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Uncovering the State of Masculinity with Rei Kawakubo

By Alice Gregory

 
Gengoroh Tagame
 

Early one morning, in the beginning of April, just as the cherry blossoms came into full bloom in Tokyo, 100-odd people gathered at the entrance to an anonymous office building in Aoyama, an elegant and sedate neighbourhood known for its designer stores and expensive French restaurants. Unlike the building’s facade (squat, brick, unremarkable) or its interior (empty, beige, somehow even more unremarkable), the people making their way inside were, like the pink petals feathering the city’s sidewalks, impossible to ignore. Some looked like religious fundamentalists or figures from 16th-century portraits, others like extras from “La Strada.” They nodded and held doors open for one another, but remained quiet and unsmiling.

Four times a year, Comme des Garçons, the avant-garde Japanese fashion label founded by Rei Kawakubo in 1969, puts on runway shows exclusively for its own employees — the receptionists and store managers and H.R. associates — people with no business flying to Paris for fashion week but who, according to the rigorous standards set by their employer, must be intimately familiar with all aspects of the aesthetic order to which they have dedicated their lives. Elevated plywood catwalks, edged with neat rows of plastic folding chairs, were erected in grey-carpeted conference rooms; the fluorescent lights flickered. There, models in full hair and makeup paraded the season’s designs thousands of miles away from and many months past the French fashion schedule.

Laurence EllisLooks from Comme des Garçons’ Homme Plus spring 2019 collection, titled Crazy Suits, including bricolage gold-chain necklaces with animal eyes and teeth, made entirely from plastic.
Looks from Comme des Garçons’ Homme Plus spring 2019 collection, titled Crazy Suits, including bricolage gold-chain necklaces with animal eyes and teeth, made entirely from plastic.

The models themselves seemed beside the point, redundant. With their tulle-stuffed skirts and plastic-wrapped heads, they looked like characters sprung from the mind of Lewis Carroll. And yet, as hard as I tried to force myself to pay attention to them, I was continually distracted by the dozens of employees sitting across from me, each dressed in head-to-toe Comme des Garçons — a band of ideologues in wait. Most had bangs and wore no jewellery. There were ruffled jackets made of washed wool, Arcimboldo-printed gowns accessorized with allergy masks. The skirts were long and layered, the ankle socks plentiful, the shoes flat, the Peter Pan collars oversize. They mixed seasons and lines (there are 18 under the Comme des Garçons label) to dizzying effect; some men wore women’s clothes, some women wore men’s clothes. It was like being in the middle of “Art of the In-Between,” the Rei Kawakubo retrospective mounted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year — but more urgent and immersive, as though the archive of her work had come to life.

When I asked a devoted, elfin publicist in sequined basketball shorts the colour of aquarium gravel if his colleagues had dressed up especially for the show, he looked at me with confusion, barely contained derision and maybe a bit of pity. “No,” he said. “We look like this always.”

Even the most oddly dressed woman is seldom doing anything all that transgressive with her appearance. We assume that women care about how they look, even when they don’t want to look pretty, so when they don kooky hats or outsize suits or shave their heads or apply rouge with purposefully grotesque abandon, it’s taken to be merely an outlandish variation on expected behaviour. Meanwhile, an eccentrically dressed man — not a dandy in the Beau Brummell mould but someone plainly interested in creating new and jarring shapes with his body and clothes — is a rare and electrifying sight. In refusing to telegraph the traditional goals of male fashion (power, utility, wealth), it can seem as though he has renounced capitalism itself — even if the price of doing so is equal to a series of consecutive mortgage payments.

Kawakubo introduced men’s wear in 1978, nearly a decade after she launched Comme des Garçons. It was instantly popular, thanks in part to a booming Japanese economy that, as W. David Marx notes in his 2015 book “Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style,” put credit cards in the pockets of middle-class teenagers and made it possible for them to afford Comme des Garçons and similarly expensive, off-kilter clothing.

