Met Gala 2017: A Cop Out

Rihana Met GalaRihanna bursting with Comme des Garçons fabric petals. Photo: Neilson Bernard/ Getty Images

By Mao Shan Wang

I knew it was going to turn out like this: disappointing. The Met Gala, despite its standing as the “Super Bowl of fashion”, is really a chance for attendees to relive their teen-year prom night, not to honour a designer, living or dead. They turn out to outdo each other—a conference of gowns. Glamour reigned and glamourous is a gown.

I did not think there would be enough women woman enough to don Comme des Garçons, and true enough, few bothered with the theme The Art of the In-Between. There were no in-betweens, only princess-like dresses or lackluster counterparts. This year’s Met Gala, as in the year of Punk: Chaos to Couture, saw a parade that was not in tribute mode. It was a classic red carpet (which turned out to be white and blue) affair, and the bedecked guests walked down the passageway or climbed the stairs in something that stunned, something that elicited the response “how gorgeous.”

That, of course, is antithesis to the whole Comme des Garçons aesthetic or design thinking. Ms Kawakubo, the subject of this exhibition, once said, “For something to be beautiful it doesn’t have to be pretty.” Try telling that to the homecoming queen Anna Wintour. She wore Chanel and she only does pretty! Sure, I can’t imagine “the most powerful woman in fashion” in Comme des Garçons, but if she, also the chairwoman of the Met Gala, wasn’t going to observe the theme, who needed to? Just look, as the invitees always have on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, glamour-stricken.

Tracee Ellis Ross Met Gala 2017Tracee Ellis Ross, daughter of Diana Ross, in Comme des Garçons. Photo: Benjamin Norman/The New York Times

And that is perhaps the inherent limitation of the Met Gala. I say do away with the red carpet, and maybe—just maybe—the women will not sense something amiss if they do not feel fabric hugging their hips or cloth swirling around their feet. Or, the drag of a train behind them—the ultimate red-carpet inconvenience. In fact, there were many trains this year, more than the globular blooms and stark bandages associated with Comme des Garçons that one had hoped to see.

I suppose women think they should reprise Rihanna’s ponderous Guo Pei omelette to gain social media stardom. How else do you explain the massive sweep of Priyanka Chopra’s Ralph Lauren trench coat with a personality disorder?

Hollywood actresses, being Hollywood actresses, will always approach the red carpet the way they always have, even if they’re on a different coast: sexy or pretty, never mind if they look insipid (Jessica Chastain and Diane Kruger, both in Prada), predictable (Halle Berry in Versace), va-va-voom (Blake Lively in Versace), fairy-like (Elle Fanning in Miu Miu), and confused (Priyanka Chopra in Ralph Lauren). The choice of dress added to a sartorial resume that will, I suppose, help them score an invitation to the next Oscars.

Pharrell Williams and Helen Lasichanh Met Gala 2017Pharrell Williams and Helen Lasichanh, both in Comme des Garçons. Photo: Getty Images

Did anyone wear Comme des Garçons on the red carpet? I woke up at seven this morning to watch Vogue’s 360° livestream on Facebook, hoping to witness true homage. It was such a yawn that I counted, as I usually do, the dried cranberries in my muesli to stay awake. In the end, I spotted six (there could be more, but I did not see them). Of a reported 600 guests invited, that only six were photographed wearing the brand they had come to honour seemed to me a little sad and pathetic.

Ms Kawakubo had earlier indicated that she may not attend. I hope she did not. To see what I saw could be very depressing for her. In fact, I can imagine the reaction of the Japanese watching this in Tokyo (or anywhere throughout the country). They must have felt let down. What do these gown wearers know about one of their nation’s most revered designers? Why were they there to celebrate her work?

