Rei Kawakubo denounces today’s tired fashion, and it’s time for us to take note.
On a pink hued runway, models walked in pieces more easily described as wearable sculptures than any silhouette we have come accustomed to. A palette of subdued colors left room for texture, material, structure and surface to do the speaking, and it seems they had more questions than answers.
In an appropriate moment coinciding with her upcoming show at the Met, Kawakubo surfaces the reoccurring question of the purpose of fashion in a post modern age. Most importantly, how can we use fashion to contemplate where we stand in time, place and age? Certaintly Kawakubo isn’t here to present these pieces as functional; many pieces do not even have arm holes. And she didn’t put together this collection expecting to see these pieces on the streets of NYC (although we can dream). What she did do is use every technique in her arsenal to draw a stark contrast to designers who do put together collections in hopes of cashing in on the fashion lovers of the world. While most designers use structure to slim and lengthen the female bodies they dress, Kawakubo uses padding and boning to create organic shapes that do not bother to follow the shape of the wearer’s body. While many designers use lace, tulle or satin to heighten sensuality via texture, Kawakubo is using materials she can quite literally twist, crumple, layer, and stack like brown butcher paper and insulation. While other designers use tropes like floral patterns and appliqué to discuss femininity, Kawakubo distorts traditional silhouettes to critique the construct of femininity itself. Does any of this make her work better? It definitely makes it more interesting.
In a world of fast fashion sales are the driving force behind nearly all of the designs we see today. When brands’ primary interest is to drive sales, they fall to relying on the safe consistency of what is proven successful in the past. A risky design could put a projected profit margin in jeopardy and that seems too big a gamble for designers to make. This is why season after season we see “pretty” dresses with slimming waistlines and denim that lengthen the appearance of legs. Of course trends weave in and out of seasons, but history tells us women will like these so they are reproduced with slight variables.
The fear of having an unsuccessful sale has crippled the fashion industry but we have only ourselves to blame. A consumer model that is constantly lusting for new additions to our wardrobe has pushed brands to turn out more collections per year and in turn is forcing some of the best designers of our time out of the industry. Jean Paul Gautier famously halted his ready to wear lines after his creativity was stifled by the pressure of 16 lines a year. Over the past few years we’ve seen handfuls of designer step down, Raf Simons from Dior, Alexander Wang from Balenciaga, and Alber Elbaz from Lanvin to name a few. By demanding to consume more, we are sacrificing quality. In our willingness to sacrifice quality we are forcing out the few true artists left in the fashion world. This undoubtedly comes full circle and causes layers of stunted growth for fashion as an art.
This is what makes Rei Kawakubo’s runway so critical. She is able to see past these pitfalls and takes us to a place fashion could be, maybe even should be in 2017. Decades after Dior, Chanel, and Balenciaga challenged the stereotypical silhouette and Alexander McQueen infamously bridged the gap between fashion and art, we should be ready to receive a runway that causes us pause. That asks us to think critically about this moment in history. That asks us to evaluate what this reflection of our culture is telling us about ourselves. Only then will we be able to move fashion forward as an art, and not just a consumable item.