“For me, the dark beauty of the black rose symbolizes courage, resistance, and freedom”, Rei Kawakubo stated regarding her Comme des Garçons autumn-winter 2022 show presented a few days ago in Tokyo. The black rose in Irish culture is a symbol of resistance against British rule. It might be a bit hard to discern it in the Comme lineup – it only comes in, patterned on a sort of Victoriana brocade at the 12th of the 16 exits. It’s certain that anti-British imperialism in Ireland is what Kawakubo meant, though, because the haunting music – “a beautiful resistance song from Ireland, Roisin Dubh, the little black rose,” was recorded for the show by the Northern Irish slow flautist Ciaran Carlin. Possibly that’s the most political reference Kawkubo’s made in her work – it has no equivalence to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, except for the common factor of dangerously contested borders. But anyway: how to put words to her clothes? Was a sense of dark history, something primal, or even medieval going on? It seemed so to begin with anyway, what with Kawkubo’s use of thick, wadded, speckled-gray felt carpet underlay (or something similar) and headpieces created by Gary Card bulging with assortments of rough, rolled up fabrics. Other hand-crocheted floppy woollen hats had the air of bonnets, country-cottage style. Comme des Garçons hasn’t been showing outside Tokyo for two years, and Paris Fashion Week really misses its presence. Hopefully, Kawakubo (as well as Junya Watanabe and Noir Kei Ninomiya) returns to the French runway next season.
Livestreamed from Tokyo, Rei Kawakubo went for her signature giant portable Comme Des Garçons sculptures this season, imprinted with exaggerated flowers, leaves and bows. There were huge shapes, which meant models had to squeeze or shuffle sideways to emerge through a door onto a set. It didn’t feel like one of Kawakubo’s dystopian, apocalyptic moments in which she has seemed to sound a warning about bad things coming. Was her popping-out scenario closer to suggesting a feeling of rebirth, re-emergence, maybe? If so, it’s into a world where – as other fashion designers have been saying – nothing makes sense. Randomness, surrealism and absurdity are registering as part of the mood of 2021. Kawakubo, in confronting her “present state of mind” went large, very, very large, occupying space in ways that no women is meant to (though to be honest, vast art-fashion structures have been her safe space for experimenting for years). She certainly met her own criterion of avoiding making clothes. Comme “dresses” were presented as abstract perambulating 3-D fabric structures, topped off with pastiches of plastic cartoon girly wigs by Gary Card. Some of them had a sort of curved prow; several had net-filled cones spurting from their backs; some were ovoid, another was a 3-D black trashbag flower. Eventually there was an impression of the weight of furnishing fabric and swishing curtain swags. In the end there was a piece that seemed to have entirely merged a woman with a comfy black and white upholstered armchair. Paris Fashion Week missed having the Comme de Garçons show to contemplate at a time when fashion needs fearless innovators to take it forward. Kawakubo sets an example for all: a designer who has been independent for a lifetime and is still pushing.
In the Comme des Garçons autumn-winter 2021 fashion show images coming straight from Tokyo, Rei Kawakubo‘s models looked as if they were walking clouds. “I needed to take one breath on the monochrome“, the designer summed up in her always-enigmatic manner. Monochrome is Kawakubo’s original signature. In the early 1980s, right at the start of her showing in Paris, Rei’s uncompromising use of black was deemed “shocking” and “conceptual” – especially in contrast to all the bold colours used by Montana or Saint Laurent at the time. Here, the designer seems to push it to extremes, creating wearable, layered-up sculptures which were kept in a rigorous black-and-white palette. With the addition of the rakish stovepipe hats made in collaboration with Ibrahim Kamara, the billowy dresses and voluminous coats played with romantic, Victorian styles. Comme des Garçons’ “monochrome serenity” definitely comes from an escapist place, breaking away from the global, lockdown routine. The longer you look at those pieces, the more beautiful things are revealed.
Paris Fashion Week felt incomplete without the Japanese avant-garde. From Tokyo, where all the Comme des Garçons family of designers have been showing, an email suggested that Rei Kawakubo has been striving to arrive at a creative resolution for designing in the midst of the existential plight that we’re all suffering. Dissonance was her theme: “The human brain always looks for harmony and logic. When logic is denied, when there is dissonance a powerful moment is created which leads you to feel an inner turmoil and tension that can lead to finding positive change and progress.” Any note of hope is gratefully received in these times of chaos. Discerned through the red light of her set – surely a signifier of the hellish state of the world, which at the same time made it hard to look at the garments in detail – her prescription for survival seemed threaded through with a playful, ironic sense of humor. Voluminous shapes, crinolines, bubbles, cloaks, and trapezoid coats came covered in plastic film. Then, what was Kawakubo up to, playing with Mickey Mouse and the Japanese Bearbrick teddy bear toy? Cutely reassuring representations of childhood innocence to cling to in our times of trouble, perhaps. The designer even messed around with the CdG heart logo, designed by Filip Pagowski back in the 1980s. The thing about Kawakubo is that her work brilliantly captures so many dissonant ideas at the same time. A phrase in her notes said she was interested in disrupting “the spirit of couture” with “illogical combinations and juxtapositions.” You sense she likes both the romance and glitter of couture and being punk with it, though – and this time, it almost felt like she’d had fun with it.
“Is it impossible to make something completely and utterly new, since we are all living in this world?”, Rei Kawakubo asked rhetorically in the press notes of her autumn-winter 2020 Comme Des Garçons collection. Looking at some “big” designers for a couple of seasons, this question is an actual punch with a fist. At this stage in her legendary career, what’s still driving Kawakubo is the tantalizing goal of being able to make work that relates to nothing else; that triggers no associations; is devoid of storytelling and free of history, politics, or satire; and is incapable of being interpreted as belonging to any culture or subconscious brew of any of the above. Among the 20 looks she sent out – bubbles, ledged pieces apparently made for furniture, towering headpieces – it felt like she was aiming to design for some post-world state. There appeared to be echoes of Comme Des Garçons collections from the past – the Flat collection; the ones rotated around the idea of weddings and funerals; fragmented reminders of the Lumps and Bumps presentation. Kawakubo admitted it was true – she really let herself remix some of her past works. “Continuing my work as a perpetual futurist, I worked from within the CDG world.” But when you’re having such a well-formed, complex and distinct vocabulary – Miuccia Prada as well comes up to my mind as one of those designers – then there’s no wonder you want to recycle some of those concepts from time to time.