"A little bad taste is like a splash of paprika," the fashion legend Diana Vreeland once said. "We all need a splash of bad taste – it's hearty, it's healthy, it's physical."
The Comme des Garçons designer, Rei Kawakubo, based her current collection on Ms Vreeland's famous maxim. And right now, that seems significant – given an autumn season that will go down in history as promoting a sense of propriety almost to the point of outright banality. After all, Kawakubo doesn't do banal.
And so, six months ago, the high-priestess of the avant-garde sent out on to the catwalks lipstick pink and red velvet coats and dresses out of which were cut oversized, frilly lips and hearts, and frothy white tulle playsuits embellished with fetishistic black harnessing. There were crotchless schoolboy shorts, too – where, in less witty hands, one might have expected knickers; corsetry, complete with keyholes at the nipples, worn over shirts; and stockings and suspenders teamed with thick black opaque tights. Pick a feminine fashion cliché, any feminine fashion cliché, and it was there. That might not be so surprising except that, throughout her long and grand career, Kawakubo has fought against stating the obvious and eroticising the female form in a stereotypical way, as if her career depended upon it.
"I played with notions of bad taste and then did them the Comme des Garçons way," Kawakubo says when pressed – she is notoriously a woman of very few words preferring her work to speak for itself. "Of course, bad taste done by Comme des Garçons becomes good taste."
To say that the Comme des Garçons' look is challenging would be something of an understatement. Although more than a few fashion followers have already been seen wearing the more conservative pieces from this particular collection – principally, it almost goes without saying, in black – only the most fashion-knowledgeable are brave enough to dare to wear Kawakubo's more extreme designs. Not that that appears to bother their creator even slightly. Why should she worry? She has long used her main line collection as a vehicle to create and promote her most radical ideas. Those looking for wardrobe staples will find them with ease in the second line, called Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons, which is more quietly beautiful and also, incidentally, forms the backbone of the designer's own personal style.
Meanwhile, Comme devotees will be delighted to discover that next month the high-street giant H&M unveils the fruits of the most innovative designer/high-street collaboration to date. For years, the powers that be at the Swedish brand have endeavoured to persuade Kawakubo to come on board. And now she has done. Expect queues of black-clad consumers, male and female, stretching round a block near you when the collection is launched in November. More than any of the retailer's past link-ups – and these include Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney and Viktor & Rolf – the H&M/Comme des Garçons collection will cause ripples, both of excitement and perhaps confusion.
"Rei Kawakubo has always been at the top of our wish list," says Margareta van den Bosch, creative director of H&M. "This collaboration will offer our customers modern, innovative and artistic fashion not following any rules."
It is true that more than any other designer Kawakubo is a rule breaker par excellence. What is perhaps more surprising, though, is that the H&M collection is, in fact, remarkable for its sobriety, for the relatively classic nature of the clothing that dominates throughout.
To pigeon-hole Kawakubo as a designer of pioneering yet unreadable and difficult-to-wear clothing would be to misunderstand the breadth of her vision and vocabulary entirely. While it is certainly true that she continues to push at the boundaries of women's – and men's – codes of dress, she has also created a wardrobe for both sexes that is both chic and deceptively simple, quietly subversive yet with its roots in quite conservative attire.
From this point of view, the H&M collection represents the quintessentially elegant and pure spirit of what Comme des Garçons stands for. And so, for women, sunray pleat skirts and kilts – a signature of this designer's repertoire since she first showed in Paris back in 1981 – take centre stage and so too do trousers inspired by the Asian dhoti line, with a crotch dropped almost to the ankle in black gabardine. Kawakubo herself wears these particularly well. Tail coats, crisp white shirts with winsome Peter Pan collars and a trench coat that would, quite simply, be impossible to better, are all also part of the story. Prints are simple: polka dots, which Kawakubo remembers wearing as a child growing up in Tokyo, are all present and correct. Boiled wool, which Kawakubo was single-handedly responsible for introducing to the fashion vernacular, and flat shoes – in canvas and polka-dotted again or plain – are equally all time-honoured staples of the Comme des Garçons style.
For her part, Kawakubo says, "I was interested in selling Comme des Garçons in a new place where it has never been sold before and to people who may never have heard of it. Usually, Comme des Garçons only sells in places where people who understand it go."
For all its relative conservatism, this collaboration remains far from ordinary. There are none of the flesh-flashing, cheap little dresses and skinny-jeans-and-T-shirt combinations the high street is famous for peddling. Neither is the collection even remotely trend-led. If the mood chimes in accordance with a covered-up austerity that is of the moment, then that is pure coincidence. Kawakubo pays lip service to ephemeral aspects of fashion, to be sure, but only ever really to poke fun at them or to twist them to the point where they are barely recognisable.
"The collection is constructed around Comme des Garçons' style," Kawakubo continues. "Rather than aiming to make clothes that no one has ever seen before, it is very much Comme des Garçons goes [back] to its roots."
Those roots decree that many womenswear pieces are inspired by menswear; that black and white are the fashion colours to see and be seen wearing; that clothing should be dignified and comfortable and should envelop the body; and that women should be able to run in their shoes. They also propose that fashion should under no circumstances be overtly status driven. The Comme des Garçons for H&M bag, for example, is a canvas hold-all bearing no signage and not even a trace of hardware, which will doubtless come as something of a relief to all those whose handbags are by now so oversized and heavy that regular visits to the chiropractor have rarely seemed so fashionable.
The danger with any designer-high street collaboration is, of course, that it might detract from the main event, causing customers to buy into the more reasonably priced line at the expense of the original that inspired it. By reverting to classic pieces, Kawakubo has ensured that this will not be the case. In fact, it is more likely that by working with H&M she will bring a whole new customer into her own, more rarefied fold.
"The first objective of high-street fashion is that it sells," says Kawakubo. "Designer fashion is more about new creation. In some respects, the high street represents the bad side of democracy, the lowest common denominator, but it certainly appeals to me that many people may be able to discover Comme des Garçons through H&M."
Van den Bosch echoes these sentiments at least in part. "With every new collaboration we attract a new customer," she says, "but the H&M customer is extremely diverse and we have already many fans."
Even she has to admit, however, that this work is more confrontational, if only discreetly so, than the vast majority of clothing available on the high street. "Rei Kawakubo is one of the most artistic fashion creators with an interesting, very independent approach to fashion," she says. "In the end, our aim was to do something new, to surprise our customers and to make a point that fashion is not a matter of price."
"Now is a time when we are surrounded by and caught up in a money-centred place, where independence and creation are a bit lost," Kawakubo in turn concludes. "It's the result of the dilution of values which decrees that as long as something is easy and simple, it's OK and one can get away without thinking too much about anything. Of course, I have never been motivated in that way, which is why it is interesting for me to do this. I have never concerned myself with what people think. I just work with what I myself think is fascinating, strong and new."
Comme des Garçons for H&M, available at selected H&M stores nationwide from next month, 020-7323 2211; Comme des Garçons, Dover Street Market, 17-18 Dover Street, London W1, 020-7518 0680Reuse content