As expected, Rihanna stood out again, even when she looked like she was wearing a project her grandmother did not get to finish. Her pick was a dress from the fall 2016 collection which Ms Kawakubo was reported to have been “imagining punks of the 18th century” when conceptualising it. Rihanna is, of course, a very 21st-century woman with very digital-age taste. Whether she too was imagining an imagined sub-culture—or nor, she baffled me with the shoes: those red strappy heels. Comme des Garçons is heels-averse. A pair of sneakers from her Puma/Fenty line would have been a better fit, but that would not be ideal or glamourous enough for scaling the steps of the grand old Met.

Anna Cleveland Met Gala 2017Anna Cleveland looking fresh in Comme des Garçons. Photo: W magazineMichele Lamy Met Gala 2017Michele Lamy in Comme des Garçons arrived with her husband designer Rick Owens. Photo: Associated Press 

Surprisingly, Tracee Ellis Ross, the daughter of Diana Ross, turned up in Comme des Garçons, and she looked rather good in the dress that I think is from the 1996 ‘Flowering Clothes’ collection. I thought Anna Cleveland, another daughter of a famous name—the model Pat Cleveland, looked fresh in her beribboned ensemble, showing rather convincingly that Comme des Garçons can be wearable.

A big letdown was big-time fan Pharrell Williams, who, although attired in Comme des Garçons Homme Plus (save the jeans), looked way too casual, as if he was on his way to a recording studio. If he could wear Chanel’s women’s clothes, why could he not have put on a Comme des Garçons women’s number? That would have been ‘In-Between’. His wife, the model/designer Helen Lasichanh, was more in keeping with the spirit of the event. She wore a sort of union suit that seemed to have restricted hers arms to within the garment—constraint that is very Comme des Garçons of recent years.

To me, the most authentic was Michele Lamy, wife of the designer Rick Owens. She wore a panelled dress with a rather bulbous hemline (in the middle, something that looks testicular!) that could be from the very red spring/summer collection of 2015, and appeared every bit the part of the dark master’s spouse. Ms Lamy, in fact, looked like she wore something assembled at the last minute, in the limo, on the way to the party. And therein lies the appeal: she didn’t look too precious. Here was one unafraid woman, unshackled by the imposition of the unnecessarily ceremonial red carpet. 

These were indeed some of the brave, even if they constituted, to the embarrassment of the Met Gala and its organising committee, only a handful.

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Weird Eventually Is No Longer

People who understand and love Comme des Garçons talk about the “transformative power of the clothing”. On the eve of the Met’s latest spring exhibition The Art of the In-Between, SOTD looks at how CdG, in particular, its designer Rei Kawakubo, has transformed our perception of what can or cannot be clothes and how the unconventional becomes conventional

Rei KawakuboRei Kawakubo (centre) in Paris. Collage: Just So

People break rules all the time, but few are serial rule breakers. To smash established notions of anything, for some, leads to emancipation. In fashion, liberation from the past era’s, century’s, decade’s, previous generation’s, yesteryear’s idea of what is wearable, can-face-the-day clothes has been effected for as long as garments are made and worn. From Paul Poiret to Coco Chanel to Yves Saint Laurent to Mary Quant to Helmut Lang to Raf Simons to Demna Gvasalia to so many more, fashion codes have been rewritten, and clothing has, in many ways, become the freeing of oneself from the constraints of the markedly contemporaneous.

Comme des Garçons’s Rei Kawakubo is a serial rule breaker. Some designers challenge the zeitgeist long enough to see the desired changes and then revolutionise no more. Ms Kawakubo constantly contorts our view of what can be considered suitable to the body and what can be construed as clothes. As she told WWD in 2012, “The more people that are afraid when they see new creation, the happier I am.” If this fashion outsider’s success—culminating in the Met spring exhibition opening on 4 May in New York City—is any indication, Ms Kawakubo may be rather less happy these days.

Perhaps she is. “It’s a Met show for Comme des Garçons, not a Comme des Garçons show at the Met,” she told the media recently, in the few, possibly reluctant, interviews she granted to market the exhibition. And they detected or deduced that she likely had to compromise, something possibly unheard of in the modus operandi of Rei Kawakubo.

