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Rei Kawakubo: Like the Boys

This is the story of a new boutique on Wooster Street that looks like a cement bunker, is called Comme des Garçons, and is making a fortune. It opened at the tail end of August, the designer is Japan’s Rei Kawakubo, and the owner is Dianne Benson, former Bendel’s buyer and owner of the Dianne B. shops on Madison Avenue and Soho’s West Broadway.

It’s not just another boutique. The negotiations between Rei Kawakubo, 41, an extraordinary Japanese businesswoman/designer and Dianne, 38, produced an instant, screaming success. Which is not really a surprise because Rei Kawakubo is not just another designer, but a woman with a total aesthetic, a world view; perhaps the Chanel of the ’80s. Last summer, her “black bag” clothes looked extremely weird scruffling along Wooster Street on a lanky, blonde fashion freak. Today, strong professional women around New York are wearing them, like Amy Levin, editor-in-chief of Mademoiselle.

Rei Kawakubo does things in what I’m sure Diana Vreeland would call a Big Time Way. She’s a tough independent lady with a genius for design, a brilliant sense of marketing and business, a lust for control, and her very specific idea of what women need in 1984. She has 168 stores and boutiques within other stores; she owns about 25 of them.

Last spring Paris’s Passion magazine described Rei’s clothes as “stark, violent elegance in sculptural form.” The Comme des Garçons boutique she opened there in 1982 was the talk of Paris. Her torn cotton knit T-shirt was selling for 600 francs.

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Rei Kawakubo, it is said, started Comme des Garçons so she could have total control over her life and answer to no one. In all, this is a very feminist story. “Basically,” said Dianne last August, “Rei’s is the biggest idea around, the most modern, because it’s so total.” Rei does everything, from designing the stores (stark gray cement), the environment — the music, pens, stationery, bags — to the employees, directing everything from their posture to their paper clips to their cars. There’s no postmodernist flip in her minimalist aesthetic. Rei acted as architect on the Soho store. Its bleak lines are almost Joe D’Urso/black leather/hospital gown antiseptic. While New York blossoms with a postmodernist pallette and the AT&T building sprouts Chippendale curves, Japanese architects hunker down in oriental high tech. Sol Le Witt’s 1968 white Modular Cube/Base illustrates Kenneth Frampton’s A New Wave of Japanese Architecture; Le Witt, along with fellow minimalists Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, inspires the Japanese new wave. Whether Rei’s “Machines for Living” aspect will throw people, as did Le Corbusier’s (or Paley’s despised office decor rules for Black Rock, CBS headquarters) remains to be seen. She even so far, Future Shock seems to have thrown a lot of True Believer customers Rei’s way, into a calm, orderly world with few decisions to be made about one of the less important things in life: one’s clothes.

Mr. Kateyama, the business director of Comme des Garçons, has an interesting office in Rei’s Tokyo headquarters. Cement, like the stores. Minimal furniture. Filing cabinets. And one entire wall covered with a map of the world. Below, a low built-in ledge holds only a tray of monotone thumbtacks. At the pace they go, they envision everyone in the world being in their clothing. It’s a big wall. The island of Japan has hundreds of tacks. New York, several. Philadelphia. Houston. Paris. Milan.

Is Rei a feminist? It’s hard to determine. She seldom speaks to the press. In photographs he has a strong handsome serious face that needs no makeup. Johanne Siff, who spent two years in Japan on a Watson Fellowship studying the emergence of women in the contemporary arts, explains that there is no organized feminist movement to parallel what American women experienced in the ’70s. “But Rei’s right on the edge,” she [says]. “Her politics are definitely integrated with her art.” Johanne, who started as a part-time weekend worker, now manages the Comme des Garçons boutique. (She couldn’t afford CDG clothes when she lived in Tokyo.)

Rei, according to her bio, was born in Tokyo in 1943. She was either three or four when the atom bombs exploded at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. She started Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys) in 1973, showing her first collection two years later. The following year she opened her Paris office and first overseas boutique and splashed ice water in the faces of the French.

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Karen Rubin, the general manager for all three of Dianne Benson’s stores, seemed less than enthusiastic about Dianne’s wild idea of opening and owning a CDG boutique in Soho. Of course Dianne was the boss. “But,” she adds, “when I sat down in their offices in Tokyo last year, I knew it would work. It’s the most serious idea around. It’s a whole way of life.” Rei’s offices look just like the stores, and rumor has it that her apartment does too. Rei’s office has one telephone, black; four concrete walls; one low black table; one black leather sofa; one intense light. Nothing else.

Everyone who works for Rei believes in her idea. What exactly is it? Something about everything for the simplest and purest life. How women should look and how they should feel. Her designs have a lot to do with freedom of movement, wearing flat shoes. Rei doesn’t wear makeup and tells her people point-blank not to wear it.

Susan Brownmiller notes in her new book Femininity, “Serious women have a difficult time with clothes, not necessarily because they lack a developed sense of style, but because feminine clothes are not designed to project a serious demeanor.” A statement of Rei Kawakubo’s: “I have always felt it important not to be confined by tradition or custom or geography, I hope to remain free of these influences in expressing in shapes and colors and textures an idea of mobility… I wish to design garments which the owner can feel confident in, and which do not discriminate ideas of mobility — and yet remain anonymously distinctive.” (I think by those two references to mobility she means no indications of social class.) Rei’s clothes, worn as a uniform, allow the woman to forget about her closet and get on with life. Or that’s the theory. Karen Rubin says Rei’s idea may be as simple as the title of a current hip-hop record hit: “It’s Like That, and That’s the Way It Is.” CDG is so far away from a Seventh Avenue operation it’s amazing — Rei ships supplies at her cost, because she wants that specific hanger design. “It’s just a whole other idea.” The Americans figure Rei works about 20 hours a day, running every facet of the business. Shy, intensely private, she’s “so absorbed in what she’s doing her personal contact is minimal,” says Karen. Rei’s press person, Stella Ishi, married to an American painter, speaks perfect English; she’s the interface. Rei is the Sherman tank.

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As Dianne Benson told me in mid-1982, “I’m into working, making money, and not being confused. Getting my priorities straight. I’m into nobody yelling at me.”

Dianne B. is one of those people who give an impression of total chaos then pull diamond-studded rabbits out of elegant top hats. A Mike Todd type. Her CDG store is a triumph of cutting through the traditional molasses of Japanese-American business negotiations. With Rei, the two women personally put together what Dianne described in August as “a very intriguing, sensible financial agreement which should reach break even in a year.” (Her West Broadway store took 15 months, rather than the projected 12, to turn a profit.)

Working with her souped-up Radio Shack TR S-80 home computer, Dianne started negotiations less than a year ago. They would Telex in the morning and talk over the phone at night. “Between the two of us we came up with a give and take. I wrote up the deal with a letter of intent, four schedules, a projection of volume, expenses, etc., and then the lawyers came in. All the main points boiled down to the biggest legal issue: under which country’s law is this? The lawyers cost a little over $12,000. We split it.” The deal was done in under three months, the lease signed for a prime 6,500 foot location at 116 Wooster Street June 1. Construction started 20 days later; they opened in late August.

Dianne and her partners capitalized the store with $200,000 up front to secure the lease and start construction. (They later got an additional construction loan from the Bank of New York.) There was no capital left to buy merchandise, so Rei fronted the money, with a letter of credit from Tokyo’s Fuji bank. There was $250,000 worth in the first month. Dianne loved doing business with CDG. “Stella Ishi and Kateyama are Rei’s two henchmen. They’re so cool and so groovy and funky and smart. They’re unlike an other Japanese businesspeople. There’s nobody that comes this close. It’s a very strange and different group, and real smart. And all these people are about 34.”

