From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Style

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. ■


From the Classifieds to the CFDA Fashion Awards

Way back in the 1980s, Lynn Yaeger started working in the Village Voice’s classified ads department. It wasn’t long before she was publishing insightful (and often biting) articles about street-level fashions and the politics of dressing. Tonight Yaeger is receiving an award from Council of Fashion Designers of America.

Below we’ve included a couple of choice articles and examples of the ways in which Yaeger cast a discerning (and sometimes dissenting) eye over the fashion landscape.

Affordable Antiques & Collectibles

Left But Not Forgotten — Part One
November 8, 1988

Persons evincing even the most cursory interest in the American political scene will find themselves agreeing that this presidential season can be termed the autumn of our collective discontent. It was not always thus. Readers of a certain age can remember the headier polit­ical struggles of yesteryear, when extra-parliamentary parties crowded the tickets, and the talk around town, rather than merely decrying the desultory task of holding one’s nose and flicking a lever for the lesser of two evils, considered the possi­bility of settling disputes at the barricades.

But not our task to survey and critique the mainstream candidates as they go pranc­ing around the country de­ceiving the electorate, obfuscating issues, and engaging in mean-spirited, self-aggrandizing attacks on one another. No, we are here to share with you a world which you may have just about forgotten lately­ — the world of “third party,” “progressive,” “socialistic” politics and its attendant memorabilia and ephemera. We mean something to the left of the despised “L­-word” here — we mean the more than 100 years of working-class organization and struggle, of the fight for equal rights and woman’s suffrage, immortalized in scraps of paper, pamphlets, postcards, buttons, medal­lions, and the occasional doll or bronze bust.

Although there are many people who maintain an in­tellectual interest in the hid­den history of progressive America, a lot of these types confine their collecting to books on the subject, which they then proceed to read. Undoubtedly a solid knowl­edge of the subject matter is imperative in the building of your collection (how else you gonna know to buy a convict number 2253 but­ton? How you gonna be ready to grab a Victoria Woodhull carte de visite?). We are not interested here, however, in bibliophilia, but rather in the physical evi­dence that these social movements actually existed.

There are, given the mass support many of these movements enjoyed, sur­prising few of these items extant. This is easy to ex­plain. Most people interest­ed in overthrowing the gov­ernment were poor. Poor people lived in crowded ten­ements and did not, as a rule, spend their time lov­ingly storing in scrapbooks or attics the precious souve­nirs of their radical youths. (The very same reasons it is so difficult to find a 1910 apron but relatively easy to locate a ball gown apply here.)

Your best bet if you’ve never even seen any of this stuff is to visit a postcard or paper ephemera show, where there is usually some­thing appropriate for sale. Postcards with women’s suf­frage themes (“I want to vote, wife won’t let me” de­picting a man scrubbing and a gamboling baby) or other lefty motifs usually turn up, though prices at these shows may be discouraging. Dealers specializing in paper ephemera are sure to have something — look through stacks of magazines from November 1917 forward for responses to the Bolshevik Revolution, ranging from the nervous to the hysterical but with a few surprisingly optimistic accounts.

Those with sufficient knowledge to seek out a bar­gain should look with both eyes at the displays of but­ton and ephemera at general flea markets. Here it is like­ly that you will know more than the seller and, when locked in battle over a Farmer/Labor pamphlet or William Z. Foster button, you will probably emerge the victor. (We were able to pick up a Robert Emmet “Let no man write my epi­taph” commemorative badge for a song because the 19-year-old dealer thought it was just a funny old piece of junk.)

Of course, the more you know, the easier it gets. You may spend a lifetime chas­ing Knights of Labor, I.W.W., and Lowell strike items without success, but along the way you will surely turn up some fascinating substitutes. Though it’s pos­sible, after years of stalking, to locate a “Votes for Wom­en” bisque statuette or a Eu­gene Debs convict bust, we dare you to bring us, at whatever price, the circa 1875 Automatic Toy Works suffragette clockwork toy, who, when activated, leans forward in her checkered dress and bonnet and bangs her tiny fist on a miniature rostrum to illustrate her point.

(Next column: The Mod­ern era! The War Years! The ’60s! The Panthers! The New Left!) ■

Feminist Collectibles
July 4, 1989

The antiques price guides we read list plenty of souve­nirs of suffrage. They men­tion “Votes for Women” pin-backs, “Mr. Suffer-Yet” cartoon buttons, and Em­meline Pankhurst bronze medals. They tell of 48-card “Votes for Women” games, and suffragette glass candy containers, and geese figu­rines wearing sandwich signs. Maybe we’re always in the wrong place at the wrong time (something we’ve long suspected), but, not unlike notoriously elusive Wobbly (IWW) material, suffrage stuff always re­mains in the rarefied world of the memorabilia price lists, never an arm’s length away from us on a bridge ta­ble at the flea market.

Let’s face it — we are what used to be called “political” people. When we think about old pamphlets, leaf­lets, banners, and the like, we twitter with excitement. We can’t think of a whole lot of things we’d rather spend our money on than the ribbons, pennants, and other assorted insignia from the late 19th and early 20th century women’s movement. We even think we have a fair idea of what we’re look­ing at and for (after all, didn’t we spend years in the academy blathering on about “women’s hidden history”?).

