Surface Works: Comme des Garçons
“I never intended to start a revolution. I only came to Paris with the intention of showing what I thought was strong and beautiful. It just happened that my notion was different from everyone else’s.”
– Rei Kawakubo to Judith Thurman in “The Misfit,” The New Yorker, July 4, 2005.
Before it became the new black, black as a colour was non-existent in a fashion landscape weaned on a diet of Smarties Technicolour.
It all changed with the arrival of Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. Established in Tokyo in 1969, with its first presentation six years later, the Japanese designer stunned the fashion world in 1991 with her Paris debut, Destroy. A zeitgeist-shifting collection of monochrome black figures, unfinished hemlines and a garment that resembled moth-eaten knitwear, it unsettled audiences from first right to the back rows, reviled and revered in unequal measure. These unexpected details made most fashion of the time look – as the prominent historian and curator Valerie Steele noted – “innocuous and bourgeois”.
The arrival of Comme des Garçons on the Paris fashion scene is not unlike the iconic black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose abrupt arrival agonises the Moon-Watcher and his tribe, wreaking havoc and obvious unease. Its form – seamless and entirely black – is completely, and almost offensively, alien to them; its presence imposing and irresistible. As the Moon-Watcher gingerly embraces the monolith, a threshold is crossed that altered their lives from then on.
IModern 20th century fashion too has its watershed in Comme des Garçons: Before Comme or BC. In the 1980s, de rigueur flashy, overtly sexual and glamorous silhouettes were pioneered by the likes of Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier. Their collections showcased a taste for extravagance with styles that overdosed on colour and hyper-femininity. The optimistic notes of their designs shouted: impossible is nothing. On the contrary, Kawakubo’s sea of blacks, greys and whites, as well as navy and beige represented the opposite: despair and destruction.
Of course, black had had its share of runway spotlight prior to the arrival of Comme des Garçons. Coco Chanel’s Little Black Dress remained influential long after its inception in the 1920’s; Christian Dior’s 1947 New Look highlighted the wasp-like waist of women with elegant black silhouettes. Kawakubo’s version – while embracing the hue – stripped away the romantic notion that clothing should flatter and obey the physical form. Her proposition resisted seduction and rejected the male gaze. Akiko Fukai, Chief Curator at The Kyoto Costume Institute observed in an interview with influential culture-zine 032c that “her design reflects the indigenous notion of Japanese clothing (the kimono, for example) that it is not necessary to obey the body’s form.” In that sense, one cannot divorce Kawakubo’s use of colour from the forms she delivers, as both work in tandem to challenge the prevailing impression of colour and sex appeal.
Yet, despite being demonised in her early days as “twisted”, “esoteric,” “severe,” “tricky,” and “destructive”, amongst other aggressively alienating epithets, Kawakubo’s preference for black stems from her belief of the shade as “comfortable, strong, and expressive.” Throughout her career, she has been keen to deconstruct the populist notion that black is a pure and absolute colour, and celebrate its many different shades. Lilith, her Fall-Winter 1992 collection, featured looks in a spectrum of black, whose hue changed according to fabric and light. Those nuances in the collection are a reflection of the subtleties inherent in female traits and personality which are often overlooked due to the limited portrayal and characterisation of women in media and popular culture. As always with Kawakubo, no detail is arbitrary. The brand’s anti-establishment philosophies have since earned it legions of recognisable followers, shrouded in head-to-toe black, and labelled karasu-zoku (the crow tribe), whose aesthetic and lifestyle sensibilities are in perfect alignment with the brand.
Kawakubo’s symbiotic relationship with black has since been exalted in the fashion pantheon. The exhibition catalogue for ‘Fashion in Colors’ (2005) at The Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt Museum aligns the designer with the colour. “Along with Yohji Yamamoto, she made black fashionable. Kawakubo’s use of black in the 1980s was so influential that she is still associated with the color. However, since she launched her red Autumn/Winter 1988 collection, black has nearly disappeared from her work. Moreover, Kawakubo’s color choices and combinations are at once radical and harmonious; she seems to have established her own chromatic sensibility. Kawakubo returns to black periodically. For her, black may not be just achromatic, but a ‘color’ in its own right.”
The power imbued in the colour was further reified when, amidst the 2008 recession, Kawakubo launched Comme des Garçons BLACK, a subsidiary of the main line that reinstituted popular styles from the brand’s archive at honest, recession-friendly price points. The all-black ensembles not only signified the need for modesty during precarious times, it also democratised a style, unleashing the colour’s potential to be an evergreen, versatile, and accessible means of dressing.
Her influence shows, not just in her clothes, but in everything else that she does. For starters, the architecture and interior design of her stores play an equally crucial role in communicating her ethos. The Comme des Garçons store in Kyoto, with its monolithic black exterior, is sure to leave an impression on any passer-by. Then, there are her disciples: Junya Watanabe, Tao Kurihara, Undercover’s Jun Takahashi, and most notably, Kei Ninomiya, whose eponymous label includes the prefix “Noir”. Meaning black in French, Ninomiya’s striking all-black collections not only showcase his excellent craftsmanship but is also an homage to his teacher.
Elsewhere in the 1990s, a string of European fashion designers began to adopt the colour as a mainstay of their collections. Belgian fashion designer Ann Demeulemeester, for example, proclaimed her preference for darker hues, saying: “Black is poetic. How do you imagine a poet? In a bright yellow jacket? Probably not.” Altogether, the colour swiftly became associated with a more profound and pensive sensibility that reflected the austere mood of the era. Black signified protest, rejection, insight and a sense of freedom.
In reference to her Spring/Summer 2016 collection, ‘Blue Witches’, which paid homage to “powerful women who are misunderstood, but do good in the world”, Kawakubo shared in an interview with Dazed & Confused that “Over the 20 years or so since I first showed black clothes in Paris, the colour has completely lost its specialness and strength, however, I think I have proved again that black is still a special and strong colour.”
Which brings us to that cerulean blue moment in the seminal 2007 film, The Devil Wears Prada, when Miranda Priestley schools the style-clueless Andy about the provenance of the colour, and how mainstream wardrobe choices are ultimately influenced by the decisions made in the ivory-tower world of fashion. As one designer’s actions influence the creative output of other designers, a collective movement is formed and its relevance becomes widespread. For Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons, black will always be the new black. And this time round, no one in the fashion dissents.