Laurence Ellis“Men seem to have more courage to try new things now, not only in Japan but all over the world,” said Kawakubo.
“Men seem to have more courage to try new things now, not only in Japan but all over the world,” said Kawakubo.

The house’s earliest men’s suits were ill-fitting and dark, resembling something secondhand, an aesthetic once shunned by the fashion elite. The totems of the line are still rooted in almost-classic suiting and shirting, but never without a discreet signifier of wilful rebellion: a pinstripe button-down’s sleeve’s hidden slashes, a pair of navy wool schoolboy shorts piped with leopard print; pleated black pants at once inflated, cropped and tapered. Years before the art school-y New York fashion label Eckhaus Latta sent painters, pregnant models and performance artists down their runways, Kawakubo cast the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1987), Francesco Clemente (1989), John Malkovich (1990), Dennis Hopper (1991) and Matt Dillon (1991) for her men’s shows. Robert Rauschenberg walked down the runway in 1993 completely drunk. Passionate and famous male fans of the brand include John Waters, who at the age of 46 modelled for Comme des Garçons in Paris in 1992; the writer David Sedaris, who has admitted to compulsively buying the brand’s clownish culottes; and Frank Ocean, who named a song after the company. Also: Jared Leto, James Harden, Daveed Diggs and Kanye West. “I like to describe Comme des Garçons as ‘how clothes,’ not ‘why clothes,’ ” Ken Utaka, a 48-year-old, New York-based freelance patternmaker, told me. Originally from Japan, Utaka has been wearing the brand since he was 15. “The question is not why they did something in this strange way but how they did it.”

When I met Kawakubo, this is what I wanted to talk to her about: her approach to making clothing for men, whether or not she had thoughts about the state of masculinity in 2018, how designing men’s wear is different (or similar) to creating women’s wear. I wondered if perhaps the tighter constraints of masculine dress codes allowed, in fact, for more creativity and fun. I didn’t expect real answers. Kawakubo is notorious for her gnomic pronouncements (e.g., “The void is important”) and her anachronistic, otherworldly embodiment of what it means to be a genius. Once, in response to a journalist’s question, Kawakubo drew a circle on a piece of paper and walked away.

To my surprise, I did not find the designer particularly aloof or monastic in her bearing. Flanked by her husband and translator, Adrian Joffe, who is also the company’s president, Kawakubo projected a kind of plain and quiet professionalism, though the topic of masculine versus feminine wares appeared to agitate her. “Men seem to have more courage to try new things now, not only in Japan but all over the world,” she said, wondering aloud why women have become “so quiet,” and why, these days, it’s the men who buy and wear the showpieces. Women, comparatively, have become more conservative. “It’s a bit upsetting,” she said. “If you have an insight into that, it might help with my business.”

Kawakubo recalled how when she was younger, in the 1980s especially, young women added their names to lists for expensive pieces and were happy to wait in long lines to buy them. These days, though, “There’s a tendency for men to queue up to buy things,” she said. “I wonder why women don’t do this. Why are there no women queuing up for Supreme or Nike?” I suggested that perhaps in an age of digital streaming, streetwear had replaced record collecting, sublimating whatever obsessive, completist, seemingly male-specific tendencies that were once reserved for rare Nirvana EPs and Kanye’s earliest mixtapes. Kawakubo seemed to have no reaction to this theory, and said nothing.

Laurence EllisThe Comme des Garçons Homme Plus spring collection challenges conformist ideas of masculinity and tailoring, with shrunken proportions and latex wigs created by the Parisian hairstylist Julien d’Ys, a longtime collaborator with Kawakubo for her runway shows.
The Comme des Garçons Homme Plus spring collection challenges conformist ideas of masculinity and tailoring, with shrunken proportions and latex wigs created by the Parisian hairstylist Julien d’Ys, a longtime collaborator with Kawakubo for her runway shows.

