Comme des Garçons and Rei Kawakubo have given us some of the wildest fashion collections in recent memory. Time after time, they’ve graced the runway with inventive outfits that appear more like works of art than clothing. Sometimes, they’re so elaborate you can’t even describe them as costumes. Crazy and random as Kawakubo’s designs often look, they’re always tied together by a central theme. The iconic designer has explored everything from death to 19th-century punks in the last seven years. Next month, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will feature the legendary brand’s work in one of their seasonal exhibitions. With this new exhibit and the Met Gala coming up in May, 2017 may well be the year of Comme des Garçons.
There’s a reason Comme des Garçons designs have a reputation for breaking the rules. Kawakubo hardly ever works within the traditional confines of fashion design. Her 2014 show demonstrated just how passionate she was about abandoning convention. For this 23-piece collection, the designer crafted every piece around the question: what if you had no idea what clothing was? If you had no expectations about how fabric was supposed cover the human body, any design was possible. Clothing might mimic the human form or stray from it completely. Opting for shapes completely devoid of fashion troupes, Comme des Garçons succeeded in making the audience think twice about the true nature of fashion structures.
The question Kawakubo’s label posed in the fall of 2014 was much more philosophical than her spring show. Rather than dissecting the established aesthetics of fashion, these Comme des Garçons designs challenged the notion of aesthetics itself. On this runway, each model appeared in pithy, knitted structures with only one slit to see through. Each design was crafted so that it appeared ominously nondescript while still maintaining a few features commonly associated with blazers and dresses. Kawakubo described these outfits as a mixture of the ugly and beautiful elements of the fashion industry. When you wear something, you get a sense of pleasure when you feel well-dressed or attractive. At the same time, clothing has the ability to crush your self-worth under criticism and doubt. By designing pieces that were both grotesque and beautiful, Comme des Garçons could explore both sides of this issue.
Black and white were the prominent players in Comme des Garçons’s exploration of mourning and death in the fall of 2015. Every detail of this iconic show was haunting and transcendent. From the lacy, Victorian grieving veils to the monochromatic color scheme, Kawakubo tackled death unlike any designer had before. The blocking was particularly interesting. Each model marched slowly as if in a daze, moving gracefully like ghosts. When they passed one another, they circled cautiously as if they were spirits acknowledging each other before moving on. Accompanied by a soundtrack of melancholy strings, these Comme des Garçons designs will always be remembered as some of the most powerful looks to grace a fashion catwalk.
If you have ever asked yourself what a punk kid would look like decked out in 1800s fashion, this is the show for you. With pure opulence smothered in flowers and towering wigs, Kawakubo crafted a collection of incredibly decadent Comme des Garçons designs. No one could agree on what the designer was trying to say with such a classy, extravagant runway. Some said she was calling for revolution while others saw the luxurious styles as a comment on the conceited state of high fashion. Whichever the case may be, this was one classy rebellion. You don’t see Victorian punks in upholstered dresses every day.
Comme des Garçons designs have brought creativity and unquestionable spunk to fashion runways since 1973. In recent years, their collections have taken on a challenging new character. The Met may be opening an exhibition on Kawakubo and her label in May, but the display will be far from the final word on this incredible label. There are many more wild costumes to come before the end.
— Timothy Vest