In Melbourne we are very lucky to have a gallery of the calibre of the National Gallery of Victoria, aka the NGV. And we are especially fortunate because the NGV has an extensive fashion collection and holds frequent excellent fashion exhibitions. Currently, the NGV is showing "Collecting Comme", an overview of the work of Rei Kawakubo, the founder and key designer behind Paris based designer label Comme des Garcons. The NGV has been gifted an extensive collection of Comme garments, largely from a donation a from private collector Takamasa Takahashi, who has also loaned items from his private archive to augment the exhibition.
You can view the trailer for the exhibition for a preview with the background story
Cloak from the Blood & Roses collection, 2014
This is a free exhibition. Excellent! If you are in Melbourne go and see it. It is quite a large exhibition and NGV curators have once again excelled themselves and put together an intriguing show.
Comme des Garcons designs were first presented in Paris in 1981 and they continue to push the boundaries of fashion and how we think about clothes. The introductory notes from the NGV say, Kawakubo has "defied convention to redefine fashion. Her designs have subverted norms of garment shape and function, reframed ideas of beauty and proposed a new relationship between body and dress."
The first word that occurred to me as I viewed the designs was "sculptural". Takahashi commented that it's impossible to imagine what many of the designs look like when viewing them on the hanger in the store. Many are three dimensional and are totally transformed when viewed on the body.
1997 - "Body Meets Dress- Dress Meets Body" collection - "questions the boundaries of the so-called fashionable body" and "contested traditional social definitions of ideal femininity" (NGV)
Not all Comme designs are 3D and disproportionate, but all are interesting and different. Kawakubo is quoted as saying "there is no point in designing something that is predictable".
1991 - "Chic Punk" collection
In the group above and in line with the Punk theme, the garment on the left shows a conservative traditional dinner jacket subverted by the addition of red plastic lapels and skirt.
Half coat, 2011 - "Hybrid" collection
Although I really wanted to see what this garment looks like when worn, it was also interesting to see some of the garments presented flat.
2010-11 - "Inside Decoration" collection
The black dress is a circular shape when not being worn. Garments like the visceral padded shorts and top "confirmed Kawakubo's resolve to redraw the contours of the fashionable body with abstract garments that blurred boundaries and amplified physical proportions". (NGV) There are removable pillows in the lining of the garment.
The pieces that fascinated me the most were those that played with garment construction.
At first glance this looks like a coat slung over the shoulder but it is actually three identical tailored jackets stitched together. Using the different sleeve options the wearer can create totally different looks.
I was fascinated by this skirt made from a patchwork of bodice pieces.
2008 - "Africa" collection
Jeans morph into skirt.
2012 - "Crush" collection
Takahashi says that when he first saw this collection he thought "Kawakubo is crushing all the existing concepts of clothes and suggesting a new start".
There were even a couple of garments that may give you a clue that the designer is Japanese.
And some clothes even looked wearable! But always with a quirky difference.
2002 - "Object" collection - Designer is Junya Watanabe, one of Kawakubo's proteges
Of the dress on the right, the curator notes "the dress is light and pretty but Watanabe's use of webbing to secure a parachute style backpack to the dress and to draw up the front gives it contemporary context".
The NGV website quotes Kawakubo saying that her intent has always been "to make clothes that didn't exist before", no mean feat, but one at which she appears to have succeeded.
"Collecting Comme" is showing at the National Gallery of Victoria until July 26, 2020.
For those wanting more, you can view Comme des Garcons' 2019 Spring Summer collection presentation here