rei kawakubo takes camp to the extreme at comme des garçons
“I think camp can express something deeper and can give birth to progress.”
Photography Mitchell Sams
Rei Kawakubo felt so strongly about her missive this season, that instead of uttering a single cryptic word for us journalists to decipher and analyse, we were sent an explanatory email.
“Susan Sontag wrote about a creative movement and sensibility, CAMP. I can really identify with this vision. Camp is not something horribly exaggerated, out of the ordinary, unserious or in bad taste. This collection came out of the feeling that, on the contrary, camp is really and truly something deep and new and represents a value we need. For example there are many so called styles such as punk that have lost their original rebel spirit today. I think camp can express something deeper and can give birth to progress.”
When Kawakubo speaks, we listen. And we heed her words carefully. Without this piece of vital illumination, we would have left the show, tra-la-la-ing about how jolly and joyful the collection was. Which it was! It was Folie Bergeres jolly in an explosion of fuschia pink silk and black lace. Betty Boop bursting forth from a froth of lilac ruffles. Panto layers of chintzy florals, stacked and sculpted into mille feuille assemblages. Carry On-film knickers and nighties patchworked together like a delightful human blancmange. Can Can dancer skirts in tulle upturned and exaggerated as though suspended in mid-rambunctious movement.
But by simply admiring and cooing at the prettiness and jolliness of it all, we might miss the point. Kawakubo took camp to the extreme perhaps not just to celebrate but also as a reminder that there’s still so much by way of intolerance towards the perceived notions of camp. You say “camp” and immediately there’s a belittling undertone to the word as an adjective. Sontag’s seminal 1964 essay delves into the core values of campness and the tendency not to take anything that appears aesthetically “camp” as a serious art form. It makes the argument for campness not as a dismissive catch-all word for exaggerated or theatrical behaviour, as per the original etymology of the word “camp” (one theory is that it comes from the acronym KAMP - “Known As Male Prostitute”) but instead as an aesthetic phenomenon that in the words of Sontag, “is a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation -- not judgment.”
In sending out her CDG camp from behind the red velvet curtains and spotlighting their theatricality, Kawakubo is performing an act of redemption, reappraising its attributes and asking us to look upon camp with optimism. So with each body submerged and cocooned in the prettiest of fondant fancy colours, the shiniest of sequins and lame, and the frilliest of ruffles, the collection was of course an invitation to the onlooker to smile and be entertained. Especially when all the models came out, hand-in-hand looking like a daisy chain of exuberance for the finale. But with celebration also comes some serious introspection. Kawakubo isn’t clowning around nor was the show mere child's play.
In essence framing the collection around the reclaiming of camp is yet another way for Kawakubo to assert a belief that Comme’s generosity of fabric, heft, decoration and silhouette is a gateway to creative and expressive freedom. In revelling in all those layers (physical and otherwise), you can get to a more liberal, open-minded and ultimately progressive state in fashion, and perhaps beyond. With our hands held together and our voluminous skirts moving about in the world, we’ll all get there eventually.
Photography Mitchell Sams