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The day of the opening CDG took in $10,000. And now the story is coming in. Many New Yorkers find the CDG things to be wearable, comfortable, addictive clothing. A way of life. And, the projected break-even? Not a year. Only four months to turn a profit. Dianne did $600,000 in retail sales by year-end. The CDG Homme menswear sold out completely and they had to close the downstairs Homme area until they could restock.

The revolutionary speed of these negotiations are mirrored by some revolutionary management developments in the CDG store. Originally Dianne slated six salespeople, three assistants, a cashier, etc. The staff of 10 to 15 that evolved is described as “socialistic,” though CDG is definitely all about making money. The entire group, including manager Johanne Siff, rotates jobs. “It’s kind of like overnight camp,” explains Karen, “when you had your job wheel in the bunkroom.” And the entire staff, except for Johanne, makes exactly the same salary. There’s a great CDG team spirit; after six weeks, each employee gets enough of Rei’s clothes to fashion a week’s wardrobe. “But believe me,” explains Johanne, “it’s taken some time to instigate Dianne’s idea of management. Some people weren’t into it. The fashion freak types sort of freaked out. Three people were fired for internal stealing.” Two more left.

“Now, we work as a unit. We’re more versatile, flexible; not as rigid and limiting as what might be Rei’s hierarchy in Japan. Dianne takes Rei’s structure and softens it. And she’s much more accessible.”

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Dianne says “Rei’s totally radical.” But in what sense? Dianne’s a fashion person; a fabulous purveyor of words, stance, attitude. Rei seems to be getting at something more political; feminist; free; revolutionary. A lot of New Yorkers were saying last year that the Japanese were stealing their ideas from the English designers. If the talk sounds similar; the clothes are totally different. In the August issue of London’s The Face, Katherine Hamnett explained why she thought a designer had power: “I suppose it means you dress the elite… you’re creating their persona.” Hamnett’s fascination is with the dialectic between the clothes you wear and the attitudes you express. In late August, Vivienne Westwood, about Rei’s age, described her own clothes to The Guardian as “strong,” “grand,” and “free.” They then had a lot of Roxy “hip­-hop” references like Smurf hats, Keith Haring graffiti prints, and triple-tongued sneakers. The business impulse behind Westwood is Malcolm McLaren, purveyor of the Sex Pistols and Adam Ant, who noted these clothes did well in Japan. “Japan was for so long an isolated island that it has never got over its hunger for the status of ideas.”

So is Rei making an English-inspired statement? Betsey Johnson says, “London is laughing about the old way with clothes… It’s a street peoples’ musical statement, I see Bow Wow Wow, Boy George, Dexie’s Midnight Runners, MTV.” The Japanese clothes? “A very sophisticated, typically Japanese approach to cloth and texture and drape. The Japanese finally once and for all had to make a big time statement for themselves in clothing. But it’s completely different — the English is from the street, the Japanese is from an expensive, sophisticated fashion point of view.

***

Dianne Benson is now in Tokyo negotiating with Rei to open a Comme des Garçons on Geary Street in San Francisco. She’s probably wearing her CDG clothes. She says they make her feel sexy. And powerful.

And another tack will probably go on Mr. Kateyama’s world map. ■

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From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Style THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

Jackie Ode: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, 1929–1994

Jackie Ode
May 31, 1994

Other First Ladies — Pat Nixon — have passed with little fanfare. So have enigmatic and glamorous icons like Garbo. No pull­out sections of the paper or CNN specials for them. It dawned on me as I ingested the ubiquitous Jackie coverage over the week­end: the media was playing this as if a national leader had died. Because she had.

I imagine that makes no sense to anyone under 35 or even 40. But trust me. The team coverage, the people keeping vigil out­side the apartment building, lumps in the throat among people who thought them­selves above it all — this goes beyond the usual celebrity psychosis.

Everything depends on whether you lived through that horrific assassination in 1963. I was just a kid then, but I can assure you that no one was looking to Lyndon Johnson to get us through the trauma. It was Jackie who led us through days of national mourn­ing. Instinctively, she understood the im­portance of confronting the horror head-on. She began by refusing to wash JFK’s blood from her pink suit. And it was Jackie who planned the funeral, a critical public ritual. She had the casket placed on an open cais­son where all could see it, directed her three-year-old son to salute it, asked that there be a riderless horse with boots turned backward in the stirrups, and then that there be an eternal flame lit at the grave. She knew the images we needed, those that were solemn enough and true enough to meet the crisis. But then she always did have this sense of public appropriateness. Later it allowed her to maintain a public self, even as she remained completely pri­vate.

For those of us who lived through the assassination, though, Jackie remained something of a tragic figure forever after, the classically veiled widow leading a nation down Pennsylvania Avenue behind its mur­dered president. She was our chief of state then, if only for a few days. Naturally, there can be no other resting place for her but Arlington. — C. CARR

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Part of me was going around all Friday humming: I want to be Jackie Onassis, I want to wear a pair of dark sunglasses, oh yeah. I couldn’t help it.

But the rest of me was sitting on the subway, looking at the Times, at the picture of her at the funeral, the kids who don’t know what’s happened (they were the same age I was when my father died); and her teary face, and her perfect legs in her black heels…

I wasn’t born yet in November 1963; I knew her only by her later, gossip-rag im­age, the sunglasses and perilous chic. I certainly never thought l’d be sitting on the subway tearing up over the passing of Jack­ie O.

But she seems to me now to have had an extraordinary strength and grace; and poise, an outdated female quality but per­haps an underrated one. She did what was required of her — what we asked of her­ — very well, and gave us what we wanted and kept something for herself behind her shades. Instead of merely giving in to girl clothes and girl roles, she used them and made them serve her purposes. She was running the White House at age 31, an age when most people I know still hoard news­papers and get their furniture off the street. And, no small accomplishment, she raised good kids.

You’d imagine her money would help, but I suspect even that only raised the stakes. It meant that even in her worst hell she had to be impeccably turned out, in a black suit and black heels. I’d like to think there’s some strength to be drawn from those fe­male clothes, and from living as the woman we expected her to be. — JULIE PHILLIPS

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The Jackie I long to see clutches a large, unwieldy camera as she stands ankle-deep in water to grab a shot during her stint as an inquiring photographer for The Wash­ington Times-Herald in 1952. She reclines on the hood of a car in 1989, intently read­ing a book, perhaps for her job as an editor at Doubleday. These images suggest an ac­tive Jackie, the career woman Jackie that framed the professional-wife-and-widow Jackie. But even here there’s just too much grace: in the former photo, she bends deco­rously at the knee in her simple white dress; in the latter, her lean, bare legs are tightly pressed together, her head wrapped in a towel with casual élan.

These are the words that always attend Jackie: “taste,” “grace,” “dignity.” These words repel me, much as I admire Jackie the survivor, the fashion maven, the savior of historical buildings, the devoted single mom. But the canonization of poise sur­rounding Jackie’s death seems to me a cruel perpetuation of the containment that dog­ged this woman her whole life. Smile, please. Speak softly. Curtsy. Now stand up straight. Stay slim. And for god’s sake, be proper, whether you’re mourning a hus­band who cheated on you or being stalked by paparazzi who only strive to capture that millisecond when you stumble, drool, or flip them the bird. Only of course you never do.

