Eternal darkness: Why the fashion world can't live without black

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This summer, the new black is... well, we can guess the rest, can't we?

Comme des Garcons felt it was necessary to do something in response to the negativity engendered by the recession and to counter the feelings of things being blocked or stopped because of the crisis..." So reads the typically spare press release from Japanese fashion's most feted name last week. What's also typical is the fact that its founder and designer Rei Kawakubo's "response to negativity" is a million miles away from that which most of us would consider upbeat: a new label entitled BLACK. Black, of course, and by its very nature, is a negative. Those familiar with the wilfully oblique workings of the mind of this particular fashion superpower will know that such behaviour is at least part of the allure.

"BLACK," says Adrian Joffe, Comme des Garcons CEO and Kawakubo's husband of 17 years, "is an emergency, guerrilla-like, temporary brand", which again hardly leads one to believe that the project entails anything remotely bright and breezy. "Things are difficult out there," he continues, in explanation of the move. "We're down 5 per cent in Japan [by far the brand's biggest market]. We had a hole to fill, and Rei came up with the idea of doing a whole line in black." But hang on a second: "The collection's not just black though. There's some white in it too."

Consistently throughout her long and powerfully inventive career, Kawakubo has aligned herself with black. Back in the early Eighties, she used it as a cry of rebellion; even in her native Tokyo the women who wore her clothes were described, with some hostility, as "the crows". Back then, after all, the bourgeois fashion establishment was still dominated by a jolie madame hourglass silhouette, chintzy fabrics and rainbow hues – the more ostentatious, the better. Kawakubo, whose hugely successful and still entirely independent company celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, countered this with an entirely new dress code for women: trousers with sweater cuffs at the ankles, teamed with tunics that turned into shawls; oversized coats buttoned from left to right – "comme des garcons" – and boiled, seemingly shapeless knits peppered with holes. These were worn with nothing more Barbie Doll appealing than flat, even rustic shoes. And her collections were as dark as they were distressed – black almost in their entirety.

"The initial absence of colour in Kawakubo's clothes helped to trigger a new bout of the preoccupation with black that has been a recurrent theme at the margins of fashion from the 1940s and earlier," writes Deyan Sudjic in his 1990 monograph, Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garcons. "Though black has enjoyed a continuing vogue since its adoption by the grandees of the Spanish royal court in the late 16th century, in modern times, and for women in particular, it has been a sign of a bohemian rejection of more traditional ideas about fashion."

With this in mind, the French existentialists – both male and female – were married to black. Wearing any other hue over a croque monsieur and a heated debate at Les Deux Magots was simply not done. Then came the Sixties. By that point, black was becoming beautiful in a far broader sense than simply in fashion. Even so, while the young Yves Saint Laurent was famously the first designer to employ black models on the haute couture catwalk in Paris, when his 1960 Beat collection, featuring an androgynous uniform of black leather jackets and turtleneck sweaters, was first seen, scandal ensued. Later both punk and new wave embraced black as, of course, did the Goths in their funereal and spidery garb.

By the end of the Eighties, black – championed by Kawakubo – had become positively ubiquitous. The era of Thatcher and Reagan, of big, black limousines and black cocktail-wear to match meant that it was the most aspirational shade to see and be seen in. Department stores were quick to respond, designing everything in black; from toasters to refrigerators – never mind boardroom tables. Then there were Alaia viscose-knit dresses, Donna Karan bodies, Filofax diaries and Wolford tights. It's small wonder, with this in mind, that by this point Kawakubo herself had stopped using it, announcing with an obtuseness more readily associated with a conceptual artist than a fashion designer that "red is black". Black, she said by way of explanation, had lost its power. You could find it, after all, anywhere and everywhere, "even in a corner at Gap". She has since returned to black again and again, however, and the classic pieces most immediately associated with Comme des Garcons today – kilts, dhoti pants, narrow jackets with Peter Pan collars, slogan T-shirts and more – are, for the most part, designed in black. BLACK, the collection, meanwhile, according to Joffe, "is made up of all her favourite things reworked in different fabrics and, over the years, most of her favourite things have been black."

