the beauty and power of comme des garçons spring/summer 12

Comme des Garçons spring/summer 12 was a conceptual, original, and awe-inspiringly beautiful collection that left editors reeling. Ahead of Rei Kawakubo's honoring at the annual Met Gala, we take a look back.

by i-D Staff
Apr 28 2017, 3:35pm

After a month of back-to-back shows and an overwhelming mix of seasonal propositions — from silhouettes, patterns, and embellishments — there is nothing more refreshing than being presented with an entire collection executed entirely in white. Even more exhilarating when it comes courtesy of Rei Kawakubo — an unpredictable, alternative thinker and one of the most respected and unconventional designers in contemporary fashion. Her spring/summer 12 Comme des Garçons collection, entitled White Drama, was loaded with outrageous beauty and rich symbolism and managed to confuse, provoke, and delight its audience in equal measure.

One of the most memorable collections of her career, the 33 look collection featured all-white dresses filled with the powerful emotions of life's most important milestones; birth, christenings, marriage, death, and transcendence.  "To me, it represented the beauty of ceremonies, between life and death," said Edward Enninful, i-D's consultant fashion director. Traditionally these landmark moments are draped in ceremonial robes and distinct rituals. As a result, many of Kawakubo's ensembles incorporated the q satin of a wedding dress or the lace of a christening gown. While other designs were more oblique, such as a reference to a body laid out in white flowers or the pointy-headed shrouds worn by church dignitaries during Seville's Semana Santa.

Typical, the house offered up no official explanation, aside from Comme des Garçons president Adrian Joffe's short summary of the collection's key ideas: "Everything that makes you happy and sad in life." Without a list of reference points and a detailed press release, the audience proceeded to dissect every detail in a futile effort to uncover Kawakubo's real meaning. "I found the collection beautiful, narrative and challenging in the best possible way," remembers Sally Singer, Editor of T, New York Times's style magazine. "The clothes were exceptionally beautiful and explicitly about beauty: about satin and flowers and the excessive femininity of girlish dreams and bridal daydreams. The styling seemed to comment on those hopes and fantasies. Some people interpreted the show as saying that marriage is a prison; I tend to disagree. I found it stranger and more lovely than that. I think the scale and the weight of the pieces could be read as a metaphor for the scale and weight we place on the gorgeous and overwhelming project of marriage." 

Since Comme des Garçons Paris debut in April 1981, Kawakubo has remained loyal to the color black. Premiered during a period of color and buoyancy, her first collection was dubbed "Hiroshima Chic" for its dour color palette and distressed finishes, while her followers in Japan quickly garnered the nickname "Black Crows." Spring/summer 12 was an important turning point for Comme des Garçons — the first time Kawakubo had worked solely with the color white. Patti Wilson, who styled this shoot for i-D was exhilarated by Kawakubo's offering. "The collection was so fresh, so pure. It made me think of renewal and rebirth but twisted in a way that only Rei Kawakubo can do," she says. Enninful adds, "In Japan, the color white represents death, whereas in the west it symbolizes purity, marriage, and new life." Surely, the loaded double meaning makes it impossible to view these beautifully crafted dresses as simply "Comme des Garçons does wedding." Is it too simplistic to try and tie it to the significant nuptial events of last year? Or did Kawakubo enjoy the Royal Wedding as much as the flag waving Brits outside Buckingham Palace?

Gary Card (one of the three artists commissioned by Kawakubo to create headpieces for the collection) agrees with Kawakubo's strong color decision. "White is rarely completely white, the light and colors around a white object will change its tone completely," he informs. "I like how it mimics other colors, in this respect white can be anything and everything." To the tense strains of "Emergence of Life" by Alexandre Desplat, Kawakubo's first bride appeared wearing a pristine long-sleeved duchess-satin ivory dress with a delicate bustle in the back — classic in a mid-sixties couture way — and paired with white Courrèges-era go-go boots. Where you would expect her posy to be, there was a plump satin bow, tying her wrists together. Was this a pious gesture or was Kawakubo alluding to the servitude aspect of the sacred union? Perhaps by showing clothes that represent the institutions and traditions that have confined women throughout history we have reached a point where we can happily mourn the loss of the constraints associated with traditional female roles.

The venue for Comme des Garçons spring/summer 12 show was the Salvation Army's Palais de la Femme in Paris — a center that provides refuge to women in need. Surely, this was not a casual choice for a show embedded with female narrative? The echo and coldness in the former convent provided an uneasy and austere setting whilst Brian Eno's "In Dark Trees" intensified Kawakubo's vision. A procession of foam crinoline petticoats often took on the alarming external structure of cages, and by the end heavy veils of lace and an explosion of white flowers blotted out any sight of the individual beneath. The fragile nature of the underpinnings; delicate lace lingerie, the abundance of white flowers and soft crotchet shrugs, protected by shrouded hoods, cotton wool padding, and enveloping capes; offering safety and shelter to the wearers.

If one looks closely, hands were disturbingly absent throughout the collection, concealed inside long exaggerated trumpet sleeves that swept the floor or trapped inside capes and dresses constructed to pin a woman's arms to her sides. A sinister detail that emphasized the trapped nature and immobility of these solemn brides. Previously, hands featured prominently in Kawakubo's autumn/winter 07 Comme des Garçons collection in a more playful and surreal context. By adding 3D hands onto the model's hips and torsos clasping together jackets, Kawakubo referenced the late Elsa Schiaparelli, another alternative thinker who loved to exaggerate a garment as an object of delectation. Her playful surrealism, like Kawakubo's, turned women into walking works of art, deflecting thought and vision away from the female body beneath the garments and toward the world at large.

White Drama poses more questions than it provides answers, as this enigmatic designer knows that is where the joy of art lives. This was not simply a commentary on marriage, religion, and the loss of personal freedom. This collection, like so many of Kawakubo's, is surely about the role of consciousness and the importance among creative people to be bold, fearless, and intelligent in their expressions.


Text Caroline Newell
Photography Daniele + Iango
Styling Patti Wilson
Hair Luigi Murenu
Make-up Stephane Marais at L'atelier NYC. Nail technician Bernadette Thompson Photography assistance Matt Roady, Jason Geering Dean Dodos, Anna Bellati. Styling assistance Taylor Kim. Set design Nick des Jardins. Production Viewfinders Retouching Didier Luk for +852. Casting Urban productions Sofa Metropolitan Props. Models Guinevere Van Seenus and Isabelli Fontana at Women, Carolyn Murphy at IMG, Shalom Harlow at DNA