It’s true that while there are certainly women who consider themselves dedicated fans of Comme des Garçons (in the early days, they were known in Tokyo as “the crows,” since Kawakubo and her followers were so devoted to the colour black), the company seems to hold an even more special place in the hearts of men. “It’s the most addictive brand I’ve ever come into contact with,” said Lane Spodek, a 28-year-old sales associate at the downtown New York City branch of the high-fashion mini-emporium Totokaelo.

Like many men I spoke to, Spodek told me that wearing Comme des Garçons gives him the impression of having turned himself into a work of art. He spends almost all of his discretionary income on Comme des Garçons and is saving up for a trip to Japan, which he referred to as a “pilgrimage.”

Though Kawakubo described Comme des Garçons’ male clientele as comprising students and men with creative jobs — “Anyone who is not free in his work probably is not wearing our clothes”— she admitted that the so-called rules of men’s wear (subdued colours, suiting materials, professional silhouettes) make designing for men more interesting, especially as someone with a self-imposed edict to always be creating new, never-before-seen garments. “The basics of clothing lie in men’s fashion,” she has said.

“The best thing about Comme des Garçons clothes is how they fit. As weird as they might look, they actually feel really natural on the body and are designed very practically,” said Utaka. I asked him if he had a favourite item. “A ridiculously cool black coat from the fall 2012 collection,” he answered. “It looks like anybody could have made it, like it’s just two pieces of fabric stuck together.” Part of Kawakubo’s 2D collection (every Comme des Garçons collection is named, and the clothes hew literally to the theme, though Kawakubo’s interpretation of “literal” can often feel like abstraction), the piece is a visual paradox, at once completely flat-looking and voluminous, with rounded shoulders, a nipped waist and angular hips — like what you’d make if asked to design a parka for a paper doll. Utaka praised the garment’s draping and lapel construction, noting that although the coat’s structure looks simple, its engineering is anything but.

Laurence EllisKawakubo manipulated suiting silhouettes and fabrications, creating off-kilter tuxedos in pastel merino wools; eclectic separates composed of shredded acetate rayon and sunburnt plaid linen; and an embroidered silk suit that’s at once shrunken and oversize.
Kawakubo manipulated suiting silhouettes and fabrications, creating off-kilter tuxedos in pastel merino wools; eclectic separates composed of shredded acetate rayon and sunburnt plaid linen; and an embroidered silk suit that’s at once shrunken and oversize.

This secret pragmatism is perhaps the most traditionally masculine feature of Kawakubo’s designs for men. Those who wear Comme des Garçons tend to talk about how the clothes don’t feel new, even when they are — you try on a jacket with the tags still attached and have the impression that it’s been hanging in your closet for years. Kevin Hearn, a 49-year-old musician and keyboardist for the Canadian rock band Barenaked Ladies and longtime Comme des Garçons client, says Kawakubo’s garments “feel musical — like each item is a different song, something that brings colour and joy and inventiveness into the world.” When we spoke, Hearn was wearing his latest purchase — a black Gore-Tex slicker with a grim reaperlike hood. He described Comme des Garçons clothes as “playful” and then said, “but this raincoat isn’t funny at all. It’s elegant and well designed. It has pockets where you want there to be pockets, strings where you want there to be strings.” Kawakubo, he noted, “isn’t joking around.”

The male ardor for Comme des Garçons is, at least in part, a kind of gratitude for a gender-fluid approach to fashion design that has gone mainstream in recent years but was practiced by Kawakubo, virtually alone, for decades. She shrank suit jackets to Chanel topper proportions, made handsome (no other word for it) skirts out of gabardine and tacked schoolgirl collars on otherwise office-ready white button-downs. She gave men a way of opting out of society while still remaining in it. For nearly a century, there had been little to no innovation in men’s wear — a steady, conservative beat of sensible, timeless clothing. Then suddenly, Kawakubo appeared like a sorceress, materialising a new and more permissive way of appearing in the world that changed not only fashion but, on a small scale, maleness itself. Now, 40 years after she began designing men’s wear, her philosophical heirs — Thom Browne, Raf Simons, Craig Green, to name a few — are everywhere. This, finally, is their time.