And we truly believe this stuff has got to be out there somewhere! The assiduous collector might begin by hunting through stacks of printed matter at that old standby, the paper ephem­era show, where one can usually come up with a mag­azine or newspaper article at least tangentially related to the subject under discus­sion. (Suffrage, always a hot topic for editorial page writers, is not difficult to find mention of once you famil­iarize yourself with the dates involved.) The travel­ing autograph shows held frequently in midtown hotels are less intimidating than upscale autograph showrooms; and might be able to produce something along the lines of, say, a Vic­toria Woodhull carte de vi­site. (Geraldine Ferraro autographs, for those who believe that these constitute a wise investment, are usu­ally available and fairly cheap.) You might also consider visiting one of the fre­quently held all-postcard shows — bizarre affairs where members of this par­ticular subculture crouch for hours in front of endless rows of boxes flipping and flipping through millions of pieces of cardboard. Ask the dealers if they have any suf­frage items and you just might be surprised with a British “I Want My Vote” meowing kitty card or a multicolored “Stumping for Votes.”

Of course, you could ditch the suffrage angle altogether and come up with a unique one-of-a-kind collection documenting the position of women in history. Here the ingenuity and wit of the cu­rator, rather than the vaga­ries of the market, would hold sway. How about the collection of makeup, start­ing with an 18th century patch box (spend the mon­ey!) through Princess Pat and Mum, right up to Biba (keep looking!) with a little homespun Avon thrown in? Why not a collection of bathing outfits dating from 19th century swimdresses with their stockings and shoes (difficult but not im­possible to find) and ending with a Rudi Gernreich top­less number? The clever connoisseur, by selecting just the right field and then tracking down the most au­thoritative examples, can end up building a collection more exciting, more infor­mative, and more scathing in its critique of women’s roles, than the highest, thickest stack of vintage pa­pers and buttons. ■



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.


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.



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.


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



It Takes Two: Sara Brown and Mordechai Rubinstein

“I was wearing a Knicks jersey and a fedora, which I thought was the look back then,” recalls Sara, an interior designer. Mordechai, the fashion consultant behind the street style blog Mister Mort, snapped Sara’s photo, and the pair ended up on a date. Ten years later, the newly married couple still goes on them — often in coordinating outfits. “Sometimes it happens,” shrugs Mordechai. “He copies me!” counters Sara. Not up for debate: “We influence each other’s style,” says Sara. “And we don’t take things too seriously.”

Mordechai on his style: “I’m leaning toward ‘man of leisure.’ I grew up an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn. I never knew anything about white style, rich style, Connecticut style, dad style.”

Sara on her style: “I’m definitely tomboyish, and structured but never polished. I always mix in something vintage. A lot of new things are influenced by vintage. I’d rather have the real deal.”

Mordechai’s favorite outfit of Sara’s: “Vintage pajamas she got for me. They look better on her.”

Sara’s favorite outfit of Mordechai’s: “At our wedding he wore a custom silk brocade jacket. It was an authentic Hasid look.”

One piece you share: “Belgian loafers, the uniform of the Upper East Side.”


The Limits and Ambitions of the Fashion Industry’s Protests

Fashion has always been about standing out, with designers forging innovative ways to separate themselves and their art from the rest of the crop. But now, it seems, designers are opting to come together and embrace gestures of solidarity. Tommy Hilfiger, Prabal Gurung, and Tadashi Shoji sent models down the runway with white bandanas tied to their wrists, a symbol of the #TiedTogether campaign’s message of “unity and inclusiveness.” Anna Wintour, Tracy Reese, and Diane von Furstenburg all showed up with Planned Parenthood pins, in accordance with a partnership between the organization and the creator of New York Fashion Week, the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

This was the first fashion week since the election, so the anticipation for designers to make a statement was palpable. Fashion’s matriarch, Anna Wintour, has been an active Clinton supporter, while designers like Marc Jacobs and Diane von Furstenburg contributed to Clinton’s campaign last year with custom-designed T-shirts. But participation in protest doesn’t necessarily mean alliance with one party or another; Hilfiger was also one of the few designers who openly declared he’d be proud to dress Melania, and many in the industry remained silent following Trump’s travel ban.

This doesn’t say much about the industry’s hypocrisy. Fashion-week shows capture the mood of the season, and if future trends can be deduced from runways, then it’s clear that protest — or the spirit thereof — is in style. Mara Hoffman opened her show with the organizers of the Women’s March, while Prabal Gurung’s models wore T-shirts saying “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like,” as Huma Abedin looked on from the front row. A recent story on the Guardian claimed that brands understand that sex doesn’t sell anymore, but activism does. During the Super Bowl, for example, commercials from Airbnb to Coca-Cola used diversity and inclusion as main themes. It seems that the fashion industry — an industry that’s mastered the art of selling sex — has come to the same realization.