Have you noticed how much Hillary’s gradually been molding herself into Jackie­ness, what with those controlled coiffures and tight little suits? Hillary has, of course, been routinely slapped for being less than first-ladylike (too opinionated, too crunchy), so maybe it’s understandable she’d take her cues from the exemplary, cool Jackie O. But does the glow of Jackie’s halo — not to mention her sheer starpower — ­blind us to the fact that she wore a straight­jacket in the name of seemliness? Do we mourn the passing of her impeccable stan­dard, or, in mourning, do we tacitly concede that womanhood is still too often defined thus: the right outfit, the correct pose, and just enough self-sublimation to serve a com­mon good? — KATHERINE DIECKMANN

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The history of the feminine speaks in images, like someone else’s photo album. We try to fill in the captions that might go beneath Mona Lisa’s sexy grin, Elizabeth’s hairline, the sway of Madame X’s shoulder line, the smoke veiling Dietrich’s face. How such women moved through the world reg­isters less distinctly than the way they’ve been captured and stilled. And so, for me, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis will never es­cape her photographs. Her mastery of the pose, her perfection at balancing vitality and calm, make her seem unfleshly, unreal. Now, bombarded by snaps and portraits of Jackie, I feel my mind’s eye straying to other women’s pictures. There’s Marilyn, the obvious doppelgänger, spilling over her dress, looking like she could momentarily break into tears. Marilyn’s problematic al­lure precisely opposes that of Jackie’s: while the First Lady’s every recorded move (even the most casual or tragic) fits, the movie star disrupts the frame, or lets confining presence discomfit her. Marilyn seemed to want to walk out of her photos, toward you. Jackie, even when gazing into the lens, seemed to be turning away.

That turning away was her triumph, and it’s so divergent from feminism’s passion to dig up and confront that I can’t help but wonder about its worth. Jackie’s success at managing a life that could have easily de­feated her makes me callow for questioning her legacy, and certainly Marilyn’s self-sac­rifice offers less. But revered images de­mand obeisance, and iconoclasm seems in order when the ideal costs most women so much. So my mind turns to another snap­shot, of a figure as iconic for this women’s studies-bred baby as Jackie seems to be for the women a generation older than me. It’s of another ’50s daughter, trying to stay in the frame: Sylvia Plath, neat as a pin, her darkness only seeping through in the inten­sity of her gaze. Plath let what she saw as her failure in those roles that Jackie perfect­ed — socialite, wife — bury her spirit. But in her poems, at least, she confronted what confined her and raged against it.

“The woman is perfected,” Plath wrote, and she meant the woman is dead. Jackie survived perfection, even flourished under its rule. Let’s hope that someday women won’t have to wrestle with such a goal. — ANN POWERS

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“She-e-eee was a friend of mine.”

The trumpeter, very tuneless, bicycled several yards along the park drive, stopped, played a long note, sang his plaint, and then moved on. Across Fifth Avenue, outside the building where she lived and died: police barricades, gawkers, and, a subtle sign of respect, senior officers working crowd con­trol. At the curb: an armada of television vans with transmitter masts erect; foreign tourists; many of those peculiar people who attach themselves freakishly to public events, to tragedies, perhaps merely for the attention, perhaps out of some atavistic will, perhaps even because they feel com­passion. But how can that be?

Two men jog past on their way to the park. “I cried when I heard this morning,” says one. “Yeah, classy lady,” replies his friend. I also cried, or felt an urge to cry, but not because Jacqueline Kennedy Onas­sis meant something to me, which would be untrue, but because her death reminded me of other deaths.

I’m encouraged by the press to feel some­thing about her: she was the “symbol of an era,” a “courageous lady,” an iron will, a fiercely guarded privacy, a model First Lady, whatever that may mean. (Actually, it means Eleanor Roosevelt, in my book.) She was certifiably a good New Yorker, born and named here, a resident, and actively engaged with preserving the texture of the place (viz: Grand Central Terminal). People I know took pleasure in Jackie sightings. And, although I myself never laid eyes on her, in the week before her death I noticed two photographers laying for Jackie in Cen­tral Park, near a path where she might, with her lover’s assistance, take a brief walk. I experienced a chill of repugnance then and when I saw in the newspapers that the photographers had got her, bloated (and with that hard, awful bulge that people with abdominal tumors get), and tottering, with only a week left of life. Contemplating how grotesque, in some ways, that kind of fame must have been, how imprisoning and full of anguish, I remembered that she had han­dled it with “dignity.” The eulogists echoed the word so often that it became a kind of tic, a joke, almost, as though she were impervious, a public edifice. Maybe this was so. Jackie “achieved a level of privacy that, well, it is impossible, but she did it any­way,” Frank Mankiewicz, Robert F. Kenne­dy’s former press aide, said recently. I imag­ine that what people mean by dignity was refusal. “Minimum information given with maximum politeness” was how she herself once described her policy with the press, at a time when the White House received 10 daily requests for the size of her shoes.

The spring moon the evening after her death was a fragment of mica, not quite full, but waxing: it was still light at eight. I’d taken my dog along with me to check out the voyeurs; that way, I reasoned, I wouldn’t seem so much like a voyeur my­self. What was I expecting? “We’ve been here two hours and haven’t seen nothing,” complained a Staten Island woman who’d come with her toy poodle. I stood awhile, staring at a limestone facade, a green cano­py, some cops, and a doorman, then walked into the park and up the bridle path. Two people on horseback cantered past. Again, unaccountably, I felt a twinge of grief. Lat­er, on board a plane to California, I read an article that claimed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had “added to our portfolio of iconic imagery,” which seemed awfully silly to me until I considered my own odd reaction and that of the man on the bicycle blowing his horn: “She-e-eee was a friend of mine.” I would never have said that. And yet here I am calling up her ghost. — GUY TREBAY

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7 Days: The Voyeur’s New York

When Adam Moss stepped down as editor of New York magazine last month, it marked the end of an era. Since taking the helm of the august title in 2004, Moss had helped set the industry standard for magazine journalism, documenting the life of the city in all its highbrow, lowbrow, brilliant, and despicable glory. 

Of course, as dedicated media-watchers know, much of the New York‘s DNA was apparent three decades ago, when Moss emerged from Manhattan’s media landscape as the 30-year-old wunderkind behind the much-loved, short-lived 7 Days magazine. Published by then-Voice owner Leonard Stern for two years bridging the ’80s and ’90s, 7 Days was a glorious failure, bleeding money, but minting the reputations for a generation of fledgling journalists

Flipping through the 7 Days archives today is an exercise in delightful discovery. There’s Jeffrey Toobin writing about the Yankees, long before he became the lead legal analyst for the New Yorker; future best-selling author Meg Wolitzer (The Wife) writing the weekly crossword puzzle; a regular magazine-watching column from fellow future best-selling author Walter Kirn (Up in the Air); Peter Schjeldahl covering the arts scene; Joan Acocella on dance. 

Over the next week, we here at the Voice archives will be sharing some of these treasures from the vault. Welcome to seven days of 7 Days.

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November 15, 1989

The Insides of Things

Go ahead and admit it, you want to get inside Paloma Picasso’s purse as much as the next person — not to mention Andre Soltner’s refrigerator or Phil Simms’ locker. Problem is, these people employ elaborate security measures — doormen, TV monitors, sometimes even personal bodyguards — to keep snoops and Peeping Toms at bay. But the urge to get inside, to take just one peek, is a strong one. That explains the addiction so many people have for those voyeuristic spreads in design magazines — after all, as the old saying almost goes, the living room is the window to the soul. In that spirit, we unlocked a few private Manhattan spaces. So go ahead, take a look. No one’s watching.

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From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Style

A Goth Halloween in Gotham

As fashion expert Lynn Yaeger reported in the November 1, 1994, issue of the Voice, “The greatest city in the world has decided that October 31 is an adult holiday.” (Indeed, for those who wanted to cut to the chase, the Dressing for Pleasure ad on page 42 exhorted, “Bring fetish to your fingertips!”) Yaeger hit the streets, where the folks at Abracadabra costumers informed her that Flintstones characters were a big seller that year, including Dino — “Well, he’s just a mask, really.”

