Comme des Garçons hits the high street

Comme des Garçons has always stood for pioneering fashion. But how will the label reinterpret its ethos for the high-street giant H&M? Susannah Frankel gets a sneak preview

"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 0680

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
glastonbury
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
filmReview: Gyllenhaal, in one of his finest performances, is funny, engaging and sinister all at once
Arts and Entertainment
Shelley Duvall stars in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining
filmCritic Kaleem Aftab picks his favourites for Halloween
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington has been given a huge pay rise to extend his contract as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones
tv
Life and Style
Taste the difference: Nell Frizzell tucks into a fry-up in Jesse's cafe in east London
food + drinkHow a bike accident left one woman living in a distorted world in which spices smell of old socks and muesli tastes like pork fat
Sport
Luke Shaw’s performance in the derby will be key to how his Manchester United side get on
footballBeating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Life and Style
Google's doodle celebrating Halloween 2014
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
filmThis Halloween, we ask what makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?
News
peopleFarage challenges 'liberally biased' comedians to 'call him a narcissist'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Senior IP Opportunity at Major Firm

    vary Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - AN OPENING AT A VERY HIGH Q...

    Nursery Manager

    £100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Nursery Manager Long term Ran...

    Sales Consultant – Permanent – West Sussex – £24-£25k plus commission and other benefits

    £24000 - £25000 Per Annum plus company car and commission: Clearwater People S...

    SEN Teaching Assistant

    £45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Bris...

    Day In a Page

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes