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Comme des Garçons

It's no great exaggeration to liken this Japanese atelier's 1981 Paris debut to Marcel Duchamp's appearance at the Armory in New York in 1913: It was a storming of the barricades, an introduction of conceptualism to an alarmed, then fascinated, mainstream. From that moment on, a chic woman browsing in Barneys would look at, say, a distressed smog gray skirt with the same critical detachment she might bring to a wander through MoMA on a Sunday afternoon. In fact, Rei Kawakubo had already been conducting her experiments for an avant-garde audience back in Japan for more than a decade. But after Paris her once-idiosyncratic deviations would become the quintessence of cool from Düsseldorf to Boston: sweaters riddled with moth holes, jackets with three sleeves, raggedy hems and crooked seams, all in monochrome black or gray. The Comme des Garçons retail experience was ahead of its time too, encouraging spending through a stage-managed atmosphere that wasn't pretty or luxurious in any traditional sense; the raw floorboards and industrial racks were part of the intellectualized message. Over the years, it can't have been easy for Kawakubo's stable—which includes design studio workers like Junya Watanabe and Tao Kurihara, who have been been rewarded with their own labels under the CDG umbrella—to always find something radical to do, but they manage it somehow. There was the house's Odeur 53 fragrance in 1998, with notes of burnt rubber and nail polish. Ballerina tights stuffed with bulges of chiffon. Skirt crotches stitched up to resemble gingham diapers. Swaths of plaid bundled over models' shoulders like hobos' bindle sticks. A selection of quotations used for printed fabrics in the Comme des Garçons collection several years ago best sums up Kawakubo's stance as a champion of dissent: "The majority," Kierkegaard wrote, "is always wrong." That maxim is being tested, though, by the label's fall 2008 project: a collaboration with mass retailer H&M.

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