The Allan Rental Service countered that, in its shop, historical figures were popular: Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, Lawrence of Arabia. When asked if contemporary politicians made the cut, the proprietor replied, “Oh, people hate politicians. For them you need a full overhead mask, and it’s really hot and uncomfortable.” Imagine what it would be like now, with that yellow cotton candy swirl on your noggin. 

That Halloween issue’s cover model was Voice senior associate editor Julia Kent, who once wore a white blouse to the office in place of her usual, very unbasic black ensembles — much to the bewildered consternation of the rest of the staff. Even at the Voice, some traditions die hard. (Kent has since gone on to greater things.) As Yaeger noted in her examination of the Goth aesthetic, “Color coordination is never a problem.”

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Style THE FRONT ARCHIVES

5,500 Revelers Search for One Life-Changing Experience

By my fourteenth straight hour at the abandoned-mansion party, I was ready to leave. I’d passed the shirtless man with the polyethylene ram horns at least fifteen times. I’d climbed what felt like forty flights of decrepit staircases, crowded among half-naked performers covered in white body paint. The sound-bath in the emptied swimming pool and the sitar concert in the carriage house were long over. The cybergoth raver wanted to microdose Molly, but I told her it wasn’t that kind of night. At hour twelve, I had been conversing with a person who identified themselves only as “Nuevo” and who told me that they did “vampire spoken-word burlesque.” The party showed no sign of coming down to earth anytime soon.

I wanted to leave, but I didn’t know exactly how. We were 20 miles from the Lower East Side and 2,761 miles from the site of Burning Man, but about equidistant from both spiritually. I was one of 5,500 or so people who filled the four-story neoclassical manor and neighboring properties, but it was hard — navi-gating the small rooms — to get an accurate sense of the event’s scale. One moment I’d glimpse bodies arrayed across a bed, looking NSFW. In the next I’d find myself in the company of men in frosted wigs and jeweled jumpsuits performing hard-rock karaoke. Sonic waves of deep bass beats washed in from all sides.

The party, a three-day-long rave that no one calls a rave (it’s an “experience” or a “journey”), is known as You Are So Lucky. It is the work of William Etundi and his partner Kevin Balktick, along with a team of New York nightlife staples including House of Yes, The Box, Shanghai Mermaid, and Ecstatic Dance NYC. While several groups help produce the party, the ringmaster is Etundi, a promoter who built a reputation in the post-9-11 years as the quiet man behind Brooklyn’s largest illegal warehouse raves.

An old Etundi party bore the sort of fire code-defying magic that was in sparse supply during the early-Bloomberg, post-Giuliani era. He’d rent outer-borough warehouses for a couple thousand dollars and employ artist friends to reimagine the space as a “mixed-media landscape built in the bowels of a former spice factory,” or a “gift of angels and wings from Kataclism” complete with a “big, bouncing floor.” Anya Sapozhnikova, a longtime collaborator of Etundi’s who now runs House of Yes, remembers an early party where Etundi “gave me six hundred bucks and told me to make a ‘holy shit moment.’ So we made these four giant puppets, and we got all these people to strip naked and cover themselves in gesso. People snuck inside the puppets, so you had all these naked people running around inside giant puppets. It was always a feeling of ‘How is this allowed to happen?’ ”

Etundi put in ten-plus years helming a pair of migratory events, known as “Complacent” and “The Danger,” that popped up in industrial buildings around the outer boroughs. In 2010 he threw the party to end all parties, a Halloween bacchanal spanning four different Brooklyn warehouses. He branded it as a “pilgrimage,” and spread the word online. The masses responded. Etundi described the scene in an interview with psychedelic evangelist Daniel Pinchbeck: Eight thousand people showed up, anxiously vying to get inside, where artists had installed “thirteen visions of the afterlife” inspired by the theme “Within the Land of Ash.” When the authorities finally arrived to close it down, Etundi felt relieved. He’d been riddled with anxiety all night. What if something went really wrong, and people were trapped in the overcrowded rooms?

A couple embraces to techno in the basement at Alder Manor

We know the answer to that now. Last year, the Ghost Ship in Oakland, California, a space similar to Etundi’s creations, went up in flames that killed 36 and sparked a national crackdown on illegally occupied art spaces. By the time it burned, Ghost Ship seemed like a remnant from an earlier era, a time when rents were lower and police less antagonistic. Etundi had retired from the warehouse-rave game, not wanting to press his luck. He changed his lifestyle, trading hedonism for meditation. He built a small tech company to showcase artists’ work.

But old party promoters never die, they just start talking to the fire department and ramp up ticket prices accordingly. “I just couldn’t really stop for good,” says Etundi, who speaks in a measured voice only a few registers above a whisper. Etundi has a round, inviting face, close-cropped hair, and a crisp sense of style. He’s unassuming, an understated presence who sometimes disappears from his own parties. Says Etundi, “I came back because doing these events is a part of me.”

That’s how, in July, six years since the final Danger party, he ended up in a mansion in the suburbs, preparing to host the “immersive spectacle” of a gathering. The mansion, built by the turn of the century mining baron William Boyce Thompson and known as Alder Manor, sits on the banks of the Hudson next to the old Yonkers power station, known locally as “The Gates of Hell.” It is a complicated space for an event, with few continuous spaces and no central great-hall-type area where people can congregate. In the backyard is a high school, built after Thompson died and willed the property to the Catholic Church. That building, formerly known as Mary Elizabeth Seton High School, housed another dance venue. Balktick says that when he found the 1960s blueprints for the building, he was shocked to discover “a surprisingly functional nightclub” in the basement of an old Catholic school.

Supplicants traveled to this unusual event space from the city by ferry, train, and cab. They sought not just fun, but, as one party-goer put it, “a mind-altering experience” — something Etundi, Balktick, and the team of 250 or so artists and workers, were practiced at providing. Unlike Etundi’s earlier events, this one would be entirely legal. He hoped it would still be cool.

I attended two days of You Are So Lucky and missed the third (a 5 p.m. lamb roast and “brunch” on Sunday). During those days, I spent time in a sex-positive s/m dungeon, where I saw two people get “buffed” with a “buffer” (look it up). I sat in a room of blindfolded people who recited their worst fears out loud while a performer freestyled, and explored rambling woods full of glowing lights. Other attendees had left their day jobs as marketers, tech gurus, wealth managers, or pirates/DJs. German models rubbed shoulders with all varieties of off-season Burners. The party oscillated between raunchy unspeakability (this is the work of House of Yes and The Box; Etundi described himself as “more conservative than you might imagine”) and New Age brain expansion.

You Are So Lucky impresario William Etundi

When asked why they’d come to You Are So Lucky, people respond that these parties were just not like other parties. “We’ve waited all year for this,” said a young woman with a day job in fitness and press-on faux-diamonds lining her eyelids. “We go to a lot of parties. These are the best.” I was told more times than I can count that You Are So Lucky is not, in fact, a party but is instead an event with a “trajectory.” People go because they don’t know what they will find, because there is a carefully curated air of discovery and the hope that somehow, in some undefinable way, that discovery might change your life.

Attendees serve as either what Etundi terms “collaborators” (those who labor to push the party to the next level) or “extractors” (those who simply want to see what’s up but are not quite willing to give of themselves). The collaborators usually fit the mold of kinksters and nerds who probably didn’t do well at high school parties, and who are ready to bring their favorite mythological texts to life. Imagine a hardcore Neil Gaiman fan crossed with an immersive theater dork, crossed with a computer-savvy kid who made a lot of money too young, and you gain a rough picture of the You Are So Lucky demographic. (I’ve heard these types of people described, not entirely kindly, as “fraggles.”)

