Rei Kawakubo proven hungry to collaborate with and nurture similarly radical minds.



Re-Edition // Comme des Garçons

Rei Kawakubo may be notoriously elusive, but over the last five decades she’s proven hungry to collaborate with and nurture similarly radical minds. Dover Street Market, the retail jewel in the crown of her Comme des Garçons empire, was borne of a desire to sell her own collections alongside the work of other disruptive, forward-thinking designers. 

This vision came to life back in 2004, with the opening of a permanent location in London’s Haymarket. With its concrete floors and pop-up installations, the store quickly became an institution in its own right; fifteen years later, five more permanent additions have emerged across the globe. Art has remained a staple of this Comme universe – past collaborators have included Yayoi Kusama and Cindy Sherman – but the new introduction of cult musicians into the fold signals yet another creative shift.

The most recent addition to the extended Comme family is Chicago House pioneer Honey Dijon, whose debut capsule collection will be simply, ingeniously titled ‘Honey Fucking Dijon’. To say the collaboration is a perfect fit would be a understatement. Like Rei, Honey has consistently refused to compromise creativity for commercial success; as a result, she’s carved out an iron-clad reputation which has seen her staddle the worlds of art, fashion and music. 

Swedish artist ionnalee is similarly visionary. After years of releasing upbeat, guitar-driven tracks under her birth name, Jonna Lee, she founded record label to whom it may concern in 2010 and switched gears completely. An extreme transformation – both sonic and visual – took place, birthing the audiovisual project iamamiwhoami. 

A public introduction of sorts came through a series of viral videos, which saw Lee’s face entirely obscured by dirt, paint and mud; in these clips she crawls through undergrowth, licks gnarled tree bark and runs through snow-covered forests as frenetic synths swell beneath the cinematography. Mythology and mystery continued to define the then-anonymous project, which soon spawned a collection of full-length tracks – whose one-letter titles spelled out debut album ‘bounty’ – confirming iamamiwhoami as one of the most ethereal, individual voices in electronica.

The project yielded two more albums – ‘kin’ and ‘BLUE’ – before eventually being halted by Lee, who later shifted her focus to releasing music as a solo artist. It was around this time that she received an email from Comme’s then-visual merchandising director, Andrew Taylor Parr. “After he bought our album ‘BLUE’ he emailed us and I wrote back,” she recalls. “He connected us to [Rei’s partner] Adrian Joffe, and we got to know each other – that’s where it started.”

Eventually, this email exchange yielded a creative partnership which ionnalee describes as “an alliance based on mutual creative beliefs.” This alliance kicked off with the video for her debut solo single ‘SAMARITAN’, which – and here’s where the Rei tie comes in – offers a cutting visual commentary of pop culture’s idolisation of the artist and the commercial pressures this creates. “It was written as a liberating tool to break free creatively,” she explained at the time, “and also to declare the standpoint of my creative process as a living, breathing thing existing out of will, not for commercial purposes or to please the industry, or my following.” 

This message is communicated through looks drenched in religious iconography; a loose, white column dress with cut-out panels conveys purity and evangelism, whereas its polar opposite manifests as a structured, crow-like lace dress in Comme’s signature colour, black.

A full-length audiovisual followed in the form of ‘EVERYONE AFRAID TO BE FORGOTTEN’, which fused ionnalee’s unique brand of electronica with stark visual backdrops and a whole host of Comme looks. It marks the first time she trusted in a designer; “with iamamiwhoami, we made everything that I wore ourselves,” she explains. “Sometimes that meant repurposing a flag or being covered in scotch tape to make a point, but we want each piece to be used as part of the communication of my work. With Comme I get to expand my palette and include Rei’s work in my vision without losing that purpose of communication.”

Collaborations like these demonstrate the versatility of Rei, both as a designer and a businesswoman. In 1997, fans – or ‘crows’, as Comme fans are sometimes known – got an indication of what her work could look like in motion thanks to a collaboration with American choreographer Merce Cunningham. 

Entitled Scenario, the performance features dancers leaping around in variations of Comme’s groundbreaking SS97 collection, which combined conventional dress silhouettes and colourful gingham with bulbous, irregular padding. The awkward lumps and bulges physically change the dancers’ movements and add an almost humorous element to Scenario which breaks down the walls between art, fashion and high culture. They also obscure the contours of bodies to create the queer illusion of amorphous figures, which resist the process of ‘gendering’ that fashion – with its ongoing (albeit loosening) reliance on the binary division of ‘menswear’ and ‘womenswear’ – determinedly clings to.

Rei’s foray into music has been a long time coming, but it represents an extension of the desire to collaborate which has always underpinned Comme. Honey and ionnalee are both multidisciplinary artists with the desire to blur different fields and take creative risks – in this sense, their induction into Rei’s extended artistic family should come as no surprise.

After all, this is the designer whose 1982 collection was literally entitled ‘DESTROY’. In an era obsessed with hyper-femininity, Rei presented a series of moth-eaten knitwear, gathered black fabric and haphazard hemlines which earned her some seriously dismissive – and often pretty racist (remember ‘Hiroshima Chic’ and the references to ‘nuclear bag ladies’?) reviews. The language of war, terror and otherness was used by an industry reluctant to accept her radical vision, but decades later it seems we’re more willing to trust in Rei’s instincts.

Arguably, this openness musical collaborations couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The last twelve months have been dominated by artists dropping merchandise lines to boost album sales (by using the ‘bundle tactic’), but the caliber of the results has varied wildly. More than ever, fans are willing to spend their cash on genuinely innovative fusions of music and fashion. As always, it’s a gap in the market that Comme des Garçons is ready and waiting to fill.

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