The Met 2017 exhibition catalogueThe Met spring exhibition catalogue by curator Andrew Bolton. Collage: Just So

But it wasn’t this way in the beginning. From the start, Ms Kawakubo was really the ready radical, a petite Oriental woman who dared to go to Paris in 1981 to show in the same city as then-newsmakers Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana. But hers wasn’t like the powerfully feminine clothes of her French counterparts; hers were new creations that she likes people to be afraid of, and they were, so much so that the media of that time described what she did disparagingly as “Hiroshima chic”.

She was not the least fazed, and has stuck to showing in Paris till today. Despite the coldness of her designs—mostly in black—people warmed up to them. By the mid-Eighties, CdG, though still odd, funereal, and boyfriend-repelling, appealed to the taste of women for whom ‘power dressing’ encouraged aversion. These were largely those who worked in creative fields, individuals not compelled to dress in the way corporate environments demanded.

Holes in pullovers, tops and shirts with puckered armholes, skirts with unfinished—meaning un-sewn—hemlines that did not accentuate the hips, dresses that could have led a double life as a sack for potatoes, these were novel to a new generation of consumers of designer labels not yet weaned on the elegance of the day. Torn and rough and imperfect, as opposed to refined and smooth and perfect, were visual cues to communicate the message that women were now dressing for themselves rather than for the opposite sex. Visually and obviously feminine styles took a back seat.

CDG Mode et PhotoPoster of the Comme des Garçons photo exhibition in Paris in 1986. Photo: Jim Sim

The growing success of CdG indicated to other designers—established, emerging and those waiting in the wings—that desirable designs need not follow the footsteps of French couturiers such as Yves Saint Laurent, who, in fact, preceded Ms Kawakubo as the first living designer to be honoured by the Met with a solo exhibition in 1983. Ms Kawakubo was in her third year showing in Paris at that time, and probably did not imagine that, 34 years later, she would share Mr Saint Laurent’s good fortune and be selected by the Met to display 150 pieces, as many as the latter, of her designs for public viewing.

Even Marc Jacobs, who does not deny that he’s inspired by CdG, has worn CdG to the Met Gala—a lace tunic shirt to the 2012 Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations. Mr Jacob’s coping of CdG not only makes the label a designer’s label, it also elevated the brands visibility. By now, Comme des Garçons, although not an instantly recognisable name as Louis Vuitton, has become what rivals would call successful. Ms Kawakubo is still considered by her peers to be an iconoclast, but the label that she started in 1969 has gone somewhat mainstream too, with pop stars such as Lady Gaga wearing CdG to the delight rather than bafflement of her fans, and with fast fashion imitating their house codes of mixed fabrics/patterns, asymmetric hemlines, and strange proportions.

CdG was not conceived for the masses. It’s disavowing of conventions set it apart, pulling those who are not seduced by the ordinary to the brand. Yet, it has become a bit of a victim of its uncommon success. To be sure, CdG is, in the end, a business, and the company has to survive, and they did so rather well with commercial “non-fashion” items such as those of the popular Play line. Because Ms Kawakubo makes clothes unlike her contemporaries or creates looks ahead of them, her clothes seem to defy time—they don’t date. Vintage CdG is still so in demand (just look at Tokyo’s Rag Tag) that even the company reprises their past pieces in the ‘Evergreen’ collection.

Stalwart supporters of CdG will continue to embrace Ms Kawakubo’s what-will-she-think-of-next designs. For the uninformed, CdG clothes may not look “designer”, but as John Walters once said, “Only you know you spent money when you wear Rei’s creations.”

Does Rei Kawakubo Now Mostly Design For Museums?

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With the Comme des Garçons retrospective, Art of the In-Between, starting the first Monday of May (exactly seven weeks from now), it is not unexpected if you thought that the just-shown CDG autumn/winter 2017 collection was conceived for for a date with New York’s Metropolitan Museum.

According to The Met’s Costume Institute, this year’s aptly-named spring exhibition—traditionally kick-started by the Met Gala, where, as Bret Easton Ellis would have said, “the better you look, the more you see”—“will examine the work of Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, known for her avant-garde designs and ability to challenge conventional notions of beauty, good taste, and fashionability.”