The starting ticket price for You Are So Lucky’s summer event was $88, for a basic pass to the Saturday event. There was no defined high end to the price, but Etundi planned a deluxe ticket that rang in at around $2,500 and would include helicopter transportation and three-day VIP access for a small group of people. Johnnie Walker Blue bottle service costs $1,400. The business model is to have enough young and freewheeling guests to make it work, and enough older and free-spending guests to make it pay. You Are So Lucky has no corporate sponsors, and is entirely supported by ticket sales. The high price is largely a byproduct of its legality — the security, the fire marshals, the ambulances, the porta-potties that now must exist. “We constantly worry that we are losing our base of artists,” says Balktick. “But the crowd from the old days still attends. They just have to get babysitters now.”

Whether or not you think these parties at the Alder Manor really are the best depends on how comfortable you are with being in a room full of shirtless people wearing top hats and dancing to “tribal beats.” Even if you are comfortable with that, success is hard to predict. When things don’t work out, when the rain starts drizzling on the naked woman covered in canapés, the badness is multiplied by the scale.

When things do work, the scale makes it feel like where you’d want to spend the End of Days. At their old space in DUMBO, a loft with forty-foot ceilings and massive views of the Manhattan Bridge, dubbed the “Lunatarium,” Etundi and Balktick threw alternately political and hedonistic nightlife events for years. Says Jeff Stark, a longtime friend of Etundi’s whose newsletter, “Nonsense NYC,” serves as a de facto history of the New York art party scene, “When you went to one of Will’s parties, you’d feel wonder. I remember thinking, ‘What is this? Who could get access to this type of thing? Someone must have fallen asleep on the job for this to happen.’ It was unreal.”

Fire performance, Saturday night at the Alder Manor

Not all the parties work as well as the others. The last You Are So Lucky Halloween party went off without a hitch (several different people told me it was “the best party I’ve ever been to in my life”), but the subsequent New Year’s party at the manor was underattended and chilly. Etundi has had parties that have started terribly and ended incredibly, others that have spiraled out of control.

Etundi’s role is to be the party’s spiritual weatherman, the person who watches for “the moment when a party will just crack open. There’s always that moment.” He looks for the point of abandon, the point where it doesn’t matter if it rains or the electricity fails or the food runs out because everyone in attendance is in it. Etundi always promises the world — promises a night unlike any other, both to his team of artists and to the crowd willing to pay in the thousands for a mind-altering experience. He delivers on his promise often enough that people keep coming.

The July You Are So Lucky event didn’t change my life. Around 5 a.m., I bought a seat in an overpriced Uber and listened to a financier tell me about the cryptocurrency during the hour-long ride back to the city. (PSA, readers: It’s time to invest.) I went to sleep and woke up feeling the same as I had a few days before, my consciousness decidedly unaltered. But I’m an extractor, a doubting Thomas among true believers. I didn’t stay until 7 a.m., when the Hobo Road Camp lay quiet, the fire spinners dormant, the cyberwave rave denizens finally tired, and the Night Circus emerged from the mansion to watch the sunrise over the Hudson.

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Shining A Spotlight On Blackness, Shantrelle Lewis Celebrates Style

When Shantrelle P. Lewis, curator and author of the new book Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style, was growing up in New Orleans, she had certain sartorial assumptions that life outside the Crescent City would prove wrong.

First, Lewis assumed that Black gentlemen with a level of ambition knew how to dress the part. This was the norm in her own family and social circle, with their deep roots in New Orleans and its historic community of free people of color, where people had the fortune to possess abundant old photos documenting generations of refinement.

As teenagers, Lewis and her friends judged potential suitors by their shoes. “If they didn’t have on Ballys, Kenneth Coles, Guccis, we weren’t dating them,” she says. “I would give guys my number based on the shoes they wore.” But when she got to Howard University, in Washington, D.C., she was dismayed by the prevailing standards at that historic temple of Black aspiration. “I saw men wearing 3X T-shirts, rocking Tims, and I was confused. Like, who dresses like this?”

Another truth Lewis only grasped after she began to travel was that Black elegance came in many vocabularies, not just the New Orleans vernacular with its Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs — organizers of swank community events and second-line parades — and its Creole bourgeoisie. A vast diaspora of swagger awaited: the sapeurs of Congo; subversions of aristocratic fashion by Black European dandies; nostalgic or futuristic stylings from Johannesburg to Jamaica. There were as many Black aesthetics as there were ways of being Black. “My understanding of the diaspora and streams of Blackness did not exist in New Orleans,” Lewis says. “I had no idea.”

Lewis, 38, has devoted her career to expanding Black representation, first at museums in Philadelphia and New Orleans, then at New York’s Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI), where she ran programs from 2009 to 2013 before going independent. As a curator, she has mostly organized shows that have a political or social resonance. One show at CCCADI, for instance, featured artists working in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Another, at the Skylight Gallery in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 2011, featured ten Black women artists working on themes of sexual violence; it was titled, bluntly, “Sex Crimes Against Black Girls.” Other topics have ranged from Haitian Vodou to art responding to Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. Earlier this year, she curated a show of art inspired by Hoodoo, the Southern Black tradition of folk spirituality, at the Chelsea and Philadelphia locations of the Rush Arts Gallery.

Hassan Hajjaj/Courtesy Taymour Grahne Gallery, New York
Hassan Hajjaj/Courtesy Taymour Grahne Gallery, New York

Her travels have taken her to much of the Black world — including the Caribbean, West Africa, and African communities in Europe. On a trip to Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, she became drawn to the Yoruba religious tradition that is practiced there in the form of Candomblé, and in Cuba under the name Santería. She continued her studies under a Yoruba religious house in Brooklyn, and is now an ordained priest. An interest in the Netherlands and the Dutch Caribbean sparked her forthcoming documentary that examines Zwarte Piet — the winter tradition in which white people wear blackface — and the battle of Black activists to change it. She is now based in Philadelphia, where she has kept a home since earning her master’s degree in African-American studies from Temple University.

But the core fiber of Lewis’s work for the last seven years — since she put out a call to photographers to shoot images of dapper men for a 2010 show in a Harlem pop-up space — has been masculine style. Under the title “Dandy Lion,” the group exhibitions of photography that she has curated on the subject have traveled to museums across the U.S. and Europe, and works from them appeared in the 2016 Brighton Photo Biennial in the U.K. Along the way, the project has accumulated artists, subjects, and locations, and broadened to embrace trans, queer, and masculine-of-center identities.

The Dandy Lion book, out last week from Aperture, the New York photography foundation and press, is the project’s culmination and its most extensive iteration. The book is a visual manifesto that highlights the dandy as a kind of fashion griot, with portraits of eighteen clotheshorses from around the Black world. Some are familiar, such as former Knicks star Amar’e Stoudemire, or musicians Jidenna, Leon Bridges, and Janelle Monáe. Others may be less well-known: the British-Nigerian Islington Twins, Namibia’s Loux the Vintage Guru, the New York trans activist Tiq Milan.

But Dandy Lion is more than a handsome lookbook. Each dandy receives a brief essay by Lewis, as do other subjects including social scenes that define themselves through fashion (sapeurs, U.K. rude boys, style-focused digital communities); designers and tailors such as Ozwald Boateng, the first Black designer with a shop on London’s Savile Row; and of course, the photographers at the core of the project. Some of these are documentary photographers who spot Black elegance in the street, such as Brooklyn’s Russell Frederick or Newark’s Akintola Hanif. Others are art photographers who foment it in the studio, such as Senegal’s Omar Victor Diop or Morocco’s Hassan Hajjaj, who contributes an eye-popping cover portrait. A few, such as New Orleans photographer L. Kasimu Harris, are dapper dressers themselves, and appear as both artist and subject.

