vogue. After a stint in Paris, modelling for the likes of Xuly Bët, she moved to Miami to model swimwear and found herself at the centre of a vibrant fashion, art and music scene. “Everything was cheap or free. We shared. Nobody cared. It was a great community. Then it became a hotspot and all the rents went up.”
Photograph by Julien Boudet.
During her Miami period, Elie put her Comme habit on hold as there was nowhere to buy it in the sunshine state. “In Miami my style was all about the body. I’d exercise like a mad woman and there was no clothing because it was so hot. My husband would say, ‘Are you going out in those shorts?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah! If you got it, you flaunt it!’ I couldn’t believe the power of my confidence.”
Body-con might have been her go-to look, but she still devoured every article and magazine featuring Comme. By the late 1990s, Elie was pregnant and had moved to Germany to start a family with her art director husband and couldn’t stop thinking about Kawakubo’s groundbreaking lumps and bumps collection. She never managed to get hold of a piece when it was in-store and now, as her body changed with pregnancy, it was all she wanted. When a boutique owner in Cologne let slip that he had a piece in his private collection, she begged him to sell it to her. “He saw how passionate I was about Comme, so he let me have it. Full price!”
Then, as now, Elie’s response to the clothes was fuelled by emotion. “Everything is emotional. Nothing comes without emotion. Creation is emotional,” she says. Turning herself into a walking sculpture is the end game in a complex process of self-expression. When her teenage son’s friends poked fun at him for walking in a Charles Jeffrey show, she told him, “Let them laugh because they laughed at me, too. You need to stand on your own two feet. They may laugh at you now because they don’t get it but you need to be stronger than that and have your own voice.”
Photograph by Adriano Cisani.
Christians look forward to Christmas, Muslims to Eid but, for Elie, the high point of the year is Japanese day, the Saturday of Paris Fashion Week when Junya, Noir and Comme all show. “It’s the best day because I know it’s going to be super-creative. I don’t know what I’m going to get but it will be inspiring. Music, hair, location, vision – it’s going to give me what fashion should give me. I just want to travel with it and be immersed in this experience. Before I place my order, I want to dream and I want to question and be challenged and be in awe and come out and say, ‘What did I just see?’” For Elie, preparation for that special day starts well in advance. “I drive to Paris because the clothes don’t fit in any suitcase.” She describes the journey as meditative: “I have my music and my girls [the clothes] are in the back of the car. I laugh at myself the whole way.”
The whole experience is heightened by the anticipation of adding to her collection. Each season she sets herself a budget and usually buys two important runway pieces. Unlike most collectors, her intention is not just to display them like sculptures but to wear them. “I always know the piece. The piece speaks to me,” says Elie, who says she never has a ticket for the Comme show. “I just happen to walk in, which is very nice.” Usually she stands by the photographers, as it’s the best place to take pictures. She and Kawakubo bow politely at each other in the showroom, but despite Elie’s long obsession with Comme, she’s only been formally introduced to Kawakubo once – backstage at her 2018 Orlando collection. That day, she was wearing an extraordinary dress from the Ceremony of Separation collection of 2015. “It looks like a big mozzarella ball. It’s an unwearable dress – so heavy, so challenging – but I am glad I wore it.”
They might not be best friends, but Elie is grateful to Kawakubo. “She’s done a lot for me. She challenges me to wear these clothes. It challenges my husband, too,” she says, recalling the time she wore a 2012 piece with no armholes to a party. “I couldn’t use my hands and he had to feed me the entire time and he had to get me dressed. He said I almost pushed him to the edge. He gets questioned a lot. Someone said, ‘Have you seen your wife?’ He said, ‘Yeah, she looks great!’”
Top image by Victoria Adamso. Taken from Issue 65 of 10 Magazine – FAMILY, FOREVER, LOVE – available to purchase here.
Photography by Streetstly Phil Oh Days.