Ms Kawakubo is, of course, the agitator-designer behind the label Comme des Garçons. While CDG is gaining massive grounds in terms of popularity, Ms Kawakubo has remained largely unknown, a long-term mystery. Until a couple of days back, there were hardly any recent photos of her in the public domain. Few have spoken to her except her staff, and even then, that privilege reportedly goes to only a handful. This enigma no doubt augments the brand’s appeal. That what she has shown on the runway in the past ten years have been largely unpractical and unwearable only ups CDG’s alternative-therefore-desirable cachet and prestige.

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The Future of the Silhouette, her latest collection (and, indeed, not just this one) begs the question: “Are these clothes?” If clothes are what we wear to cover our body, then indeed they are. But if they are items worn to enhance, expose, or beautify the shape of the body, and in doing so, allow the wearer to fit into a society that shares this definition, then CDG may not have offered clothes. And if they are not clothes, what are they? The question is harder to answer when so much of Ms Kawakubo’s output defy the present-day anatomy of what constitutes good-looking garments, with holes for neck, arms, and legs.

Rei Kawakubo once said, “Fashion is something you can attach to yourself, put on, and through that interaction, the meaning of it is born.” Attach? As in pinning a brooch to a blouse, or clipping a carabiner to a belt loop? Put on, as you would with a shoe, an article of clothing that does need to take the shape of the part of the body in which it encases? Ms Kawakubo’s avoidance of the word ‘wear’ possibly refutes the notion that clothing has a functional role as much as proposes the idea that, as attachment, our clothes need not follow the contours of our body. The body is a base on which any shape can be attached to.

And that was what she conveyed at the show many attendees thought would be a prelude to The Med. The first outfit could have been an uncoloured, oversized tennis ball distended to cover the body, arms confined within. A bulbous paste-on of a dress looked like it was made of insulation material. A cocoon of rough and speckled fabric with a face peeping out an opening was akin to a child pretending to be a tree. And the transfigurations did not stop, or the textural anomalies. While others use the likes of sequins for surface decorations, Ms Kawakubo employs what could be suckers of cephalopod limbs.

No form was too impractical, too strange, or too at odds with the body. In the past four seasons, CDG has ceased to show clothes that match any semblance of what all of us have in our wardrobes. Sure, before that, there were her characteristic oddities, but a dress still looked like a dress. Now, they are mutant fabric shapes, as if designed by pre-schoolers for imaginary beings with face, lower arms, hands, lower limbs, and feet like humans but not the rest of their fantastic forms.

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These clothes are composites of alien yet organic shapes—conjoined protuberances. Ms Kawakubo has always been partial to bulges and distensions, a love affair that can be traced to the spring/summer 1997 collection called Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body, popularly referred to as Lumps and Bulges. While clothes from that season were largely seen as an attempt to exaggerate female curves, her present silhouettes are more than Quasimodo-peculiar. These strange, not immediately recognizable forms are beguiling because no one makes them. And no one knows how they are to be worn.

Other questions abound. How are these clothes made? Are there any paper patterns involved? Are the clothes designed directly on the body? How does one get those shapes to hold? How does it feel inside one of them? These questions are as intriguing as those directed at the clothes’ wearability or the admirers’ sanity are unrelenting. In searching for answers, we sometimes wonder if the construction of these un-clothes-like clothes shares the same base or framework as those worn by individuals playing SpongeBob SquarePants. Fashion really need not only appeal to the heart; it can appeal to the mind too.

