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The Anarchic Revolution of Comme des Garçons

Susannah Frankel considers the creative motivations behind Rei Kawakubo's magnificently evocative new collection

“Eighteenth century punk,” was the phrase given up by Rei Kawakubo to explain her extraordinary Autumn/Winter 2016 collection for Comme des Garçons last weekend in Paris. If it seems somewhat contradictory in intention – and it would certainly not be the first time this great creator chose to do that – then first impressions may be misleading. After all, the 18th century, in France in particular but elsewhere also, was a revolutionary era. As far as dress in the Directoire period was concerned, the principally aristocratic Les Incroyables and their female counterparts Les Merveilleuses wore clothing that was intentionally and powerfully provocative in its decadence, flying in the face of the politically correct in favour of dressing to impress an inner circle and outrage anyone outside of it. Sounds familiar? Comme des Garçons has always been interested in – and subverted – notions of status in designer clothing. It is surely no coincidence, then, that with fashion (and the world in general) struggling both economically and creatively to recover its composure, this was the reference cited by the powers that be at the label, treated, as always, in an oblique and anarchic way. Kawakubo insists that she operates solely on an instinctive level and that her search is an endless one for the shock of the new but her instincts, albeit subconsciously, are very sensitively aligned to the zeitgeist. That only adds to her influence. Whatever the motivation behind it, this revolutionary fashion force continues to express herself in a manner that leaves others in the shade.

Ready to wear?
While Rei Kawakubo formerly took great pride in the fact that everything she puts on the runway is available in store – and indeed, that continues to be the case today – for the past three years she has reduced the looks in her biannual Comme des Garçons womenswear presentation to the most extreme while, in the showroom, the more obviously commercial pieces that will soon fill her stores are available for buyers and press to view at their leisure. This, in essence, has more in common with an haute couture business model than with ready-to-wear, in as much as her catwalk functions as the pure ‘parfum’ from which everything else – eau de parfum, eau de toilette and so forth – springs. The show pieces in question were as magnificent as ever, drawing on archive clothing and furnishing fabrics reinvented in a brilliantly imaginative and evocative way and transformed into increasingly overblown structures more reminiscent of sculpture than clothing.

The Comme des Garçons signatures were firmly in place: plump coils, huge ruffles, petals, ribbons, bows and a cute CdG take on the pannier all built up into larger-than-life-size constructions that only the fashionably courageous and most Comme des Garçons committed are ever likely to wear. They will look sensational. Those who do choose to invest in these very special designs will also rest safe in the knowledge that their five-figure price tag not only ensures extremely limited production but also serves as an investment. More than a few will doubtless end up as museum pieces. Deservedly so. They are among the most inventive – if not the most inventive – of our time.

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Comme des Garçons A/W16
Comme des Garçons A/W16Photography by Polly Brown

The Finer Fabrics
Famously, Kawakubo tends to favour synthetics, quite the finest synthetics in the world. This time, however, she worked predominantly in fine silks and velvets although – more obviously in line with the punk side of the equation – opted for pale pink and true red PVC. Pink – the feminine fashion cliché of choice – and red – once cited by the designer as ‘black’, as in the new black – are both integral to her design process. Otherwise, floral brocades were the order of this particular day, painstakingly sourced and created by four Italian fabric makers, three French fabric makers and one Swiss fabric maker. There were 27 fabrics in total and the result was as colourful and uplifting a patchwork of blooms as has been for some time or perhaps ever here. And that’s quite something coming from a woman who has long upheld black as the non-colour of choice. Again, such rich pickings are traditionally the staples of the haute couture ateliers, although there was nothing even remotely traditional about the way they were treated.

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Comme des Garçons A/W16
Comme des Garçons A/W16Photography by Polly Brown

From Top to Toe
If the clothing was rainbow hued, the make-up was pale and the hair black. Longtime Comme des Garçons collaborator Julien D’Ys, responsible for the latter, was given just "Eighteenth century punk" to work with and the end result was the type of sky-high, studiously un-natural design favoured by the eighteenth century upper classes to denote influence, wealth and power. For Comme des Garçons, wigs, while towering, were witty, pretty and abstracted to ensure a never overly literal pastiche. As for the shoes... Kawakubo has always preferred her footwear flat, of a sort which, however idiosyncratic, any wearer can run in. On this occasion, heavy white lace-up sneakers worn with wrinkled ankle socks were embellished with also white or pastel-coloured fluff bearing more than a passing resemblance to candy floss. Sweet.

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Comme des Garçons A/W16
Comme des Garçons A/W16Photography by Polly Brown

A "Happy Classical" Soundtrack
The very clever show soundtrack specialist Frédéric Sanchezis responsible for the music at Comme des Garçons, and he too is given nothing more than the odd word as guidance only days before the show takes place. In this instance, Rei Kawakubo told him: "happy classical". There is surely no more bright and breezy example of that than Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite. Spliced into short, sharp excerpts it was a perfectly bizarre accompaniment to these monumental exits. Perhaps inevitably, The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy brought the biggest smile to the lips of those in attendance. Because these were far from the average Sugar Plum Fairies it has to be said.