Ever since Savage Beauty, the blockbuster 2011 exhibition honoring the work of designer Alexander McQueen, The Costume Institute’s annual show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has gone from being an insider’s soiree to a televised, near-Oscars-level, red carpet moment where celebrities and fashionistas collide. The McQueen retrospective, with its themes of sex, death and excess, was bound to attract a crowd. The subject of this year’s exhibition is a different proposition—the reclusive Rei Kawakubo, creator of cult Japanese label Comme des Garçons, and only the second living designer to be honored with a show since Yves Saint Laurent in 1983.
The focus of the show, which opens May 4, will be the brand’s womenswear. But Kawakubo has always been a force in men’s style as well—and for decades Comme des Garçons Hommes Plus, as her men’s line is known, has been a must-have for a certain type of man—one who wants to confound, who doesn’t really care for the opinions of others, and who isn’t afraid to look a little ridiculous.
“What used to be called ‘seconds’ is now called ‘couture.’ Ms. Kawakubo is my god.” – John Waters
John Waters is that type of man. In fact, the director is such a fan of Kawakubo’s work that he devoted a whole chapter of his book, Role Models, to the designer, and has walked in her shows. “She specializes in clothes that are torn, crooked, wrinkled, ill-fitting, and expensive,” the director says of Kawakubo. “What used to be called ‘seconds’ is now called ‘couture.’ Ms. Kawakubo is my god.”
Other Comme fans include fellow designer Marc Jacobs, who has worn some dresses Kawakubo made for men on the red carpet, and fashion enthusiast Kanye West. West’s notable appearances in the designer’s work have included a pink brocade jacket, another one covered in skulls, and an array of sneakers made in collaboration with Nike. Drake, perhaps lacking Kanye’s vision, has only been seen in a cardigan with a discreet logo (on the women’s front, notable nutter Lady Gaga is a fan.)
Despite these forward-thinking celebrities, Kawakubo is not a household name. Instead, she’s the consummate designer’s designer, almost universally admired (and copied) by her peers. She started Comme des Garçons (French for “Like some Boys”) in Tokyo in 1969 after working as a stylist. It wasn’t until 1981, however, that her work got wider acclaim, when she and Yohji Yamamoto started showing in Paris. In the era of Versace and Thierry Mugler, Madonna and Dynasty’s Alexis Carrington, Kawakubo’s second collection was entitled “Destroy,” and looked a lot like black rags.
“Kawakubo’s genius is apparent in her disregard of fashion as a status symbol,” enthuses Bjorn Bengtsson, assistant professor at Parsons School of Design. “Particularly considering she launched in the ’80s, an era dominated by glam and excess.”
This odd aesthetic disturbed more traditional fashionistas, who dubbed her shows “Hiroshima’s revenge.” But her quirky creativity also attracted an army of enthusiastic devotees. In collections that bore such names as, “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body,” she added padded, deforming lumps to clothes, rendering the wearer grotesque but also statuesque. “References to tumors and hunchbacks abounded in reviews of the collection, which critics christened ‘Lumps and Bumps,’ a moniker that suggests a body that’s diseased, deformed, and, ultimately, monstrous,” says Andrew Bolton, head curator at the Costume Institute. The shows themselves were more like performance art than trade show; models strolled out wearing clothes that were upside down, inside out, or outsized, confounding the notion of dressing for your body type. Or looking attractive at all, for that matter.
To this day however, a Comme des Garçons show is one of the most hotly anticipated on the fashion schedule. “What I love most is the mood in the room, the collective anticipation felt while waiting for a CDG show to begin,” says Bruce Pask, the men’s fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman. “There have been a few shows without music—the lack of a soundtrack creates a tension inside the room that inspires a hyper-focus on the clothing. It’s an energy, an experience like no other.”
Kawakubo’s menswear is just as adventurous, but its effect is altogether more restrained. A Comme men’s outfit is somehow always recognizable, due to the abstract effect of the designer’s tailoring, her stiff leather jackets, and the cropped-trouser silhouette she favors. The clothing looks like it’s been shrunken in some parts and enlarged in others. Something about there being so many rules and codes for men’s clothing to react against seems to inspire her.
“One of the secrets of Rei Kawakubo is her absolute respect for the traditions of clothing and design,” Charlie Porter, menswear critic for the Financial Times says. “It’s less apparent in her womenswear, which increasingly has been about form beyond fashion. Comme des Garçons Homme Plus takes a different path, always looking at the fit and form of men’s clothing. Yes, the tailoring is subverted—cut away, created in jarring cloth— but at the end it is tailoring; the shape of her shoulder is one of the best in the business.”
The exhibition at the Met cements this vaguely godlike status. Obviously, making designer clothes isn’t particularly saintly, but Kawakubo has perfected the art of being maddeningly silent, preferring to speak through her husband, and president of Comme des Garçons International, Adrian Joffe. Kawakubo has been married to Joffe since 1993, and under his tenure the brand has steadily grown to generate $220 million in revenue per year. This is partly due to their department stores, the thrillingly bonkers Dover Street Market, of which there are three—the original in London, one in New York and one in Tokyo. The number of designers under the Comme umbrella has expanded too— former protégé Junya Watanabe has his own brand that sits alongside their many diffusion lines, which encompass a whole wardrobe for men and women (you’ve definitely seen someone wearing a T-shirt or Converse from their Play line, replete with the little heart-with-eyes logo).Kawakubo and Joffe show that commerce needn’t be separate from creativity.
This January, Kawakubo’s men’s collection was simply called “Boyhood,” a beautiful, pensive show based around children’s toys, at once innocent and vaguely sinister. Suits and shoes were covered in plastic molds of kids’ toys, and the models wore pastel cropped wigs. Porter, who was in attendance, remembers, “Comme des Garçons Homme Plus shows have such power, often a power that is quiet and that builds. For AW17, the models came out in clusters, their tailored jackets with sleeves that were like soft armor of different cloths. At the end, the models came out each carrying a bouquet of fake flowers. It said so much about the strength of sensitivity, of masculinity without bravado.”
At the Paris press conference announcing the Met exhibit, Kawakubo’s presence was widely remarked upon, as if the wizard had unexpectedly stepped out from behind the curtain. Not that she uttered a word, leaving it to Bolton to explain the exhibit, which will be grouped into sections entitled things like Then/Now, Self/Other, and Clothes/Not Clothes. The House of Comme des Garçons instead released a quote, which perhaps says more about Kawakubo than any analysis of her work. In her own words, “I have always pursued a new way of thinking about design…by denying established values, conventions, and what is generally accepted as the norm. And the modes of expression that have always been most important to me are fusion…imbalance… unfinished…elimination…and absence of intent.” Whatever this means, it’s sure to make for an exciting—and no doubt confounding—show.