11 November 2011

An Apocalypse of Culture

Comme des Garçons Homme Plus
Fall/Winter 2011

"I never lose my ability to rebel, I get angry and that anger becomes my energy for certain.  I wouldn't be able to create anything if I stop rebelling."
Kawakubo in interview with Takeji Hirakawa (1990)

Patricia Mears called her "the quintessential postmodern designer".  Academics and fashion writers alike have consistently called her an avant-garde genius and interpreted her work as expressions of ardent feminism.  And yet when one considers the fashion media at large, the work of Rei Kawakubo, in the form of her mainlines Comme des Garçons and, its menswear partner, Comme des Garçons Homme Plus, are usually ignored, or at best dismissed as avant-garde oddness.  Comments describing her work as being strange, weird, and even ugly, are not uncommon.  Kawakubo's work has been simultaneously exalted and mocked, called genius and decried as unwearable.  I have never really seen unwearable garments, merely garments that require a little confidence and a little humour - they are either right for you or they are not, and if they are not, that is totally fine by me.

Describing Rei Kawakubo's Fall/Winter 1983 Comme des Garçons collection, Suzy Menkes wrote of models coming down the catwalk "like a race of warrior women".  Defying standard ideals of beauty and commonly inverting notions of the sexualized body, Kawakubo's treatment of the female body is at once empowering and shocking.  Her work, as evidenced prominently in her Spring/Summer 1997 collection, 'Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress', has sought to draw fashion away from an objectification of the female body, to having a deeper respect for the wearer.  Many newspapers and critics at the time dismissed that collection as her "Quasimodo" collection (it is now usually referred to as her 'Lumps and Bumps' collection), and yet it has since been recognized as a dexterous exploration of the dialectic between body and dress, manipulating the way we view the female body and what is considered as beautiful.

In her seeking for a new understanding of the female body, Kawakubo also seeks to constantly redefine the present and what it means to be a woman today.  Indeed as she herself was quick to proclaim, "We must break away from conventional forms of dress for the new woman of today.  We need a new strong image, not a revisit to the past." (New York Times, 30th January 1983).  This disruption is symptomatic of her avant-garde design, a classification which in itself suggests an iconoclastic aesthetic that seeks to disrupt itself from popular culture.  In this respect her work disrupts itself quite clearly, both visually and intellectually, from popular high fashion.   Indeed for a designer who seeks to constantly rebel, and even refers to her company as the Comme des Garçons "army", this distinction is more than welcome.

Yet to find oneself labelled as part of the avant-garde is also to often find oneself summarily catergorized and thus easily dismissed.  Avant-garde is by definition applied to that which does not prescribe to the prevailing notions of beauty and the popular image of its time.  In an industry that is based upon appearances, this conscious attempt not to fit in can cause problems.  This is especially so when one of the main sectors in that industry is geared towards packaging design into neat little boxes of trends to be pushed upon consumers.  Whilst no designers wants to be simply part of the crowd, standing out too much can be a problem.   Take for example Olivier Theyskens, a designer recognized as genius, classified into a class of his own - the demi-couturier, and yet does not even work at a fashion house.     

Fashion tends to require classification and catergorization at every level - designers and fashions are grouped by decades, nations, the city they show in, some vague sense of a shared aesthetic, a shared trend, schooling background, predominant colour, materials, etc.  Consciously seeking not to be so easily defined is problematic for the gatekeepers who rely so heavily on being able to do so.  And so the term avant-garde comes into play.  It becomes a term to describe what is not easily marketable and what is not easily understood, and as such it becomes a term to be applied simply as an excuse not to have to understand.  Essentially, once it is classified, it does not need to be understood, for the label supposedly says all.  One sees Kawakubo's work being dismissed as avant-garde frippery, some genius outpouring that is nevertheless impractical for everyday wear, and it is a reaction I find confusing.

Speaking in I-D Magazine in May 1992, Kawakubo stated, "You don't have to talk to me, look at the clothes and then you see, you know me, what I want to say is there".  So why not look beyond the label of avant-garde, or weird, or strange, and look at the clothing?  For a designer who is usually defined by her treatment of the female body and feminine beauty, I am interested in her treatment of the male body and how her aesthetic is transferred across both the gender and sex divide.  By exploring the way in which she interacts with men's fashion, perhaps one is actually allowed a greater understanding of Kawakubo and her skills as a designer.

Given the constraints of my writing platform some broad study of Kawakubo's menswear is obviously impractical, so I would simply like to look ever so briefly at the themes within her current Homme Plus collection (Fall/Winter 2011), which I believe allow one a fascinating insight into Kawakubo's work.  To return to how I started this post, this collection is nothing if only a display of Kawakubo's post(or would that be neo?)modernism style at work.  The collection was a vision of a cultural apocalypse, quite dramatically highlighting the practice of bricolage in fashion.  In particular it highlighted fashion's tendency to create a new present through a process of broad transcultural and transhistorical referencing.  At the same time she treatment the male body as a site not for anxiety in this apocalypse, not requiring protection or armour, but as a site for celebration and a display of extravagance.    