“What did your father dress like?” I asked Kawakubo about halfway through our interview. Joffe translated, and Kawakubo spoke to him in Japanese for what felt like 20 to 30 seconds. “She doesn’t understand the question,” Joffe said. He laughed, Kawakubo did not, and it was tacitly understood that this was tantamount to a refusal.

The conversation continued a bit awkwardly. Kawakubo expressed annoyance that her spring 2017 collection (Naked King) hadn’t gotten the credit it deserved for popularising transparent garments for men — a trend seen on the runways (Calvin Klein, Balenciaga, Off-White) for seasons after. She explained that incorporating unexpected materials, like the ghostly knit PVC she employed in that collection, is the challenge and joy of designing for men. “The one thing she doesn’t like is camping clothing — you know, walking-outdoors fashion?” Joffe interjected. “Athleisure, you mean?” I asked. He nodded and scribbled the word down in English on a scrap of paper for Kawakubo to read. “You know this word?” he asked. She shook her head in disdain. “The most boring fashion for her is this,” he said. “I have looked to see if there is anything interesting here and I have not found it,” Kawakubo added.

Laurence EllisModels: Lucas at Success Models, Vetle at IMG Models, Finn H. at Bananas Models, Uta at Success Models, Tay Landau at Next Management and Aleksandr A. at Marilyn Agency. Photographer’s assistants: Annabell Snoxal and Florent Vindimian. Men’s headpieces by Julien d’Ys for Comme des Garçons, executed by Kanoko Mizuo and Takayuki Nukui.
Models: Lucas at Success Models, Vetle at IMG Models, Finn H. at Bananas Models, Uta at Success Models, Tay Landau at Next Management and Aleksandr A. at Marilyn Agency. Photographer’s assistants: Annabell Snoxal and Florent Vindimian. Men’s headpieces by Julien d’Ys for Comme des Garçons, executed by Kanoko Mizuo and Takayuki Nukui.

Kawakubo likes to insist that first and foremost, she is a businesswoman. This is true in a certain sense (USD300 million in yearly sales for the labels combined, and 135 stores, all of which Kawakubo owns completely), but also almost hilariously imprecise. “Most businesses only think of evolution and growth in terms of the bottom line, and maybe the difference with Comme des Garçons is that it’s not necessarily what you can and can’t sell that makes the business, because the business is creation,” she said. Kawakubo admits that her venture into men’s wear was a practical decision, not an artistic one. But, she added, “I’ve often thought this is the most difficult way to do business. It’s not easy to sell only ideas and ones that people are not used to.” Every choice she makes, she said, even about corporate structuring, “is based on aesthetic values.”

Whether she likes it or not — and it’s almost certain that she does — the products of Kawakubo’s business are, for the most part, bought and enjoyed as art. And to see someone in Comme des Garçons on the street is to wonder if perhaps fashion isn’t actually more generous, more civic-minded, more political than art. Unlike a painting purchased in a gallery and hung on the wall of a private home, a Comme des Garçons garment actually circulates in the world, confronting (and delighting and confusing and frustrating) the very people who never would or could wear it themselves.

That’s how I felt, at least, that morning in Tokyo. Sitting across the office runway from all those Comme des Garçons employees, I was in awe — and ashamed. My outfit, which I had chosen to be both appropriate and flattering, suddenly looked not just boring but selfish. It delighted neither me nor anyone else. It seemed like a waste. I had dressed, I realized, like a man might — a non-Comme des Garçons-wearing man.

A few days later, when I returned to the office to interview Kawakubo, I wore different — but similarly lackluster — clothes. I had no delusions that she even took note of my appearance, though I was also certain that if she did, it would have depressed her. “Is there any man you wish you could design for and haven’t?” I asked at the end of our hourlong meeting. Kawakubo shook her head. “It’s a stupid question,” she said.