In its diversity of viewpoints, the book makes the implicit argument that Black style is not just an individual matter, but a community — and a global one at that, in which Instagram and e-commerce have broadened the arena of exchange and the reach of that powerful force, Black mutual recognition. “The nod across the room has become the nod across the world,” says Dandy Wellington, a New York jazz bandleader featured in the book. Wellington, who favors Edwardian to Swing Era looks, says dandyism is a personal commitment for him, to the point of putting it in his name. “There are people who wear clothes and people who live the clothes they wear,” he says. “I think of what I want to leave the house in, not where I am going.”

Omar Victor Diop, Alt + Shift + Ego, 2013; from Dandy Lion (Aperture, 2017)
Omar Victor Diop, Alt + Shift + Ego, 2013; from Dandy Lion (Aperture, 2017)

The political subtext of Dandy Lion is difficult to miss. The figure of the Black dandy goes back centuries and is connected to colonial social relations; one study, Slaves to Fashion, by the Barnard College professor Monica L. Miller, traces the phenomenon to African servants in the era of the slave trade, forced by European owners to dress extravagantly. By conforming to high European style norms in some ways while disrupting them in others — whether through bold color, unorthodox combinations, or African fabrics and accessories — the Black dandy subverts the whole system of colonialism, enslavement, and discrimination, and gender norms.

This makes him a liberation figure. “The Black dandy is a trickster figure, a dapper agitator,” Lewis writes in her introduction, “…similar to the masquerading traditions of West Africa, where individuals are transformed into otherworldly beings.”

Yet despite this freeing potential, negative visual stereotypes of Black men remain standard in America. A trigger for the project, Lewis says, was the 2008 Vogue cover by Annie Leibovitz that posed a scowling LeBron James holding Gisele Bündchen in a stance that seemed lifted from King Kong. “Those images recycle these negative tropes of the thug, the gangster.” She believes many Black men have internalized this dismissal, particularly since hip-hop style lost its creative edge in the early 1990s. “Hip-hop dress got co-opted, and it began getting connected to the prison-industrial complex,” she says. “Everything became sagging and white Ts. The lumpenproletariat is no longer using Black dress as resistance.” She rebuts the idea that she is merely reinforcing respectability politics. “I see dressing up as oppositional,” she says.

“Shantrelle made us stop and smell the roses, and show the world another side of Black men,” says Frederick, who has documented Black life in Bedford-Stuyvesant for two decades and was involved in “Dandy Lion” from its first iteration. “Her book comes from a loving place. It’s really an ode to Black men.”

Last summer, Lewis completed her time as an iyawó, a new initiate to Lukumi Yoruba priesthood, a twelve-month process during which she could wear only white, could not look in mirrors (no selfies!), could not be touched by strangers, and in theory had to stay off social media. It was a complex challenge for a curator busy touring an exhibition while also putting together her first book and planning her wedding.

“I came out of my initiation and it was like boom!” Lewis says. Being dedicated to Shango, the orisha of justice, only adds to her sense of mission. “It’s my responsibility as a priest of Shango to bring justice forth for my people. If my work is not connected to the liberation of Black people, then I’m not doing something right.”

Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style is published by Aperture.

 

CORRECTION: The print version of this story attributed Annie Leibovitz’s LeBron-Gisele cover to Vanity Fair; it was, in fact, the cover of an issue of Vogue to which we were referring. The Voice regrets the error.

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Barry Boonshaft Just Wants His Fashion Due

Dictating a memoir he could not write, Barry Boonshaft sat in his Upper East Side apartment, all alone save for the dog that lolled nearby. Over the course of the afternoon, in the winter of 2015, he spoke into a microphone connected to his computer; when he was finished, he printed out 150 single-spaced pages and decided on a title: The Man Who Changed the Way Men Dress. It was a grand pronouncement from someone with nothing left to lose.

Boonshaft, 88, with a crop of salt-and-pepper hair and a cutting tenor, credits himself with suffusing men’s fashion with color at a time when white shirts were the standard. He says he helped make color dress shirts a staple of everyday living, putting the flash of the counterculture inside the mainstream.

As Boonshaft tells it, in 1967, when gainfully employed men didn’t stray from white oxford button-ups, he introduced a line of colors both modest and gaudy: lavender, auburn, pink, fuchsia. Soon after, the popularity of solid- and multicolor patterns took off — but left him behind. Too overcome with sales orders for Boonshaft Inc. colored shirts, and later busied by an upstart apparel company called Nik Nik (known for its stretchy nylon disco-era garb), Boonshaft hasn’t sought recognition until now.

The significance of this quest brings to light a very specific, often ignored existential dread: When we are gone, who will remember us? Will anyone tell the story we lived?

Vintage shirts for sale online are emblazoned with his name alongside that of Oleg Cassini, the legendary designer and dressmaker for Jackie Kennedy. A compelling argument can be made for Boonshaft, though, in some cases, it rests with the dead. Many of his longtime friends have passed away: Larry Phillips, the clothier; Herbert R. Aronson, president and CEO of Manhattan Menswear; and the winsome fashion trade paper columnist Stanley Gellers. Even Boonshaft’s black Bouvier des Flandres, Kelsey, was put to sleep last year.

He lives with his wife of forty-two years, Cydonia, in the UES apartment where he spends much of his time after years of business and personal travel abroad. The high-rise’s windows look out onto the Queensboro Bridge, a solemn view of the East River ebbing slowly out to sea. The space inside has become something of a gallery — with works by Jim Dine, Luis Sanguino, and Rainer Fetting — harking back to the time Boonshaft spent as an antiques dealer after forty years in the turbulent world of fashion.

Asked whether his claim might seem outlandish, Boonshaft guffawed. “Obviously,” he said. “Changing the way men dress is a huge…” and nothing more. News clippings and advertisements from the New York Times and an article in GQ from the 1960s bear Boonshaft’s name, but there seems to be no watershed moment in the annals of fashion where the tributaries of color and grayscale converged.

Boonshaft, though, believes his story is enough.

As a young man working at a shirt factory outside Philadelphia, Boonshaft used to fly down Route 309 dodging speed traps. When stopped by the state police, he’d make a joke: “Look, OK, you’ve won two shirts.” It was the early 1940s, and after his first ticket, he never again paid in cash.

He’d worked in the fashion industry as a teenager, he told me, and then later for his father-in-law, who operated a shirt factory. He started out working in the cutting room and ironing shirts eight hours each day.

Soon he took on more responsibilities. “I dealt with the union in the factory and then spent quite a few years managing that and contractors and in the 1950s started to travel to New York to learn the other phases of the shirt business,” Boonshaft said. In the 1950s, shortly before leaving his first wife, he helped his father-in-law’s factory merge with Eagle Shirtmakers.

This Boonshaft Inc. design, from 1971, claims to reflect the “fiery, yet icy, spirit of Spain.”

He wanted to go it alone and had a radical idea on which to build a shirt company, called Boonshaft Inc.: men’s dress shirts in different colors, then a sweeping departure. Boonshaft approached Cassini to license the Italian fashion designer’s name for a line of clothing. (Cassini’s autobiographies mention Boonshaft only briefly, attributing nothing about the idea to him.) Suppliers, though, believed him to be a fool even if he was aligned with Cassini. They told him that no one wanted colored dress shirts. Such superlatives were for sportswear. Another decade reached its end.

