Objects for the Body

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To Rei Kawakubo, she isn’t the trailblazer revolutionary designer since Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in the fashion industry. To her she is nothing but a business woman. One who started making clothes because she couldn’t find anything that she was looking for, went on to create a brand that since has changed not only how we view fashion, clothes and women with respect to each other but also changed how the industry approached doing business.

Looking at Kawakubo and her brand, Comme des Garcons’ legacy is almost overwhelming. Ever since the Met Gala for The Costume Institute’s Spring 2017 exhibition “Art of the In-Between” celebrating her work, I threw myself down the rabbit hole that is her work – pulling articles, interviews, past shows, what have you. I couldn’t stop, the more I read about her, the more information I wanted. In college, I barely knew of her work. I had come across it several times, but I didn’t know then how to appreciate her clothes. They weren’t wearable. They weren’t pretty. They definitely did not flatter the one wearing them. The clothes almost always devoured the wearer leaving only the impression of their outlandishness. I didn’t understand it. And that’s what precisely one of Kawakubo’s aims is. When her clothes translate their purpose easily to the outside world, be they critics or buyers or consumers, it irks her. She refused to include her Fall 2005 “Broken Bride” collection or Spring 2005 “Motorcycle Ballerinas” in the exhibition because she deemed it too “understandable”.  She doesn’t want to be understood. When understanding isn’t an option, all they do is stir up emotions. The clothes walking down the runway want to strike a chord deeper than merely understanding them cerebrally. Very few designers can move an audience to tears like in her Fall 2015 show titled “Ceremony of Separation”.

To me the appeal of Kawakubo is twofold. First and foremost, it’s her clothes.  What motivated her in 1969 hasn’t changed much from her motivation in 2017. Her drive to continue creating the new, approaching matters at hand in a new way, looking at things in a new way is primary. When I started to go through her old archives from the 90s and the 00s, it didn’t feel dated. Take a look at her Spring 2002 and you will find high street brands saturated with similar concepts that have trickled down from recent shows. Although they shocked the critics at the time by being nothing like anything that came before, her clothes from 30-20 years looks contemporary now. Her clothes, if I can call them that as she has stopped making clothes, still shock us, but they aren’t cheap thrills. She delves into concepts and gives it all she has to create masterpieces. Her Fall 2012 commonly known as her Paper Doll collection where she explored clothes in 2-dimension still remains an iconic piece of work of the 21st century. When she couldn’t fathom new silhouette, she created new bodies to drape dresses around, giving us the “Body meet Dress, Dress meets Body” of Fall 1997. She isn’t creating mere garments for popular consumption, not for the main Comme des Garcons line. She is creating what comes next, as she has always done. She is tuned with the future like no other. She creates what truly can be called “modern”.

Second, it’s Rei Kawakubo herself. Her clothes, shrouded in mystery as they are, are still open to interpretation. But Rei herself is an enigma. A titan of the fashion industry, having erected an empire independently, a figure revered and worshipped, but what do we know about her? She doesn’t explain her work, she stopped taking a bow at the end of her shows, her interviews come across as short, dry and deadpan. There isn’t another figure of her stature that comes across as guarded as her. To me, she feels like the quintessential Japanese. No pomp and show, her work creates the noise on their own without a peep from her. To me, she’s also a BAMF, a punk BAMF. There is a “fuck you” in her work that you can’t miss. She doesn’t do anything according to the establishment. Whether it is her clothes rebelling against the beauty standards or her brand refusing to associate itself with a celebrity in the name of having a face, or just her refusing to talk about her design process, she never did anything to compromise her own vision and truth.  That’s rare. That’s legendary.

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Photograph Courtesy: The New York Times

Where Fashion At?

I am obsessed with eras bygone. Particularly, how women dressed and what fashion dictated in the eras bygone. It’s fun and illuminating to study how fashion manipulates choices and how those choices ended up tweaking behaviors and outlooks, hence, bringing about a change. I am absolutely oversimplifying history here, but please don’t tell me that shift dresses of 1920s, miniskirts of 1960s and Bohemia of 1970s did not influence the Suffragette movement or the Vietnam wars or the free love going about. It probably didn’t, but they sure were there to witness it. That’s a long disclaimer and might lead me to digress from the point I want to bring up, which is, what is my era going to look like to a fashion dweeb in 2065?

Runway trends have been kidnapped and we forgot to pay the ransom. Now, they are dead. What was it that lead us to here? Is it the power of the internet and the information age catapulting us forward than any other previous generation to only sit back to view photographs of eras bygone, nostalgic for something we didn’t even experience first hand? Is it the fatigue from a technological revolution outpacing our needs, world politics throwing us in a tizz that we crave for the simplicity of items, tried and tested by our mothers and grand-mothers and their mothers? It could also have been the financial crisis of 2008 that helped in the rise of fashion bloggers, DIY culture, shopping vintage and re-appropriating fashion. It’s very much is a result of all of these factors combined.

This leads us to the present where the fashion industry is going through major changes in the way it does business. The traditional model of business in fashion started from the couturiers of Paris dictating the “new” shape, color, texture and detail depending upon the technological innovation at the time in the fields of textiles, dyes, machineries to the Royalties of France, these “trends” would then travel to America from where it would trickle down for the consumption of the commoners. This model hardly changed over time, except for two factors. First, New York, London and Milan joined Paris as influential centers around which the fashion industry revolved. Second, the time span for a trend to be dictated and travel down the rungs of society to become ubiquitous kept becoming shorter and shorter primarily because of industrialization, innovation in mass production, availability of cheap labor in countries such as India (Hi!), Bangladesh, China, Mexico.  and now the internet manipulating consumer behavior.

The “see now, buy now” business model that designers have been adopting for the past seasons is a direct reaction to the power of the information age. You have images from the runway circulating on social media, blogs, websites within seconds, saturating all platforms and boring the consumer before the styles even hit the stores (not good for business). I am not even getting into the knock-offs produced at a lightening fast speed by high street brands. All of these in turn, have turned the fashion scene on its head. We aren’t chasing trends anymore. At least the consumer is not. This decade so far has been heralded as the era of personal style, where everything goes, no rules, you do you. It’s the era of the weirdos who have all of the options. They wear ruffles, sequins, athletic gear, psychedelic colors, holographic metallics, distressed tees, poplin shirts, slip dresses, sometimes all together. Coupled with the desire to not be homogenized, uphold the individuality. It’s the consumer who is pushing the boundaries by questioning the rules of style, questioning whether it’s necessary to wear a shirt like a shirt, because it can also make for a cute skirt or an off-the-shoulder top. It’s the consumer that the designers in Paris, Milan, London and New York are taking cues from. You can see it in Demna Gvasalia’s approach for Balenciaga, or Alexander Wang’s decade long career or Marc Jacobs since forever. It’s trickling upwards more so than any other decade. Bringing me back to the wonders of the information age, without which there wouldn’t be any personal fashion blogs, street style blogs, Instagram, Snapchat or Pinterest. In other words, there wouldn’t be the democratization of the fashion industry.

So what does the dweeb of 2065 make of all these?