With each new collection that she unveils, designer Rei Kawakubo redefines fashion as we know it. As head of Japanese label Comme des Garçons, her designs not only challenge normative conventions of beauty, but also blur the boundary between fashion and art.
Her asymmetrical, off-kilter and sometimes off-putting designs have garnered much attention, especially now that her collections throughout the years are on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts in New York City. Her most recent ready-to-wear collection features tent-sized overcoats, cellophane-esque headpieces and boxy silhouettes that appear to be concealing a big-screen TV rather than a human body. Where most designers aim to flatter the female form, Kawakubo dares to disfigure it.
There’s a certain strange beauty to her creations, but it’s hard to envision anyone wearing them out in public – except perhaps to a Halloween party. While Kawakubo’s ensembles certainly make a statement about beauty and societal norms – in the same way that art would – she insists she’s not an artist. So if not for the sake of art, and if not for wearing, then what is high fashion for?
This is the confounding question that has consumed the world of haute couture in recent years. Kawakubo is hardly the only designer raising eyebrows, and it seems many of the industry’s top trendsetters are in a contest to out-weird each other with their peculiar creations.
American designer Jeremy Scott, who heads up Italian label Moschino, was inspired by packaging materials and trash (yes, literal rubbish) in the making of his Fall/Winter 2017 collection. Models strutted down a cardboard-covered runway in dresses that appeared to be made of paper bags, garment and rubbish bags, bubble wrap, shower curtains, a discarded bicycle wheel and other items you might find while dumpster diving.
“It seems many of the industry’s top trendsetters are in a contest to out-weird each other with their peculiar creations”
For its Autumn/Winter 2017 Womenswear collection, Italian label Emilio Pucci unveiled an array of 70s-esque prints paired with fringed hats – more akin to curtains – that concealed the face entirely. Think Cousin Itt from The Addams Family and you’ll have some idea of what it looked like. We suppose it would be ideal for avoiding unwanted run-ins with your ex at the supermarket.
Celebrated Chinese designer Guo Pei is also known for her eye-catching collections. One piece of her invention, a canary yellow silk cape trimmed in fur, caused quite a stir when pop singer Rihanna wore it to a Met Gala event. Although it’s undeniably beautiful, with a weight of 25 kilograms and a long, trailing train, it’s hardly a practical choice.
“I’m so in love with this dress, but the train is insane!” Rihanna said. “I can’t really walk in it without any help.”
The ability to walk easily in an outfit, or see, or move around at all, seems to be of little concern to high fashion designers so long as their models can make it down the runway and back. Even that is sometimes too much to ask. When fashion week rolls around, spectators can usually count on at least one model to stumble in their sky-high heels. One of the more recent examples was model Bella Hadid’s tumble at a Michael Kors show last September.
Even the Queen of Weird, pop star Lady Gaga, has traded in her high heels and catsuit for a more practical wardrobe in recent years. When asked about the drastic change, she remarked, “My style just stayed naturally at how I’ve been in the studio. I started vehemently saying, ‘Get these clothes out! I’m not wearing this! I’m not wearing heels!’ And some of that, too, is because I’ve been in the studio with boys. You can’t make music with a bunch of boys who are staring at a lobster on your head. They are going to get distracted.”
And while Lady Gaga has never shied away from the spotlight, the average person wouldn’t be caught dead in some of the outfits that are paraded down runways these days. So why do designers insist on creating collections that won’t sell? As it turns out, haute couture clothing isn’t meant to be sold at all, according to Dr Yoko Katagiri, an economics professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology at State University of New York.
“Don’t you want to leave an impression on someone at a big party by showing them the best you’ve got, through what you wear and how you talk?” Katagiri says. “Designers are showing off what they got – their technique, creativity and ideas for something new and different, to wow audiences and leave an impression.
“Some of the outrageous fashion pieces are only for show. Nobody can wear them, and the brand does not make money from them directly. It is an investment for a brand to build up its image and recognition.”
George Simonton, a fashion designer and professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, tells Time magazine, “It’s fun to do these really extravagant, exciting runway pieces, but very few of the truly wacko designs are meant to be worn.”
Still, it’s profitable for brands to create memorable shows, Katagiri says, because it creates brand recognition. In turn, this boosts the brand’s sales of handbags, shoes and perfume – the sectors where brands make a large part of their profits.
“It’s a big triangle,” Katagiri says. “Establishing a brand image by offering eye-catching, outrageous pieces, and then making money by selling wearable products at high markups, then re-branding again through runway shows.”
“ Fashion is not art. The aims of fashion and art are different and there is no need to compare them”
Fashion shows also serve the purpose of debuting the brand’s theme for the season, which is subsequently toned down and incorporated into more wearable pieces for public consumption. Many of the stranger elements are dropped out, but the colours, fabrics, textures and other unifying elements of the collection will resurface on retailers’ clothing racks.
The industry didn’t always rely so heavily on flashy shows and marketing ploys. In the early days of runway shows, the intent was, naturally, to sell clothing. Around the turn of the 20th century, models wore a designer’s clothes while chatting with VIP clients at small, private parties. Then, around 1910, the concept of a “fashion parade” emerged, serving as an early precedent to the modern fashion show.
It’s more difficult to pinpoint when runway shows became the theatrical spectacles that they are today. Many designers contributed to the runway show’s evolution throughout the years. The late designer Alexander McQueen was famous for his dramatic shows, including one in the fall of 1998 that ended with a masked model in a red dress surrounded by a ring of fire, symbolising the theme of the collection – Joan of Arc. McQueen is largely to thank for sparking debate over whether fashion is commerce or art – a conversation that continues to this day.
Kawakubo, with her provocative collections, knows this debate all too well. Yet she is clear on where she stands. “Fashion is not art,” she says. “The aims of fashion and art are different and there is no need to compare them.”
She may not fancy herself as an artist, but not everyone is willing to accept her definition. In fact, her current exhibition at The Met – The Art of the In-Between – is named after the elusive boundary she straddles between commercial clothing and art.
Andrew Bolton, curator at The Met, says one of Kawakubo’s most radical works was her Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress collection from 1997. It featured “padded structures made out of goose down feathers that completely disfigured the body, so it was a celebration of deformity, and what she was challenging were these normative conventions in beauty.”
Yet it wasn’t until spring 2014 that she underwent a “radical rupture in her design process” in which “she began to see fashion as objects on the body as more akin to conceptual art or performance art,” Bolton says.
“It wasn’t really about wearability. Prior to that, her clothing always was viable as clothing, so she still doesn’t define herself as an artist but she’s been forced to enter the debate of art and fashion.
“I think people will come away from the exhibition rethinking the art of the in-between.”
Some food – and fashion – for thought indeed. It’s unlikely we’ll be seeing more passersby wearing abstract sculptures on their heads, nor will we need to rescue anyone who’s been swallowed up by a cloud of fabric samples – much like the Comme des Garçons dress that Rihanna wore to the recent Met Gala. But perhaps Kawakubo’s designs will spark meaningful discussion that will foster greater appreciation of high fashion, in all its weird and wacky incarnations.
Text: Emily Petsko