Walking through the streets of Soho, I can’t quite tell whether a throng of loud young women are convening for a Planned Parenthood protest, or a Kylie Jenner pop-up shop. Political and social statements in fashion can be powerful, but the industry’s inherently commercial pull ensures that any critique can be countered.

In this divisive climate, neither politics nor companies can get away with not choosing a side. Not reacting to the travel ban can get a designer in trouble, and offering to dress Melania Trump might do the same. Fashion magazines have already taken their cue: Vogue featured the organizers of the Women’s March in a photo shoot, while Teen Vogue has developed into a reliably critical voice, spearheaded by editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth and driven by writers like Lauren Duca, who infamously took on Fox News.

Cynics believe that nothing can take down global neoliberalism, while pragmatists are convinced that, no matter how fraught the system, every little contribution helps; in between these two extremes is a space where we can separate what fashion can accomplish as an industry and how fashion can function as art.

Fashion, as an industry, is no less damaging than the sharing economy that abuses its workers or the oil companies that pollute the earth. Whatever protest the industry mounts, the effort may seem bleak. Initiatives were put in place after the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh that killed over one thousand garment workers, yet very few believe conditions have actually improved, or if fashion companies even intended them to. In this case, fashion operates within the framework of capitalism: Should we be surprised when an industry preserves business and profit, whether it’s protest-flavored or not?

But fashion is also a mode of expression, a collection of symbols sitting at the intersection of individual identity with markers of the times. After the French Revolution, Parisian youths from elite families started wearing exaggerated shapes to go against the revolutionary spirit. The black and ripped clothes of punks in the 1970s projected the discontent of the youth. In contemporary Iran, where women are required to be veiled by law, the position of a headscarf or the length of a coat can be a subtle act of political subversion. An example closer to home is Raf Simons’s spring 2002 collection, “Woe Unto Those Who Spit on the Fear Generation… the Wind Will Blow It Back,” reflecting on post-9/11 culture.

Fashion has always been used as a tool to express dissent in fraught times, and it will continue to be used as such. One of the most memorable images of the Women’s March is of the pink pussy-hats, donned with pride and defiance, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that it was the individual marchers who knitted and wore them. Fashion as an industry can only sense where the public taste is shifting. What happens with the symbols that it produces is up to us.


Designer Caroline Ventura Finds Wardrobe Inspiration in Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes

As the designer behind the jewelry line Brvtvs and co-owner of the West Village design store Calliope, Caroline Ventura wears a lot of hats — but never too many frills. “I try to keep it minimal,” she says. “Basically, I find pieces I love and wear the shit out of them.” Ventura, a native of Los Angeles, has the sass of her adoptive home: “That one store I was telling you about,” reads the signboard outside Calliope one afternoon. A busy day might include metalworking at her jewelry studio in the diamond district, sketching and painting at home, and walking her dog, Darryl, named for Eighties rocker Daryl Hall. “My clothes need to be able to get dirty and comfy,” says Ventura. “I channel Elaine Benes from Seinfeld. She’s feminine but never dresses like a quote-unquote woman. And she’s a bit loudmouthed and says what she thinks.”

The shirt: “I troll eBay and Etsy for vintage Liz Claiborne linen button-downs.”

The shoe: “Never heels. My go-to shoe is a men’s shoe, like an oxford. That’s a place I love a bit of color. For instance, I have a beautiful lilac lace-up pair from Dieppa Restrepo.”

The jewelry: “All my own stuff. Not out of vanity, but out of utility. I want to make sure it works well and is comfortable — I’m testing it.”

The jacket: “I usually wear a chore jacket. I like that they have these little patch pockets in the front where I can put my tools.”

The pant: “I have short legs compared to my torso, so high-waisted jeans are my friend. I have an insanely comfy pair from Imogene and Willie. And I love vintage Levis. I was wearing them long before every girl in New York — there’s proof on the internet!”

The color: “I like to wear all one tone. All white, all black, all navy, all burgundy.”

The takeaway: “There’s not one bold thing that’s my signature — it really is a uniform. I find confidence in the comfort of that.”


For Helena Barquet and Fabiana Faria, Romance and Style Go Hand in Hand

Helena and Fabiana met working at a gallery. One year into the relationship, they created a space of their own: Coming Soon, on the Lower East Side. “I love French design from the Fifties and Sixties,” says Helena, a native New Yorker. “I’m more into Italian from the Seventies with a bit of glamour,” says Fabiana, who grew up in Venezuela. “We both love things that are comfortable and well-made,” says Fabiana. When you like someone’s style, says Helena, “you’re probably in sync.”

Helena on Helena’s style: “For clothes, I’ll buy the craziest thing from the collection. In design, I look for conversation pieces that make you smile.”

Fabiana on Fabiana’s style: “My style is more austere. I went to a Catholic school growing up, and the idea of a uniform has stuck with me.”

Helena’s favorite outfit of Fabiana’s: “She has these printed flower pants. She probably wouldn’t have bought them prior to us being together.”

Fabiana’s favorite outfit of Helena’s: “I love this dress of hers that’s kind of an Yves Klein blue. The contrast with her skin is beautiful.”

One piece you share: “A leopard-print sweater from Opening Ceremony.”