In Dick Hebdige's seminal text, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Hebdige used the anthropological concept of bricolage (in particular building upon Levi-Strauss' work in The Savage Mind) and applied it to the process of subcultural appropriation of commodities in order to apply new meanings to them.  One of the examples he gives is of mods "functioning as bricoleurs when they appropriated...[a] range of commodities by placing them in a symbolic ensemble which served to erase or subvert their original straight meanings" (p. 104).  The appropriation and subsequent subversion or resignification of cultural commodities is a practice we are all too familiar with in fashion.  A designer references a cut from one decade, combines it with a pattern from another decade, and uses it to present a finished article that is relevant to the present.  Other cultures and other times are simply part of the tools of creativity for fashion designers, however it is the way in which they combine these references to capture a feeling or thought that determines their final expression.

Kawakubo's collection piled reference upon reference atop each other, in an ostensibly unrestrained manner, highlighting in an almost visually aggressive manner the very process of fashion design.  I say aggressive due to the decadent and diverse nature of her bricolage, referencing Japanese heritage alongside Chinese print, or an American flag alongside Edwardian London.  And yet in this diverse referencing, Kawakubo also provided each of those individual references with an all new meaning for an all new present.  The extent of her transcultural and transhistorical referencing in singular looks alone, not only highlighted the practice of bricolage in fashion as a whole, but rather it seemed to foreshadow the extent to which the contemporary world is becoming ever more global in terms of culture.  It was a witty remark on the chaos of contemporary culture, finding in its apocalypse not a degradation of individual influences, but a celebration of its individual components.  Indeed, by placing contrasting references clearly alongside each other, it did not obliterate those references, but rather made them all the more apparent, and invested them with a new contemporary meaning.

In order to provide a new meaning, the commodities appropriated are never merely transplanted.  They need to be deconstructed, pulled apart, and applied in new ways in order to be relevant.  One does not simply replicate, otherwise a garment can become visually jarring and quite obviously anachronistic (a notable exception would perhaps be Margiela's Replica line).  The skill lies in making that reference relevant to the now (or at least the now that the designer wishes to conjure).  This translation was quite literally exposed by Kawakubo in her ostensible deconstruction of garments.  Vintage printed t-shirts were sewn together to provide elongated double printed t-shirts, or jackets were worn reversed allowing their patchwork printed linings to be exposed.  This construction, or deconstruction as it would be called, allowed Kawakubo to quite literally appropriate commodities from the past and entirely subvert and rewrite their meanings.  This is nowhere more apparent than in the use of logo printed t-shirts.  And yet this clear visual deconstruction is particularly distinct, for in its reclamation of the old, it did not destroy but rather recomposed.  Whereas the punks used an aesthetic pauperism, tearing and shredding garments to provide them with new meaning, Kawakubo tears the garments apart only to carefully reconstruct them to suit her new meaning.

In a world in which culture is increasingly global, and in which fashion continuously plunders various cultures and pasts (often its own), Kawakubo sees the end result not as a destruction of these elements, but as a celebration of diversity.  In light of a cultural apocalypse, the male body is not a site of anxiety or vulnerability, but rather the vessel for a display of decadent beauty.  In consciously allowing multiple references and commodities to be simultaneously displayed Kawakubo is not hiding behind the safety of conformity, here she is celebrating individuality in all its colours.  Pushed to the realm of the almost comic, and exaggerated in its display, there is no hiding, merely an acceptance of diversity.  And boy is it wearable.

(Thank you so very much for the kind words with regards to my last written post, it really did mean a lot)


  1. Their is something leisure and classic in his work at the same time.

  2. haha...oh Molly.

    This reminds me of clothes which are made cheaply (and usually very badly) with designs which draw on a bit of Burberryish trench and a bit of Balmainish chains and Lanvinish rusching to make a tacky meaningless amalgamation- but then in the manner of Deleuzian simulacra, it becomes its own object of meaning- which is a nice thought!

  3. H: I agree with you, it does veer close to cheesy, but I like that. You know with CdG it's not going to be a subtle show, and she always gets her point across with tongue in cheek, and that makes me smile. On the rails all I saw was a wearable (ok, not the silk shirts), if varied, collection.

    Of course you always have to distinguish between the idea of the collection and the physical garments themselves, but I think in this case they quite literally represent what they are meant to be. It might be a collection that gets called tacky and messy by some, but at least it elicits a strong visceral response.

  4. Another beautiful post on a mutually loved subject matter. This collection's essence I really felt reverberated within me (I had multiple people say that this was strikingly similar to how I already dress, including comme employees before the collection even showed!).

    Thank you for, excuse my lack of verbosity, introducing me to a new word: Bricolage! What a fantastic word it is!

    "Whereas the punks used an aesthetic pauperism, tearing and shredding garments to provide them with new meaning, Kawakubo tears the garments apart only to carefully reconstruct them to suit her new meaning." - Why I always thought the punk movement is no longer relevant today, at least in it's original form.

    "Pushed to the realm of the almost comic, and exaggerated in its display, there is no hiding, merely an acceptance of diversity. And boy is it wearable." - Wonderfully put Syed!