Modern Unconventionalism: The New Generation of Post-Comme Avant-Garde
- Words Jake Silbert
- Date July 26, 2017
Comme des Garcon’s Paris runway debut was a revolutionary event for many reasons, but perhaps most importantly, it was the inauguration of fashionable clothing that didn’t strive to be on trend or conventionally attractive. One could posit that designers like Elsa Schiaparelli and Vivienne Westwood laid the groundwork, but arguably the prime motivator for clothing to diverge from the conventions of fashion was Comme’s 1981 “Destroy” collection. Never had an internationally recognized runway played host to such a wildly defiant collection. Comme’s legacy as an innovative force has been forever cemented in the annals of fashion history – see this year’s Met Gallery exhibit as evidence – but perhaps more important than even the brand itself is the brands that turned up in the wake of the shockwaves sent by that initial, incendiary runway show.
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Comme des Garcons has directly inspired imitators, offspring, and admirers prior to even leaving Japan, with Japanese labels like Bigi and Cabane de Zucca aping Rei Kawakubo’s off-kilter designs since Comme’s inception. As Comme has progressed as a label, it has recruited several designers who excel in boundary-pushing, forward-thinking design. Designers like Junya Watanabe, Tao Kurihara, and Kei Ninomiya develop lines under the Comme banner, and other designers like Junichi and Chitose Abe (of Kolor and Sacai, respectively) worked for Comme before starting their own labels. These designers all channel their creativity into crafting unique garments – Sacai’s fusion clothes are in a world entirely of their own, and Kei Ninomiya’s Noir line employs a great deal of laser-cut fabrics with insanely intricate details.
Though their output is wholly disparate, countless Japanese designers manifest this sense of aggressive anti-fashion in their designs, from niche outsiders like Balmung to brands with a larger presence, like Mercibeaucoup. The idea of making conventionally wearable clothing is eschewed in favor of appealing to a grander artistic vision. Of course, Asian consumers are, by and large, more open-minded than their Western counterparts. Westernized fashion tastes lean towards a blend of the untenable and the fashionable, a notion explored by designers like Walter van Beirendonck, Bernhard Willhelm and Martin Margiela, and at least partially indebted to Comme’s initial spectacle in the 80s.
This permutation of the avant-garde is important because it inherited Comme’s willful deconstruction of fashion norms as applied from a different viewpoint. Unlike Rei Kawakubo, who had never been formally trained in fashion design, the European designers had received a fashion education from entities like The Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Like the Futurists and Dadaists before them, these designers meshed their artistic education with a strong desire to tear down the façade of fashion. The ordinary became the extraordinary; like Duchamp’s Fountain, Margiela elevated the humble apron and a vest made of discarded gloves to runway status.
These Eastern-European designers have provided inspiration and guidance to many newly-relevant designers, including Demna Gvasalia known for his work at Balenciaga and the current brand du jour, Vetements. Vetements and other freewheeling young designers like Eckhaus Latta, 69 Worldwide, and Sibling create garments that aren’t catered to any specific gender or sex. These designers style their garments at odds with the constraints of ‘normal’ fashion; long belts drape onto the floor, pants are oversized and droop onto the ground, garments are knit so loosely that they barely even cover any part of the body, and the proportions are so exaggerated that it’s impossible to identify the body of the person wearing the clothes. Indeed, the act of wearing these clothes is perhaps more inflammatory than the garments themselves.
Consider Craig Green’s recent runway shows, where spectacle plays as much a role as the clothes themselves. It’s no coincidence that Comme des Garcons produces both his label as well as fellow fashion upstart Gosha Rubchinskiy’s brands; although Rubchinskiy’s graphic tees have greater commercial potential, both labels resist typical fashion-forward tropes. Green’s all-encompassing deconstruction of clothing hearkens back to Comme’s rebellious initial showing, whereas Rubchinskiy’s reclamation of all things unfashionable (tracksuits, Kappa, Fila) has paradoxically made those things fashionable again – we’re seeing a resurgence of 90’s staples like Kangol hats and Coogi knits that haven’t been relevant in years.
Young labels like Jacquemus don’t look to the past as much as they merge influences into a fresh view of the future. His label is built on a reinterpretation of the groundwork laid by Comme and Margiela, emphasized by products like shoes with chunky circular heels, shirts with comically long sleeves, jackets with massive shoulderpads. Wales Bonner, Phoebe English, and JW Anderson also offer modern clothing with an avant-garde bent. Unlike the eccentricities of more established brands like Bless or Henrik Vibskov, these young labels play with messy styling and odd cuts while also parlaying to topical fashion tastes. They have accessible websites and they’re hip to social media, unlike quiet Bless and quirky Vibskov. Anti-fashion is in right now, and plenty of people want to try a safe piece before jumping all the way in. This is the audience to whom items like Phoebe English’s slant shirts and JW Anderson’s zippered neckband play well. The blend of avant-garde sensibilities and wearable clothing, as well as celebrity endorsements, boost the value and notoriety of these young labels. Though it’s no guarantee of a financially lucrative career, there are plenty of signifiers of success: see the upcoming Uniqlo x JWA collection as proof positive.
It’s foolish to pretend that Comme des Garcons is directly responsible for the existence of the new school of the avant-garde, much like it’s foolish to assume that all rock music is directly the result of The Beatles’ musical output. However, both parties play a massive role in their own respective spheres (Perhaps a sign of mutually assured relevance – CdG collaborated with The Beatles’ own Apple Music as recently as this past year). Comme now stocks nearly every brand relevant to the modern avant-garde in its massive, hugely powerful Dover Street Market stores. At nearly any location, one can find pieces from various boundary-pushing collections: Wilhelm, Margiela, Balenciaga, Wales Bonner, and so on. It’s no surprise that most of the floor space is given to Comme’s many lines – it is their store, after all. However, Comme’s dominating presence at DSM isn’t just indicative of their ownership of the store, it’s the physical manifestation of Comme as a brand, with the decades of influence and innovation made clear by the racks and racks of clothes with Comme des Garcons, Ltd. printed on the care tag.