In a Paris show season full of designers testing their own limits and going against preconceived notions of themselves, it has been down to Rei Kawakubo to go the furthest of all. In today's Comme des Garçons collection of twenty-three looks, each accompanied by its own particular piece of music, she presented a series of objects that might be worn on the body.
Now, that last statement might seem rather arch, but there is a reason for it. Always wanting to do something new, something that hasn't existed before, Kawakubo decided this season that the only way she could do this was by setting out not to make clothes. The designer wanted to see herself, not through her own fashion eyes, but through ones that were innocent of all this. That's why, this evening, she adhered to none of the strict fashion show formulas. There had been no toiles, no fittings on the body; these were objects to go beyond the body, to reformulate what fashion is to the designer.
This is one of the reasons the collection is one about which its incredibly difficult to write. To roll out all of the autopilot fashion formulas, all of the blah blah about fabrics and forms, to adhere to a standard frame of reference—that's just not going to cut it. To pass judgments on "wearability" or "practicality" just seems facile, especially as figures such as Leigh Bowery have existed in the past and helped move the goal posts of the perception of clothing and fashion. And hopefully most of us are lucky enough to live in societies where we can wear what the hell we want, where we can always push the boundaries without literally being arrested. Perhaps, to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can make you feel what fashion is without your consent. Kawakubo is simply asking for consent, not dictating the terms of clothing.
But what Kawakubo also still clearly believes in is the live, living event of the show—a moment of combined creativity that, at its best, is evocative and emotional—and those feelings cannot ever really be reproduced over the Internet or in a catwalk shot. "I have nothing to say, only to show," wrote the philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin, and that statement applies to Kawakubo like no other. She has done her work; she can't explain any further; now it has to be witnessed. Fashion designers at their best function almost purely on instinct, and ultimately it is very difficult to explain instinct. Kawakubo was merely following hers this season. It was down to the show to really communicate the collection.
The experimental sound artist 20 Hertz, working with Hell's Kitchen, provided the music for each piece. Playfully spanning eras and genres from the eighteenth century operatic to 1980s electro, it was a dizzying and delightful array of moods and feelings juxtaposed. Thierry Dreyfus did a great job of lighting the proceedings, bringing to mind something of German Expressionist cinema. The hairstylist and makeup artist Julien d'Ys provided his own equally abstracted interpretations questioning what hair and makeup should be. The applause at the end was loud and prolonged. Yes, it was all incredibly theatrical. Yes, ultimately, the "clothing" has to be looked at in the flesh and decided upon by the individual. But do not think that this collection is simply for a niche elite of fashion nerds; the repercussions are much wider.
Kawakubo's profound influence in the fashion industry is as a symbol, a touchstone by which many designers can justify their risk-taking and sometimes their very existence in the profession. Many designers work in the big machines of fashion and are not so tightly in control of their own destinies as Kawakubo, but when faced with an onslaught of marketing people who would rather have them produce a slew of nondescript T-shirts and handbags, these designers can point to the fact that somebody like Kawakubo exists, occupies a place of honor in the fashion world, and has a successful business in it. She is the ultimate, symbolic fuck you in the face of the often myopic marketing machine. That's why whatever Kawakubo chooses to do, it has significance for fashion overall and for all of us who are interested in it—or who merely wear clothes.