21 December 2016

In the world of Rei Kawakubo

Originally posted 15th December 2016 here.

Come 2017, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will see to host the next Met Exhibition based on the theme of Rei Kawakubo, the founder and designer of beloved Japanese house, Comme des Garçons. The Met’s director and CEO, Thomas Campbell, summed up Kawakubo’s significance and emphasised her role in the changing industry by stating that ‘in blurring the art and fashion divide, Kawakubo asks us to think differently about clothing’, which is more or less one of the many reasons she has been chosen to be the second designer ever to be a subject of an exhibit at the Met.

As one of the original avant-garde names in the industry, described by film director John Waters, as a genius fashion dictator, Kawakubo seems to be seen more as a leader than a designer with her loyal worshippers and devotees. Among others in the industry, she’s also inspired the work of Karl Lagerfeld and Nicolas Ghesquère and has nurtured several designers including Junya Watanabe, who once worked under her mentorship with his own eponymous label, and overseeing the business side of Russian designer, Gosha Rubchinskiy’s label to see a 350% profit growth over the past year.

Most notably, as a Japanese woman, a minority who has continuously thrived with her role as a designer, a leader, a visionary and a female, Kawakubo’s presence alone shows great importance of balance for an industry that is 70% male dominated. By challenging ideas of normality of feminine/masculinity, past/present and even East/West, Kawakubo has been described by Andrew Bolton, a prominent name within the Met’s annual development, as one of the ‘most influential designers within the past forty years’.

Comme des Garçons S/S 1997
While it’s fantastic that the Met is looking to open up and unravel the long-running career of Kawakubo and her Comme Empire, it’s always been a fact within the industry that she was, and still never is, about the glamourous perks that comes along with being well known and respected. Rather, to those who worship her, she’s more of a mysterious deity that who has quietly ghosted in and out of the industry, season in and out without ever catching the spotlight. So rare of a presence in fact, that her philosophy tends to be misunderstood – therefore raising the question of whether or not it’s a play of a risk to dedicate an entire exhibit to her. (With all due respect, of course.)

Comme des Garçons in itself is a household name, known by many new and veteran in the industry, and sells, but is no way supposed to appeal to the mass. Since showing her first collection back in 1981 in Paris, industry buyers and press have become accustomed to Kawakubo’s radical take on what defines brand values. With a play and focus on textures, shapes, colours and the deconstruction of the norm of luxurywear and an androgynous genderless take on what it means to dress oneself. Think oversized dresses, frills, bows, Peter Pan collars, tartan, rips and tears, lack of shape, too much shape, lots of red, white and black – occasional colour, of course.

Admittedly due to the lack of exuberance and even colour that some of the shows have had, even Anna Wintour has not been seen at every show, but has stated as a member of the Met Gala board that she acknowledges and commends Rei Kawakubo for playing an important role in the changing landscape, despite not being able to fully comprehend her work. Kawakubo’s refusal to ever explain the meaning of her collection puts an air of secrecy that only a niche audience would understand, but tends to frustrate the public, which tend leads to discussion and (attempts at) understanding of her work. It seems that her silence has given her voice more resonance and presence than any other designer in fashion today.

With the previous themes at the Met (2015’s China through the looking glass and 2016’s Manus ex Machina) which, through a personal preference were utter failures to understand the meaning of fashion, one really wonders how Hollywood, and A-listers who will be invited to the annual gala in 2017, will represent and channel the ways of Kawakubo through their choices of clothing.

She is not one that many understand, and especially as a living, breathing individual, how can one person be a theme? Kawakubo and her empire is complicated, mindblowning, sometimes unsettling and controversial. On one hand, it’s finally high time for the industry to critically discuss contemporary themes that stem beyond fashion – race, sexuality (dynamics) and extend itself beyond just being an exhibit for notable designs. The Met Gala is notoriously known for being a fashion event that focuses solely on the gala itself; a night of saturated glamour and attendees who may (or may not) have understood the dress memo, and in the past has caused a handful of controversies that show that many attendees (and even members of the Met’s development team) failure to really understand the philosophy, the concept and the ethical meaning of theme (see: the 2015 Met Gala theme).

Comme des Garçons S/S 2012
So it’s obvious to many fans and non-fans of Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons that choosing her as the solo exhibition for 2017 is a big move - and the real challenge will be to see how celebrities can incorporate even the most dysfunctional pieces from Comme des Garçons to be wearable without diminishing it’s concept for audiences to enjoy. Kawakubo has built her career on thinking paradoxically from the rest, breaking the very idea of clothes to be wearable – no; she sees it as an artform in a unique sense.

In a very rare, albeit vague interview back in 2013, Kawakubo states that she doesn’t design clothes, she designs bodies – so it really be interesting to see the Met work out just how to orchestrate an exhibit and gala worthy to have even the madame herself appear at the event. (She’s known to be so secretive and private, not attending any after parties, do any interviews or editorials that even her own staff don’t ever see her.) Utimately, Kawaubo is a visionary that has always comes up with new ideas that shock and surprise, pushing boundaries of what can be accepted as fashion. She’s a God, in a sense with an unexpected goal.

