“The rules are in my head”, said fashion’s truest provocateur Rei Kawakubo in a recent interview. And in the 40 years she has been radically altering perceptions under the label of Comme des Garçons, you get the sense that there’s nothing she loves more than breaking them. In her collections ranging from 1982’s visceral ‘Destroy’ to 1997’s infamous ‘lumps and bumps’ (‘Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress’), 2005’s poetic ‘Broken Bride’ to her most recent S/S14 showing of 23 daringly unwearable looks “that were about anything but clothes”, she has consistently pushed the boundaries of what can be accepted as fashion. Similarly, her retail concepts take a freewheeling approach to the subject, deconstructing the notion of what makes up a shop. While her Dover Street Market multibrand stores have revitalized and redefined shopping in both London and Tokyo, she’s seeking to do the same in New York with the launch of DSMNY. Housed in a 20,000 square foot stately former school in the sleepy, unfashionable Kips Bay neighbourhood of Manhattan; DSMNY holds true to Rei’s aim of creating that feeling of “beautiful chaos”.
"DSMNY holds true to Rei Kawakubo’s aim of creating that feeling of “beautiful chaos”"
Alongside spaces dedicated to Rick Owens, Saint Laurent, Alaïa, Thom Browne and of course all the Commes Des Garçons secondary lines, there’s a heavy dose of some of the best of British (Sibling, Lou Dalton, Christopher Kane, Simone Rocha, J.W. Anderson plus newer designers like 1205 and Craig Green), an outpost of the beloved Rose Bakery and exclusive products created especially by Prada, Kim Jones for Louis Vuitton, Nike and cult designer Andre Walker, who has designed his first collection in 12 years. Riding in the glass elevator that pierces all seven floors of the store is a surreal, pulse-quickening experience – made even more so by the artists who have created site-specific work for the store. Kawakubo commissioned London Fieldworks, Magda Sayeg and Leo Sewell to decorate a pillar in the store and there is an amorphous ‘Biotopological Scale-Juggling Escalator’ connecting the third and fourth floors designed by Arakawa and Gins, which claims to be “a lifespan extending module.” Artistic collaborations are nothing new for Kawakubo who chooses to collaborate with “independent artists with outsider spirit.” Adding to the beautiful chaos is Parallel Resistance: A Penchant Ampere (Ω), the experimental sound system installed by the mysterious Brooklyn-based sound artist, Calx Vive – a subtle, yet intriguing intervention that the artist hopes will allow the listener “to have a moment of their own landscape as they traverse.”
‘Calx vive’ is a long extinct phrase related to the practice of alchemy – why did you choose this alias in relation to your work?
Well there is a belief in the pertinence of such esoteric beliefs and sciences, things that are antiquated can still be very relevant – it’s not a matter of nostalgia in my case. Calx vive is a part of the alchemical process that is considered an in-between process – yet it’s essential. I want to work on potent agents that run invisibly or audio spaces that are surreptitious…Transmutation on the sly.
How familiar were you with the work of Rei Kawakubo prior to the DSMNY collaboration?
I have been aware of her work for some time. Her brilliant vision truly defies definition. Though she is called a designer, I see her more as an artist, because it seems that her process is one that originates from the interior. They are marvels conceptually, visually, but I am specifically drawn in by the emotions that arise in me when I see the work because I feel the process of how they originate has such depth.
"Though she is called a designer, I see Rei Kawakubo more as an artist, because it seems that her process is one that originates from the interior"
In the 42 years Rei Kawakubo has been designing collections for CDG, one constant is this idea of the new, never repeating oneself. Does that resonate with you in your work?
I do everything with a site-specificity. The premise, composition and materials are unique to each creation. I have made a point of not showing the same work in another exhibition space so I choose projects carefully. With all my work, and with these commissioned pieces, I begin by really sitting with the basis of the concept as to get clear about the intention. I need a trajectory of meaning. I trust that the aesthetic and form within my ‘vocabulary’ will arise accordingly
How did the collaboration with Rei Kawakubo on the DSMNY store come about?