It took until September of 1967, but Boonshaft finally got his shirts. At a trade show at the New York Coliseum, Boonshaft displayed them and sold out of everything, he says. The shirts were a hit. Within one season, he told me, his contemporaries at Phillips–Van Heusen, Weber & Heilbroner, and other menswear companies began selling colorful dress shirts. He was forgotten, stampeded, seemingly overnight.

“I couldn’t copyright it — it was only a solid color,” Boonshaft said.

He added, “It was disheartening to know that I wasn’t being rewarded for this in any other way.”

Boonshaft “was a very important man in the fashion industry,” said Milt Kaplan, a longtime friend and once the fashion advertising manager of Playboy and Esquire. Kaplan said he knew why Boonshaft would claim he changed the way men dress. “If designing dress shirts changes the way men fashion themselves, then he certainly [did]. You could make that claim, I guess, for a lot of people, Ralph Lauren being one of them,” Kaplan said.

An assistant professor of menswear at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Mark-Evan Blackman, said that he knew Boonshaft as a designer of menswear but that history didn’t exactly support his claim. Colorful dress shirts had been part of the teddy-boy style of 1950s England, Blackman noted, and had existed since at least the 1920s. (You can find a mention in The Great Gatsby: “While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher — shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue.”)

Boonshaft left the fashion industry in 1985 for the antiques business, spending ten years in trading and reproduction, and later traveled, with friends and his second wife, “everywhere in the world that we ever wanted to visit,” including Japan, China, Mexico, Egypt, and across Europe. It would have been a splendid retirement were it not for the itch of notoriety he couldn’t satisfy.

In his lavishly adorned apartment, he told me he felt a sort of desperation to get his name on the books — for the sake of history, not money. When I asked him to explain more clearly why he never received due credit, he elided key snippets of his life with, “I never thought much about notoriety. I was happy to have a successful company. The only reason I thought about notoriety was when you read my memoir.”

Perhaps he took my curiosity as validation. His desire for credit had long lain dormant, and I thought of the last line of his memoir: I’m sort of lonesome and trying to make the best of what remains of my life, but still appreciative of everything that I have and had.

To listen more closely, I put down my notepad, turned off my recorder, and stayed a little while longer.

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The Cult of Rei Kawakubo: Comme des Garçons’ Radical Creator Electrifies at the Met

Designer Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons has always maintained that fashion never interested her. Clothes are her sole preoccupation; her passion, the New. “All my effort is oriented toward giving form to clothes that have never been seen before,” she once said, and she has done exactly that for nearly fifty years. An avant-gardian who’s managed to create a $280 million empire, she has designed otherworldly garments that cross a spectrum from sculpture to screwball. To wear Comme des Garçons is to dress to be seen — to be looked at — yet remain a hidden commodity. Dresses without arms, or padded in the least flattering of places; sweaters run through with holes; gowns constructed so they nearly stand by themselves; veils through which a wearer can’t see: Kawakubo reimagines the way clothes function, the way they reconfigure a figure. “Can’t rational people create mad work?” she challenged Judith Thurman in a 2005 New Yorker profile. Which is to say that the incongruity of Kawakubo’s mind is that she doesn’t think apart from the world; rather, her radical visions are the result of a profound thinking inside of it.

“Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between” is an exquisite exhibition celebrating Kawakubo’s career as a designer of women’s clothing. It is also one of the most refined and unerring shows of fashion that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has put on in recent years, including such must-see exhibitions as “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” and “China: Through the Looking Glass,” which drew unprecedented numbers of visitors to the Met. Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute, who was responsible for both those blockbusters, collaborated with Kawakubo in designing the show. This fact would simply testify to the sovereign precision with which she oversees her work, but as it happens she’s the only living designer to receive a solo exhibition at the museum since Diana Vreeland brought Yves Saint Laurent to the Met in 1983.

From “Cubisme,” spring/summer 2007
From “Cubisme,” spring/summer 2007

Kawakubo’s lawless eye may be the result of her having never formally studied fashion, or apprenticed for a couturier, which runs contrary to the industry standard. After finishing a degree in the history of aesthetics at Keio University in Tokyo, she worked for a textile company for a few years before becoming a stylist. She started to design out of necessity: She couldn’t find clothes that were interesting enough. Soon, she was selling her garments in small boutiques around Tokyo, and in 1969 she formally founded her label, calling it Comme des Garçons — a name that translates from the French as “like the boys” — just because she liked the way the words sounded.

Yet Kawakubo has always challenged how gender plays out in clothing. When she first began, she’s said, she imagined clothes for a woman “who is not swayed by what her husband thinks.” After all, originality, newness, can’t take root in the dust of old institutions; it requires light, fresh air. In her collections “Persona” (autumn/winter 2006–07) and “The Infinity of Tailoring” (autumn/winter, 2013–14) traditionally masculine-cut suits appear inflated, pouffed, with sleeves stitched atop sleeves, draped to seem simultaneously brutish and soft. The dresses on view from “Two Dimensions” (autumn/winter 2012–13), made of vibrantly colored polyester felt cut to look like flat cartoons of dresses, exaggerate what might be considered a childlike femininity. They’re oversize, almost monstrous, and pure delight to behold.

Beyond any feminist interpretations, Kawakubo is a philosopher-designer, her work propelled by the concepts of mu (emptiness) and ma (space), from which arrive the idea of the “in-between,” the uncharted territories reached via paradox. The exhibition captures and frames the depth of her thinking along nine themes: Absence/Presence, Design/Not Design, Then/Now, Self/Other, Model/Multiple, Fashion/Antifashion, High/Low, Object/Subject, and Clothes/Not Clothes. By design, the show is not a history of her work, and in the spirit of Kawakubo’s singularity, “Art of the In-Between” isn’t a traditional retrospective. The word spiritual creeps with disingenuousness when used to describe even the most transformative material achievements, but this show preserves the sensation that Kawakubo’s designs arrive from an unmapped elsewhere. No didactic texts crawl up the walls. The clothes aren’t presented in chronological order, and not all her collections are represented. Untethered from titles and time (although visitors can pick up an exhibition guide and read along), all is instead arranged thematically to foreground the “in-betweens” from which her works spring.

From “The Infinity of Tailoring,” autumn/winter 2013–14
From “The Infinity of Tailoring,” autumn/winter 2013–14

The show presents itself more like a visitation, as though the garments alighted here. The gallery has been built out in spare, open-air architectures, distilled almost to pure geometries, to both frame and house the clothes. Some thrust forward as stages, pushing the garments into our world, while others — cylindrical, conical “pods” — shelter them, and keep them a bit apart from us. Bare fluorescent bulbs line the ceiling, giving the room an aura that measures somewhere between the celestial and the commercial. The exhibition design isn’t unlike the Comme des Garçons boutique in Chelsea, and lest one get too woo-woo about her, Kawakubo has long maintained — in her usual, paradoxical style — that she is a businesswoman before all else. “All art is commercial,” she told Bolton in an interview for the exhibition’s catalog. “It’s always been commercial — more today, in fact, than ever before.” Out of her mouth, this isn’t cynicism; it’s a practical constraint, yet another contradiction to wrestle.

Ideas can be arduous, uncomfortable things to bring into the world, which may be why Kawakubo’s clothes can appear arduous and uncomfortable to wear. Taken from her autumn/winter 2015–2016 “Ceremony of Separation” collection, two garments here categorized under the theme of Life/Loss are almost literal interpretations of grief and the weights we carry. One is made of black lace, the other of white polyester. For each, the fabrics have been cut, stuffed, and tied to create satchels, which are then stitched together to encircle body, almost smothering it. It’s remarkable how dynamic these clothes are, how they never settle into place, how their gravity remains uncertain. Does this evoke a death sentence, or a lifeline? Do the clothes buoy or anchor the body beneath?