Can the Met Gala capture everything that Kawakubo has done in her lifetime, and present it to be appeasing enough for the eyes of both pre-existing loyal followers and new? Would they be would to present avant-garde and everything that she stands for in an artistically formed light? Now that is to be food for thought as the countdown happens.

04 December 2016

We Need to Talk about Orientalism

Originally posted 4th December 2016 here.
Yves Saint Laurent F/W 2004 
Following the days of the annual Victoria’s Secret (VS) fashion show held in Paris on the 30th of November, pictures of the lingerie pieces and the accompanying clothing pieces/accessories surfaced that caught the attention of far and few.

Articles also came out captioned, VS being ‘accused of designing racist lingerie’ and ‘accused of cultural appropriation’ – interesting choice of word – accused, when it was clearly outright what the directors, designers and producers of the brand did in this year’s so-called sub theme of celebrating culture.  Creative director Sophia Neophitou literally described the season’s collection as taking something that’s naïve and homespun and turning it into something luxurious.

Break that statement down into something that’s traditional and historical (naïve), who have built a culture and identity (homespun) and elevating it from what it is, considerably primitive (in the context of the director’s intention), to make it more… well, luxurious.

Victoria's Secret Show 2016 
This coming from a business that, in the past has already had several cultural appropriation controversies with placing a model in a Native American headdress and sending her down the runway in lingerie, having waited years before allowing a model of colour to have her natural hair for an annual show and having to remove an extremely sexualised garment that was offensive to Japanese historical culture of Geisha tradition – one ponders just how many times a business can make the same mistake over and over without considering an ethical implication that extends far beyond consumerism and the industry itself.

This year, the show decided to go down the oriental theme – or rather the Western representation of an ideal Chinese fashion, market and culture. Simply watered down to be used as nimble accessories to hide the cultural appropriation that was being showcased through sexualisation and demeaning ‘homage’ to the culture.

Victoria's Secret Show 2016 
VS showcased their lack of understanding for China’s rich and important culture, with some suggesting that they were trying to play it off as little play costumes for models to strut down the runway in while trying to appeal to their new market. The dragon, that symbolises auspicious fate and luck, which was wrapped around the body of a model, or the tardy-done embroidery stuck onto the boots of another, which was an, and still remains, a historical art developed through the rise of the Chinese Silk Road some 5000 years ago. An honourable mention to the use of the colour red, which plays a huge role in cultural means of good fortune, luck and joy and a symbolic colour of all auspicious life (as reflection of blood being red).

To add insult to injury, VS also casted four Chinese models, along with a handful of other POC models, which, in a sense is great for the modelling industry to open up more opportunities for newcomers, but the question hangs of whether or not these models were used as scapegoats for the backlash that VS may have seen coming for their use of such theme. Though, it was fantastic to see them getting the limelight.

Dolce & Gabbana S/S 2015 
It’s disappointing to see over and over, not just at the VS brand, but the industry overall, that especially within the growing Asian (not just Chinese) market keeping the industry afloat, that there is a cinematic stereotype of a dragon lady with her hair sleeked back in a tight red sheath with a fan in hand. This ideal image is made with the false representation of a fantasy, created largely for Western consumption without making an effort to understand the historical ties to such cultures. It seems to be a repeat of the 2015 Met Gala where the theme was a very vague and dismissive try at understanding the traditions, symbolism and history behind China’s artistic past.

It seems that targeting the Asian market, with China and Japan being the two main countries with the most consumers in luxury purchases, is a key focus for any kind of business expansion. However many designers, VS and other, are not inspired by the real consumers within the region, but rather the infatuation and fantasy of what has been created by the West to gentrify the East – oriental.

Olympia Le-Tan S/S 2016 
Postcolonial sociologist (literary theorist, cultural critic and political activist) Edward Saïd states that this idea of ‘orientalism’ comes from the Western perception of the East, through the development of colonialism and power between political and social differences of Western civilisation and all that, that was not Western. His publication, Orientalism (1978) states that the problematic side of works of art and literature (and in this case, fashion) is relied on the racial stereotypes of what is deemed exotic, mystical or simply non-Western. This backward portrayal puts the very ideal of what is considered orientalism out of touch with what is reality in Asian and Middle-Eastern countries.

Take that into consideration of the industry now, where majority of big houses are under Western management. With the addition of 1920s-40s Asian film culture still being used in cinema as a norm, or the bare minimal of trying to understand what culture is – given examples of Asian women being watered down to the ‘innocent female doll’ or ‘supreme dragon lady’ in a sexualised qipao or kimono, it’s no wonder no one seems to understand why this false stereotype is such a big deal.

The use of cultural symbolism merely for aesthetic and to sell is certainly not going to resonate with the Asian, and especially Chinese market if it shows a lack of understanding for elaborately rich cultures with complex histories. As Asia becomes a growing market for the industry to stay afloat, the industry can no longer rely on their Western fantasy of what they want their consumers to be. The misinterpretation and perception of a garment being anything but tone-deaf would mean implications beyond just economic downfall, but also political and social discourse.