They followed my work, seeing installation pieces and hearing recordings. They are very sensitive and aware of art and music and wanted something unconventional sonically for this new endeavour. I accepted because I was told and have observed that once Rei Kawakubo invites someone to collaborate, she lets the individual realize their ideas with unique trust and respect for their expression. I think, from having met others participating in this project, there is an aspect of wanting to work on ideas of beauty with a certain idealism and aspired nobility of purpose and that informs the materialization of the work.
What was the brief for the project?
I was told “nothing perfect”, referring to the form and approach. So I threw a bunch of audio equipment against a wall (literally), reconstructed and restored it and presented it as a proposal. All the pieces are vintage or were derelict and I restored them to function. Tube amps, and a Bakelite turntable, a reel-to-reel… I stripped away the outer shell of these. I wanted to offer Rei a juxtaposition of something chaotic, mechanisms exposed, with different live sonic aspects that are actual, strange aural textures, the mixture of a certain half hazard fragility with that which is absolutely fixed, rooted.
Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating this in the context of the Kips Bay building?
I am interested in the historicity of the building and Rei Kawakubo’s concept of creating these defined spaces within that as so contemporary as to be out of time. That was an inspiring basis for formulating ideas for the Dover Street Market New York environment. I saw the development of the building’s interior because I worked with the team from early on to install the sound system. The elements she chose informed the process of implementation. I thought about the sound pieces and music from the beginning. I observed her choice of surfaces and dimensions and reflected on what might be suitable, not by my conforming but by breaking the sonic codes quietly in the right way.
"A more hushed sound can be stronger, hence more impactful, because it allows a person to choose to listen or not"
DSM deconstructs the traditional department store and retail experience by creating what Rei describes as a ‘beautiful chaos’. Was the idea of the sound system to provide an aural assault on the senses in addition to the visual?
One thing that I absolutely did not want to do is provide an ‘aural assault’ – not in this environment. Unexpected combinations and transitions perhaps, but I am being very mindful of volume and content. Powerful does not mean loud. A more hushed sound can be stronger, hence more impactful, because it allows a person to choose to listen or not, to experience the sound as a participant and not be dictated to. The music and textures I choose, if they relate to Rei’s ‘beautiful chaos’, are from my perspective of things being experienced discreetly and in multi dimensions. For me, the ‘’beauty’ aspect is that which is unfamiliar initially and which renders one a bit bewildered, then transitions to a kind of particular resonance-suspension
Has the whole process of collaborating with Rei been very free artistically?
It has been completely free artistically. She provided a few words and then coupled with a lot of contemplation l had a strong intuition regarding each of the elements. She checked them but I had this feeling that it was more about seeing if I was following my strength and vision – that my being resolute about my ideas was more honouring of her than anything else. It has been a wonderful and joyous experience. Arduous and so gratifying. It has also been tremendously moving. Hard to describe that aspect but I think people feel why immediately when they enter the store and experience her vision.
What kind of reaction are you anticipating from customers on experiencing these aural compositions and ‘dilapidated sound sculptures’?
As this is my first foray into a retail environment with these kinds of works, I will be observing and listening to see how the people interact and behave in their presence. I think that Rei wants things that are strong and defined in terms of idea/ concept so I have a guiding concept but I feel that I should be flexible on her terms – which means for me empathic but uncompromising. I am not sure what the reactions will be…here I’m interested in emotions, textures, gaits, the various, perspectives….I hope that the listener/passerby might have a moment of their own landscape as they traverse.
How do you see this project developing?
This project will develop in phases. There will be more sculptures eventually, continuing this analogue configuration – mayhem pieces playing tiny individualized instrumental relic tunes and the sound list will evolve so that there will be various traveling sonic environments within the store.
Text by Kin Woo