Challenging fashion: Comme des Garçons at the Met

Since I was a child, growing up in the 1980’s, I have admiringly followed the work and career of Rei Kawakubo. When I was too young to know what, precisely, avant-garde fashion was, I sensed that this designer was doing something special, unique, and somehow, important.

From the pages of W and Vogue, I pieced together an education in the adornment and presentation of the female body as idealized and imagined, often by male designers creating for the pleasure of male gazes. Kawakubo was starkly different in every way: female, Japanese, trained in fine art but not in fashion, and wholly original in her rejection of simplistic prettiness and conventional beauty. Her work lit a fire of possibility in my mind.

Snapshots from Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. Photo by Irene Kaoru.

The Costume Institute exhibition featuring Kawakubo’s womenswear for Comme des Garçons at the Metropolitan Museum is called “Art of the In-Between.” Fitting with this title, the show presents over 120 examples of Kawakubo’s work in groups of textually defined dualities. These are: Absence/Presence, Design/Not Design, Fashion/Anti-Fashion, Model/Multiple, Then/Now, High/Low, Self/Other, Object/Subject, and Clothes/Not Clothes. Under each heading, we are offered a selection of sculptural fashion objects (it seems wrong and incomplete to call them “outfits” or “clothes”) with an essay exploring the items in the suggested context. These essays seek to place the items in a chronological or conceptual context, but often raise more questions than they answer. (See them in the exhibition guide, here as a PDF.)

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Rent the Runway goes Netflix

“The New York-based company, backed by $54.4 million in venture funding, caters to what chief executive Jennifer Hyman calls the “woman 2.0,” a customer who values experiences over possessions. In the case of clothing, this woman is willing to rent a designer dress for one night because she’s smart enough to know it’s not worth spending $1,000 or more on an item she’ll only wear once.”

The article leaves out one important driving factor (discussion of which is buried in the video clip): the celebrification (can we call it that?) of the average woman as brought about by social media. Once upon a time, a regular young woman might scrape together her spare money and save up for that designer dress of her dreams, rationalizing that it was high quality, well-made, would last a lifetime and give her many proud occasions to wear it.

Sometimes we still do that, if it’s a classic style or color – a black column gown, say, or high end suit. But the proliferation of smartphones with their cameras means that whenever we go out, everyone is taking pictures. The ubiquity of social sharing means that all those pictures end up on the internet, often right away. This has had the interesting side effect of making everyone a character in their own reality show, constantly observed and evaluated by everyone else in their lives. The modern woman about town is conscious of being observed like never before, and now worries about being photographed in the same outfit twice in a way that used to be the exclusive purview of international movie stars.

This is why Rent The Runway’s new subscription model is a brilliant idea and relief for the fashionista on a budget. The old arguments about timeless style and quality just don’t hold anymore when every outing in the city is relentlessly documented. Furthermore, as CEO Jennifer Hyman notes, cloud entertainment services like Spotify and Netflix have acclimatized us all to the notion that we needn’t physically “own” things in order to use and enjoy them. Actually, it’s way more convenient to have someone else hang on to them for us, so we can download them whenever we want. Millennials in particular don’t understand having to choose, and why should they when they can virtually have everything?

Far from being in the business of “just renting sparkly dresses,” RTR’s Hyman appears to understand a very crucial thing: Objects are meaningless, trends are transitory, and we are all just made of information. She emphasizes at the end of the discussion that they’ve built the platform to allow anyone to rent anything, for any duration of time. One immediately thinks of other high cost items we might want to share or rent-to-own: consumer electronics, vehicles and artwork all come to mind. Perhaps RTR is coming for those next.