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September 6, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Like the Boys: The Architecture of Comme des Garçons

The relationship between fashion and architecture may seem surprising to many, given the ephemeral (and somewhat superficial) nature of the former, contrasted with the percieved durability and permanence commonly attributed to the latter. Unlike a lot of clothing, a building is not easily tossed asunder when it shows signs of wear, nor is it as subject to seasons and the swift ascendance of new trends as is fashion. Rei Kawakubo however, an architectural enthusiast and the woman behind Japanese fashion heavyweight Comme des Garçons (CdG), has been looking into their commonalities as a means to challenge the traditional conception of fashion and architecture as separate disciplines.

Founded in 1969 in Tokyo, CdG’s designs borrow heavily from architectural materials and techniques to create intensely sculptural garments that consistently turn conventional notions of fashion and beauty on their heads. Kawakubo’s first showing in Paris in 1981 provided a dramatic contrast to the highly tailored offerings from other designers, with sculptural, asymmetrical garments layered, draped or wrapped in unconventional ways. The forms created by Kawakubo deviate from more orthodox fashion practices, and ranges such as Excellent Abstract (spring/summer 2004) use structural elements to manipulate the garment away from the body as a means of expressing the idea that a garment, much like a building is a spatial construction. In 2000, Kawakubo was honoured with an excellence in design award from Harvard University’s School of Design, and has garnered praise over the years from many of her contemporaries, including Alexander McQueen, who once cited her as the world’s most gifted designer.

In addition to subverting traditional techniques and treatments, Kawakubo’s personality presents us with a more humble front than some of the star designers and architects who often give convoluted and obtuse explanations of their work and practice. She rejects any fixed interpretation of her work and on the rare occasions she has spoken she has denied that her work should be considered art, insisting there is no hidden agenda in her design work. The very name of the company was chosen simply because she liked the sound of the words.

Brooke Hodge, in her book Skin and Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture, admits being interested in the parallels between the two disciplines following her work on an exhibition dedicated to CdG. During the course of her research she was “struck by the visual similarites between clothing design and architectural structure” as well as being fascinated with the aptness of “architectural terminology” for describing Rei Kawakubo’s garments.

This linguistic crossover is not confined to Kawakubo’s work and its influence can be seen in the exchange of vocabulary from both areas. Notable developments in materials and manufacturing processes have led to architects adopting sartorial terms such as wrapping, folding, weaving, layering, texturing, hanging, draping and coating to better express architectural ideas, while the fashion world has simultaneously been quick to adopt such terms as “architectonic”, “sculptural” and “constructed” to articulate a new-found appreciation of the body and its relationship to space.

Kawakubo’s architectural involvement is not limited to metaphor, however, and the formidable fashionista is extremely particular about the ‘total environment’ surrounding her label. In a way not dissimilar to the Bauhaus creation of Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork), her desire for the completeness of experience requires her to take extensive control over the way in which her designs are to be encountered. She has worked with a number of high-profile architects such as Future Systems and Takao Kawasaki in the creation of around a dozen specifically designed CdG boutiques from Toyko to New York that dramatically contrast with more typical retail environments. In addition to these flagship stores, there are around 200 stockists worldwide whose stores must meet a certain level of architectural quality specified by Kawakubo herself, as well as innovative ‘guerilla’ stores.

In 2004 CdG initiated their first ‘guerilla’ store in Berlin in an “out-of-the-way” location designed to be open for the duration of one year only, and fitted at a minimum cost. The use of temporary structures to display and sell her garments through non-traditional means has had considerable impact on contemporary architectural practice by bringing the temporal quality of the fashion industry into the realm of a discipline with a tradition of durability and permanence. By suggesting that buildings need not be built to last, Kawakubo has opened the door to a whole new generation of architectural designers free from the immutability of traditional construction and a number of practitioners in the fashion world have since opened similar temporary outlets.

If the practice and influence of Rei Kawakubo gives any indication of the future direction of these two disciplines, we can be sure to see the boundaries between architecture and fashion to blur further. The continuing relationship between fashion and architecture is likely to produce ever richer developments in both fields, and the crossfertilisation of such practitioners as Kawakubo will see the development of increasingly hybrid practices that can reintroduce the emobodied and ‘lived’, sensory experience into architecture and unimagined architectural forms to the world of fashion.

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