From “18th-Century Punk,” Comme des Garçons’ autumn/winter 2016–17 collection
From “18th-Century Punk,” Comme des Garçons’ autumn/winter 2016–17 collection

This play between lightness and heaviness, between burden and relief, recurs throughout her collections, complicating the presence of a wearer — a woman — and the skin she’s in. In Kawakubo’s clothes, sexuality, at least the socially sanctioned kind, is secondary to a rightful self-possession. Her designs aren’t “man-catchers” by any traditional standard. And in comparing red-carpet photos of the few celebrities daring enough to wear Comme to this year’s Met Ball — among them Rihanna, Caroline Kennedy, and Tracee Ellis Ross — with images of those who went a more conventional route, one sees quite clearly how bland popular ideas of beauty are and have always been, and how a woman is rewarded, and how she is cheated, by becoming an acceptable object of desire.

Kawakubo’s clothes also liberate by leaving room for possibility, for the next idea, for the garment to come. The ecru cotton dresses from “Clustering Beauty,” her spring/summer collection of 1998 (Design/Not Design) are brilliantly constructed to appear unfinished: fully formed, but also full of promise. Two dresses made of white synthetic wadding from autumn/winter 2017–2018’s “The Future of Silhouette” collection (Bound/Unbound) look like warping cocoons. They’re sleeveless, inhibiting a woman’s movement, wrapping her up, trapping her. Then again, she’s untouchable under there, out of sight, and as any butterfly can attest, she might just be metamorphosing at this very instant into a beauty beyond beauty — into a woman the likes of whom we’ve never quite seen before.

 

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Fab 5 Freddy Remembers Glenn O’Brien, Downtown Icon

I cannot stress enough how influential Glenn O’Brien was on my life. I went to Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn for about two semesters in the Seventies, and around that time I started reading Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. I became a huge fan of this column in the back: “Glenn O’Brien’s Beat.” Glenn would write about all kinds of music, from punk to disco to funk to reggae to dancehall reggae, and I would read his column and then I would go and get those records. And I would hear exactly what Glenn was writing about. At the time, I had a weekly college radio show focused on Caribbean music. We called it The People’s Beat, and had an idea to reach out to Glenn O’Brien: Maybe he would come and do an interview. And Glenn O’Brien responded yes.

We set up a date, and Glenn came to Brooklyn. We interviewed him at the station, and when I was walking him back to the train, I told him some of my ideas about how I was envisioning myself being an artist, how I saw these connections between graffiti and pop art. Glenn was totally encouraging. He told me that in a couple of months he was going to do a public access TV show on cable called Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, and he wanted to interview me on it. Now, at the time in New York, cable was a luxury. For the outer boroughs — Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx — cable was something that other people had.

Two months later, I get a call from Glenn to come on his show. It was going to happen. So I show up at this funky little bar on 23rd Street in Manhattan called the Blarney Stone. There were all these cool new-wave, punk-rock folks, and we walked across the street to the studio, which was no bigger than your average living room. And it was very low-tech, very lo-fi; the video cameras we used were actually black-and-white. Glenn had explained he wanted his show to be like Hugh Hefner’s Playboy After Dark, which was like a very sexy cocktail hour on TV. At the beginning of each show, he would say, “TV Party is the television show that’s a cocktail party but which could be a political party.” You can see tons of it on YouTube. At the taping of the first show, which I also appeared on, the guy who was supposed to work the camera didn’t show, and Glenn was like, “Fred, man that camera!” And that began a change in my life.

Glenn O'Brien and Fab 5 Freddy

This is where I met Debbie Harry and Chris Stein from Blondie. David Byrne. The B-52’s. Filmmakers, writers, poets, other painters, photographers. It was amazing. It led me to meet Charlie Ahearn and pitch an idea to him for a movie that connected all this rap and graffiti stuff: Wild Style. And the downtown scene connected to the new culture of graffiti/street art, rapping, breakdancing, and DJ’ing now known as hip-hop.

At almost the same time, Glenn was working on another movie, New York Beat (a/k/a Downtown 81). Glenn wanted it to center on a cool downtown guy, and in the end he chose Jean-Michel Basquiat, who I was very close with. Everyone in that film was friends, and a lot of the movie mirrors actual things that were happening around us. That’s why that film feels so much like a documentary at times. It felt so real. We walked those streets every day. All of that really started the wheels turning on a journey for me. The key players on our scene definitely wanted to make a big impact on culture. Cool is subjective, but confidence — the courage to be different and go against the grain — was a trait among leaders of the scene like Glenn. That’s what was going on with those in our creative circle. Glenn totally understood what our mission was and what we were trying to do. He had such an impact on me, on New York, and on culture at large.

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In Search of Lost Fashion: A Dispatch from Antiquarian Book Fair

Considering it’s lousy with near-priceless first editions and ancient tomes, the Antiquarian Book Fair is hardly the typical destination for a fashion enthusiast. Pickings on this front were slim, but hardly worthless, and the best place to be was booth E21, belonging to New York collector David Bergman.

On his front table, gorgeous illustrations danced off the two-dozen or so pages of a fall/winter 1947 catalogue from the French designer Idees ($125), their nipped waists and intricate pleating carrying across a full wardrobe designed for the well-traveled woman. Next to this paean to glamour sat a hefty 1939 trade catalogue from No Mend Stockings ($325) with a plush cover. It wasn’t selling hosiery, though — page spreads featured an illustration on the left side of a majestic woman and, on the right, inset fabric swatches (rayon, wool, grosgrain, even fur) of suggested materials to make an outfit inspired by the adjacent sylph. Hosiery hounds disatissfied with that fakeout, though, would be elated at the shelf above, which displayed a circa-1940 accordion of single stocking samples from the Spanish manufacturer Rossell S.A. ($175). If all that’s too modern, the other end of the table held a stack of 1910 catalogues for both women and men; one for the ladies ($125) was fully photographed, each stern-looking model wrapped in what must have been an astronomically expensive fur, often including multiple tails and full heads.

OK, pervs, here are your stockings
OK, pervs, here are your stockings

That booth earned a visit on the recommendation of White Fox Rare Books & Antiques, which boasted not one but two No Mend catalogues of the same era, in better condition and requiring the better part of a grand to take home: S/S 1940 went for $800, and A/W of the same year demanded $900. The bookseller there told me as he leafed slowly through the A/W catalogue’s pages that he’d nabbed a third in even better condition but, as it was missing a leaf, he hadn’t brought it — although a buyer interested in both could take the third home gratis (“It only seems right,” he remarked as he put his wares back in their case). Asked if he had any more, he said (more than a bit grudgingly) that Bergman had snagged his ‘39 around the same time White Fox nabbed its ‘40s.

The last find of note was nestled in the back of a case a few booths down at Eric Chaim Kline, and what a find it was: five pristine 1921 editions of a French fashion periodical called La mode dessinée par fried (rougly, Fashion Illustrated by Fried, again, very roughly), each in the form of a beautifully illustrated folder holding ten full-color plates. Sad-eyed waifs slouched on each page in painfully elegant bubble coats and sheath dresses, their necks dripping with pearls and fur — styles the contemporary “Gatsby”-themed partygoer would do well to emulate instead of another ahistorical fringe dress. At $3750 for the set, anyone but the best-financed would do just as well to fly to Paris and visit the Palais Galliera, which (according to a cursory google search) has the same run of plates in its collection. But then again, who comes to this book fair for a bargain? Perhaps a hopeful fool, like this humble reporter.

A No-Mend trade catalogue
A No-Mend trade catalogue