comme erases the gender binary with a tribute to virginia woolf’s ‘orlando’
After designing the costumes for Vienna State Opera’s upcoming production of the novel, Rei Kawakubo presents her own three-act exploration of gender, identity, and sexuality.
Photography Mitchell Sams
A pansexual hero who becomes a pansexual heroine is just what we need in 2019. Although realised from Virginia Woolf’s imagination 91 years ago, the character of Orlando feels as radical now as it was then but we’re enjoying her recurring appearances throughout Paris Fashion Week. After Tilda Swinton — who herself played Orlando in the Sally Potter-directed film — performed parts of the same story during the Karl For Ever memorial, Rei Kawakubo used her Comme des Garçons Homme Plus spring/summer 20 show to reimagine Virginia Woolf's Orlando: A Biography.
When Rei Kawakubo speaks, we listen. And we heed her words carefully. So often cryptic, poetic and philosophical, her show titles -- Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body, Lumps and Bumps, Bad Taste, 2 Dimensions, Infinity of Tailoring and Not Making Clothes are all personal favourites -- and rare interview snippets leave us, her devoted followers, scrambling to fill in the blanks. “Transformation and liberation through time,” is how she introduced her latest Homme Plus vision which built around what is considered by some to be the first English language novel with a transgender protagonist.
“A biography beginning in the year 1500 and continuing to the present day, called Orlando,” Virigina Woolf explained in her diary when this epic was published in 1928. “Vita; only with a change about from one sex to the other.” For those unfamiliar with the story, it tells the transformative journey of a single character, Orlando, between 1588 and 1928, but it’s so much more than an imagined biography. It’s an investigation into the shapeshifting nature of gender, identity, and sexuality through time.
With her spring/summer 20 show, Kawakuko stitched her collection with Orlando's still-powerful narrative in mind. The result was a sensory shake-up of a collection that blurred binaries and distorted time. Through costume, Rei steered us through wildly different epochs, from Elizabethan dress to club dance floor wears. Frock coats were teamed with actual frocks and tweaked Nike Air Max 95s — the first time the sportswear behemoth has allowed a company to change its iconic silhouette — while Comme logos hung off of pearl necklaces and navels were revealed with opened curtain frills. This was recreated history, but it felt radically modern at the same time.
And who better than Rei to reimagine Orlando? Comme des Garçons’s masterful mistress has been bending and breaking the rules of clothing for five decades. She has continually challenged the status quo through radical references, silhouette shake-ups, and transformative technical trickery. Her visionary acts of fashion rebellion might have been consecrated by the Metropolitan Museum in New York with Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between, but the revolution continues.
We might have to wait until December for the world premiere of Orlando, the new operatic interpretation. Composed by Olga Neuwirth — the first female composer to be commissioned by the Vienna State Opera in 150 year — the production will feature costumes by Comme des Garçons. But while we wait this collection teases a seductive sartorial celebration of freedom in identity politics that feels just as radical. While the likes of Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton and Jonathan Anderson at both JW Anderson and Loewe have rubbed out the binary, none have done it quite as fearlessly and as fabulously as Rei just did.
Photography Mitchell Sams.