In fashion terms, I am a veteran. I had well passed the 15-year mark at Women’s Wear Daily when I left recently, and spent more than 11 years attending European shows. Yet with all those fashion miles logged in my agenda, for one reason or another, I had only seen one Comme des Garçons show live.
It was Spring 2013, and I alone attended with my then boss, WWD’s Bridget Foley. Ms. Foley certainly knows more about fashion than most mere mortals, and even more than those in the fashion set. I knew that she got Rei Kawakubo’s vision for Comme des Garçons and that she loved it. I, on the other hand, was one of those show-goers to walk out seemingly nonplussed because I didn’t “get it.” (I also initially pronounced the brand’s name “Commie dess Garckons,” so make of that what you will.) And that is one of the reasons Rei Kawakubo is Fashion Unfiltered’s Badass Bitch of the Week. Many people don’t get it, but still, her influence is seen creeping into different collections season after season.
Kawakubo is the only second living designer to be the focus of a Costume Institute exhibit, whose event kicks off with the Met Ball. Accolades or not, the Japanese designer’s reign as fashion visionary and design thought leader remains, and she is often revered beyond human terms when it comes to her design—her technical abilities are unrivaled. For more than 40 years, she has thrilled and excited those savvy enough to watch, wear, and appreciate her art. The tenure alone embodies badassness. And, not to mention, she is known to be somewhat elusive when it comes to chatting up the press, mainly communicating through husband and CEO Adrian Joffe, who drives the business her creativity has spawned.
Yet, for all her for-runway-purposes-only designs (body pillows adding extra girth? Thanks to the “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body” collection, check. Tin can hats? Check. Flattened felted clothes reminiscent of paper dolls? Check. Dresses without sleeves? On more than one occasion? Check. Saccharine polka dots seeming artful and progressive? Check. The list goes on.) she has made Comme Des Garçons a commercial success. According to a Financial Times article in 2014, she’s been successful to the tune of 220 million dollars. Not always the case with a designer this avant garde.
Her secret is that, once somewhat distilled, her ideas turn into uber-cool versions of classics that quite often make the wearer the edgiest mainstreamer in the room. Another former colleague of mine, Jessica Iredale, has a riff on an Irish fisherman sweater that is to die for. Malina Joseph Gilchrist of T magazine, whose is rarely seen in anything but CDG, rocks a patent leather trench that could be a new standard bearer for rain gear. The one and only time I purposely wanted to own a hoodie was after seeing one Comme des Garçons did that was a hoodie-mariner top hybrid. In fact, Kawakubo’s Play line of basics, festooned with the now iconic smiley face heart, has become coveted among even the persnickety junior high set—even mildly cognoscente urban tweens clamor for those Converse. Her Black line of clothing and accessories also rings at the register thanks to those in search of a creative intellectual uniform.
Remember that wallet that everyone—even people who seemed to know or care little about fashion—had to have? It sold by the bucketsful.
We also must look at the successful Dover Street Market retail chain (yes, I said “chain”), the set-the-bar-higher-than-high concept stores that double as both fashion and art emporiums. Kawakubo displays not only her own wares here, but those by designers she has nurtured along the way, such as Junya Watanabe and Noir Kei Ninomiya. She adds giant art installations, and professes her professional admiration for other designers such Miuccia Prada, Thom Browne, and Azzedine Alaïa by displaying their wares at DSM, too. She doesn’t bother with traditional departments and categories. Rather, she splays things according to the aesthetic mood, what she calls the “no-rule, beautiful chaos feeling,” per an article in The New York Times. Who else would dare set out cases of fine jewelry and neglect to identify the brand?
It’s no doubt that Kawakubo’s exhibit at the Met will help further her household-name status the way that Alexander McQueen’s posthumous retrospective, Savage Beauty, made his name known to the unlikeliest of types, such as the suburban middle-class male, though Kawakubo already touched upon that universe with her H&M collaboration. Who knows? Maybe Kawakubo’s badassness will pop up again in suburban sprawl malls and still be the coolest thing you’ve ever seen.