Pensive Prowler #5 by Dmetri Kakmi
Clothes Make the Man
Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons fame recently showed her fall/winter collection in Paris. As expected, breathless accolades and stunned summations followed. Even the Met is finally acknowledging the Japanese fashion doyen’s avant-garde creations by putting on a retrospective of her ground-breaking designs; and I, of course, wish I had filthy lucre to fly to New York, see the show, buy two or three of Kawakubo’s pieces from the 22nd Street Comme boutique and fly back to Australia.
As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a Comme des Garcons groupie. (Another thing I have in common with John Waters!) Kawakubo just has to sneeze into a Yayoi Kusama designed handkerchief and pin it on a Milled Nylon Suit with Frilled Lining and I will buy it.
Kawakubo’s garments don’t fit easy categories of clothing and fashion. They’re an aesthetic challenge. Her designs are more like augmentations that turn human form into ambulatory work of art. The clothes aren’t mere drapery for the body; the body become a vehicle for the clothes, often disappearing within folds, veils and over-size hats.
By experimenting with cut, texture, colour, volume and silhouette, Kawakubo extends the possibilities of the body; she distorts its proportions, often into grotesque shapes that recall her controversial first showing in Paris. It’s only when you see the garments from the 1981 collection that you understand why that inaugural outing was labelled ‘Hiroshima chic’ by the press. The unsightly lumps and bumps, coming out of unexpected places, are tumours and abscesses in the wake of radiation poisoning. The clothes were an insult, a parody of high fashion. Everyone was outraged. Yet here she is still going strong at seventy-four.
I’m intrigued by Kawakubo’s designs because to me they perfectly embody the writer’s dilemma. I mean that the clothes are the perfect vehicle for a writer’s deepest wishes and worst fears, namely to be simultaneously visible and invisible, wanted and unwanted.
I speak now as one who suffers from body dysmorphia. That means I believe I’m uglier than I probably am; I genuinely see myself as a unsightly cartoon character. Here’s an example. Strangers often tell me that I resemble George Clooney. Kind as that might be, when I check the veracity of the statement in the mirror, I see Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean. It’s that disproportionate. The way I see myself physically is incompatible with the reality of the situation. This warped perception of myself means I avoid being photographed and there are days when I can’t leave the house, all of which leads to anxiety and depression.
That’s why I hide behind hats and glasses. It’s camouflage. But it’s also an attempt at something else.
Clothes reveal who we are and who we would like to be. They are a little bit fantasy and a little bit wish fulfillment. If you feel low, a good outfit can make you feel splendid. Clothes can lift your spirits, they can turn the dark Id into a light-filled Eden.
One of Tove Jansson’s Moomin characters sums up the situation perfectly: ‘Isn’t it wonderful how a beautiful hat can change one’s looks … one feels free, dangerous…’
I believe that. I also believe in not looking in the mirror; it can ruin the day.
This is where Rei Kawakubo comes into the picture. Her clothes are simultaneously ugly and beautiful, innovative and ridiculous. They clash with preconceived sensibilities and present a conundrum. This uncertainty forces the eye and the brain to reassess and to ask questions about notions of beauty and ugliness; what is acceptable and what is not acceptable; and to hopefully come up with new ways of seeing.
Kawakubo’s clothes fulfil my best and worst fantasises about myself. Wearing her, I can be handsome and ugly. It’s like being a shape-shifter or a chameleon. Your presentation constantly shifts from one thing to another to suit mood or circumstance. Signals are mixed, confused. People often do a double-take to affirm what they think they saw. Equally, responses can be flattering or outright hostile. Men are especially affronted. ’What do you think you’re wearing, mate?’ is a familiar refrain when I wear Kawakubo’s blue plastic coat with the white stitching and the patchwork pants.
Fashion designer Marc Jacobs said that he likes Kawakubo’s clothes because ‘it’s not about dressing for other people. It’s not about buying clothes to attract or seduce. It feels like a gift you’re giving to yourself.’
It’s a bit more complicated for me. I dress to please myself, to make me feel better about peering out of this face and about living in this body. But it’s also a disingenuous form of public exhibitionism. A kind of theatre, if you like. I dress to draw the eye in order to repel it, and I repel the eye in order to attract it, which is reflective of what goes on in my mind when I look in the mirror and see the Hunchback of Notre Dame staring back at me.
In a way, Kawakubo’s clothes have become my uniform. They are the face I present to the world. I feel naked and exposed without them. The clothes stop people from thinking about my face and my body. They see what I want them to see. They see difference, rather than why it was adopted.
And when I write at my desk, I hide inside a voluminous black hoody by Issey Miyake and deconstructed black overalls by Yohji Yamamoto, Kawakubo’s ex-lover.
Monk-like, I disappear.
Dmetri Kakmi (Episode 158) is a writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia. The memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies and journals. You can find out more about him here.