Fashion and Art are inextricably linked, through its vision, its format and its participation to the creative culture, and yet very few designers have grasped the strength of this link through their designs and collections. Rei Kawakubo transcends the mere categories of fashion and art, her role as founder of Comme Des Garcons and Dover Street Market and the influence that she has radiated, has transformed her into the legend that is being honoured at this year’s Met Gala and that has recognised her instinctive vision towards art.
Kawakubo studied fine art and literature and never trained as a fashion designer, but her journey began whilst working in the textile industry before becoming a stylist that led her into launching Comme des Garcons in 1969 – and incorporating the label in 1973. Despite the fashion designs being heavily influenced by Japanese culture and style, Kawakubo presented Comme des Garcon in Paris each season before it became the powerhouse that it is known as today, turning over approximately £200 million a year. The fashion house has hit success after success with collaborations across the industry from Nike and Louis Vuitton to H&M. Her cult collaboration being CDG x CONVERSE, the iconic red heart on the side of the converse sole has stamped the brand as being versatile. Kawakubo’s explorative vision and expression of hybridity between fashion and art, has made art wearable.
Separating Kawakubo from her incredible influence and iconic status as a designer for a moment, it is important to celebrate her vision as seeing and captivating fashion as an art aesthetic. Critics have often debated fashion as an expressive art form, but what qualifies fashion as art? – It must be an expression that can relate to the environment around it. Taking this definition and comparing it to Kawakubo’s work, as a legendary designer, she replicates the definition of fashion as an art form. Her aesthetic from the outset specialised in the anti-fashion, austere and deconstruction. The initial emphasis on her collections was mainly based around blacks, whites and greys before expanding the colour range in later shows. The clothing would often drape around the body, fray at the ends and misshapen the body. Kawakubo, through her collections, would deconstruct and challenge the established notions of beauty in fashion. By disrupting the normal and scrutinising the artist’s form, the collections would create a simultaneous uproar but celebration of vision and creativity.
Taking a step back into show history, models would grace the back of the catwalk and individually take their turn down the catwalk parading the latest designs. The concept was seamless in terms of production but it was disengaging and separated the beauty of the designs from the consumer. Kawakubo altered this whole concept, her collection ‘Destroy’ set about having models take over the catwalk, and standing still for the gaze of the audience whilst the lights flashed around them. Her belief that the body should stay on the ground meant that the models wore flat shoes, knitwear covered in holes and shawls hibernated the body.
Her vision for this was to dis-cypher the body-conscious aesthetic and destroy the preconceptions that came with fashion. Against the bourgeois fashion houses of its time, Comme des Garcon certainly stood out as a visionary example of anti-fashion. Similarly her 2006 A/W collection dealt with the concept of the persona and the different ways that we perceive the world. Fusing together feminine and masculine tailoring, the collection altered the preconceptions we once had regarding styles of fashion. The avant-garde approach to the collection establishes her reach towards fashion as an art form, taking the space between boundaries.
Some of her iconic collections take the 1997 “ Body meets dress – dress meets body” show, which experimented with shape and distortion, was an incredible embodiment of her work. The show was based on the concept of a woman being physically attached to her burdens, the disfigured dresses aimed to be anti-feminine and for it to relinquish the burdens of the female figure. Critics have studied this collection and often related the padding to a baby’s sling – a commentary towards motherhood. In areas where the padding was based around the hips can also suggest the enhancement of the female figure and yet the collection left an ambiguous meaning. Even the selection of the print established the collection as holding a cultural meaning, greater than just a fashion collection. The use of gingham was linked to the 1950’s American housewife, for Kawakubo to dedicate her collection to gingham and in relation to her choice of padding, raises the question of her feminist agenda – clearly the clothing is more than a fashion statement but a political embodiment through clothing and art. Kawakubo takes beauty in its purest form, taking the female body in this collection, she distorts the gaze we as an audience put upon it.
The vision that is carried through a Comme des Garcon collection can be linked directly to the art aesthetic, especially as the avant-garde. The art movement that Kawakubo relates to takes art as a format to push boundaries. It works as experimental, radical or unorthodox and the movement may be characterized by the non-traditional and initial unacceptability – some would even go as far to say that the Avant garde offers a critique of the relationship between producer and consumer. Whilst defining the revolutionary artistic movement, it is difficult not to associate Rei and Comme des Garcon as an artistic movement within fashion.
Whether her work is credited as an artistic form, her influence has created waves throughout the industry and that simply hasn’t been tackled within fashion history. Rei continually constructs her collection through the distortion of her environment; she jars the beauty behind the clothes and resembles its worth by breaking the status quo. Her work magically fuses the aesthetic between art and fashion and it is this experimentation that has awarded her the recognition of being the first designer hosted for the theme at this year’s Met Gala.
Words by: Nateisha Scott
This Article was published in the June Summer 2017 Art Issue of House of Solo Magazine