The CDG aesthetic is so established and so appreciated by diehard fans that Rei Kawakubo no longer needs to show what to her is mainstream fare. Instead, she uses the main Paris catwalk as focal point to showcase what for others are inconceivable, or, maybe, to parody herself. In doing so, she has again and again vividly illustrated that there is no limit to creativity. To regard her designs, as some do, with the same eye one sees Gucci, or the same benchmark one applies to Chanel is like Impressionist fans disparaging the work of the Cubists. Totally understandable why The Met went a-calling.

cdg-aw-2017-nike-sneakers

Despite garments that make many wonder who would buy them, Ms Kawakubo still offers something that are wearable and, indeed, covetable: footwear. These rather conventional shoes for autumn/winter 2017 are counterpoint to the way-out, armless blobitecture of what is worn above them. Since none of what she proposes as clothes would look appropriate in heels, Manolo Blahnik or not, Ms Kawakubo has again chosen to collaborate with Nike to birth the oddly feminine Nike Lunar Epic Flyknit (above), a trainer with a bow just above the toe box. Is that not commercial and wearable?

That, for some, is the genius of CDG: leave the wearable stuff to the sub-lines and collaborations. The effectiveness of this strategy cannot be underestimated. CDG has such a distinct aesthetic that it transcends trends. Most CDG garments are so unusual that they either look of the present time or so extraordinary that it has nothing to do with time except the wearer’s own chronological perception of what is current and what is not. Lines such as Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons, Tricot, and Black carry the CDG torch without even a flicker, and they continue to perform extremely well for the brand.

The main Comme des Garçons collection that enthralls those lucky enough to see it in Paris will thus continue to be creative expressions untethered to design conventions of the day. Rei Kawakubo had said that she is inclined to “make clothes for a woman who is not swayed by what her husband thinks.” Maybe now, that includes a museum where she would go, no matter what runs through her spouse’s head.

Photos: indigital.tv

Carrying Holes

LV X Rei Kawakubo toteThe Louis Vuitton monogram canvas is so iconic and omnipresent that not many of its rabid fans are aware that the house’s most recognisable fabric is 160 years old. But LV won’t let that be the case. Its current marketing blitz called “Celebrating Monogram” involves six “artists” to help “modernise” what could be considered one of the most copied bag materials on earth. Contrary to expectations, these half-a-dozen contributors aren’t all fashion designers, only two are: Karl Lagerfeld and Rei Kawakubo. Perhaps Marc Newson can be considered since he dabbles in clothing (one of his earliest endeavours is the collaboration with G-Star Raw), and maybe even Christian Louboutin since his shoes often incorporate dressmaking elements. As for the other two—Frank Gehry and Cindy Sherman, perhaps it’s their connection with fashion (Mr Gehry designed the newly opened Vuitton Foundation museum and Ms Sherman had lensed Comme des Garçons ads in the past) that allowed them to qualify.

Of all the bags that came out of this celebration, the one that caught our eye is the tote by Rei Kawakubo (above). This is the second time Ms Kawakubo re-imagines the Monogram canvas. However, in the first outing—to celebrate LV’s 30th year in Japan—in 2008, it was branded as a Comme des Garçons affair, or, more specifically, Louis Vuitton@Comme des Garçons. The CDG Kottodori store in Omotesando, Tokyo was re-decorated as an LV outpost, in which 6 reiterations of the Monogram canvas were displayed, and only available for order (no cash and carry!). Interestingly, the intensely private Ms Kawakubo allowed LV to use the same photo of her that accompanied the publicity of that venture in the current collaboration. We still do not know what she looks like today.

LV X Rei Kawakubo TVC screen grabScreen grab of the video campaign of the Louis Vuitton X Rei Kawakubo tote modeled by Saskia de Brauw and shot by Jennifer Livingston

The current bag—just one version based on the 1968 Sac Plat—is not unexpected; it sports irregular holes that have come to be very much associated with the CDG aesthetic. Some people wonder how such a bag can be used without its content involuntarily falling out—clearly not smartphone-friendly. The actual item comes with what LV calls the “insert pouch” to hold contents. This looks, as it appears to us, similar to those brown micro-fibre dust bags that come with Monogram canvas merchandise. Isn’t it quite like Ms Kawakubo to make a slip case that protects the exterior into something that can be used to line the interior? Outside goes in!

Louis Vuitton X Rei Kawakubo tote, SGD3,800, is available at Louis Vuitton stores