So is black the new black, to coin (not insignificantly) the greatest fashion cliché of them all? Certainly, that's the case this season which, given that it's summer, is if not unprecedented, then at least surprising. The Eighties revival currently sweeping everything from designer level down decrees that there's more black in evidence than at any time since Madonna became a household name in Desperately Seeking Susan – particularly black of the body-conscious stretch variety. A quick browse through the forthcoming autumn/winter collections, meanwhile, confirms that black, despite years of the industry claiming otherwise, is here to stay. Black features heavily in the forthcoming collections of Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Lanvin, Givenchy... The list goes on.

"We can't specifically point to black and say that it is worn more frequently during a recession" says Leatrice Eiseman, director of the Pantone Colour Institute, speaking from her office in Seattle, and author of more books on the subject of shade than most of us have worn, well, worn little black dresses. "We've seen a lot of black in the past 20 years when times were good and times were bad. Black seems to ride through the economy whatever." The reason behind designers' proclivity to black, she argues, "is that it is the ultimate colour of power and strength".

"Of course, at this point of time people are leaning towards practicality, and what could be more practical than black? Women in particular are drawn to black because it fills so many needs, not the least that it makes you look slimmer, and what woman doesn't want to look slimmer? What's more, you can spend less money on a black item and know that it's not going to look as inexpensive as something that is lighter in colour, where any irregularities in finish and cut may be more obvious. Black hides a lot of flaws."

In fact, while black's hold over fashion – and at prices to suit all budgets – may have resulted in this mindset, historically, wearing black carries considerably more profound, and indeed disparate meaning.

As far back as the fifth century, black – specifically undyed black wool – was adopted by the church of Constantinople to mark the mourning of Christ. Both priests and nuns carry on this tradition to this day, as indeed does the covered Muslim (the traditional yashmak is crafted in black muslin and the veil over the face in black horsehair). At the other end of the spectrum, the aforementioned Spanish courtiers of the late 16th and 17th centuries also wore black – this time in expensive fabrics and embellished with complex embroidery – to signify a state of mourning. But it gained broader fashionable appeal not least because of its exclusivity. Dyes tend to be "fugitive", taking to certain fabrics more easily than others, particularly if the colour in question is intense. For this reason, the Vatican has always been enamoured with the colour purple – the most difficult of all colours to stabilise. Black, though, is not far behind. What's more, it takes a discerning eye to judge the difference between a blue black and a brown black, say, or to notice that the two should never appear alongside one another.

In Elizabethan England, the Sumptuary Laws, designed to control the cost of living, decreed that black was the province of only the working class (undyed and in its most humble form) and the upper class (in its more sumptuous incarnation); the middle classes were forbidden from wearing it. By the 19th century, black had become a staple of the western male's wardrobe. For women, however, it remained the official colour of mourning. Queen Victoria famously wore black from the time her husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861 to her own death 40 years later. Although during the Belle Epoque women of style adopted the colour black for evening wear (John Singer Sargent's portrait of Virginie Gautrea, known as Madame X, attracted more than a little controversy because the subject dared to wear black before dusk) it wasn't until the emancipated 1920s and the early career of Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel that black's potential practicality and comparatively democratic nature surfaced.

The first little black dress is most often attributed to Chanel and appeared as a simple illustration in the May 1926 issue of American Vogue. The garment in question, designed, not insignificantly, to be worn during the day, was intentionally plain, given the frills and furbelows that characterised fashion in the times that preceded it. The idea behind it was that it was for the woman who wore it to accessorise, thereby giving it the stamp of individuality and making it her own. It was a radically open-minded concept and one that encouraged comparisons to Ford's recently introduced (and also black) standarised motor car. "Both were sleek and represented a concept available to the masses," writes Amy Hofman Edelman in her book The Little Black Dress.

The little black dress's apparent ease defied the complexity of its construction, however. "Scheherazade is easy," Mlle Chanel, admittedly prone to sweeping statements, decreed. "The little black dress is difficult." Vogue predicted, nonetheless, that the little black dress would go on to become "the sort of uniform for all women of taste". It has continued to represent just that to this day. Audrey Hepburn's pencil-thin form in little black Givenchy dress as Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany's is just one example. Jacqueline Kennedy in a simple black shift designed by Oleg Cassini at her husband John F Kennedy's funeral another.

"I think there's the feeling generally of black being fairly sophisticated," Leatrice Eiseman says. "A lot of women understand that and that's why they'll defer to black, even though they might be looking at other colours."

Certainly, Chanel wasn't the last designer to identify the potential of black in the modern woman's wardrobe. More than a quarter of a century later, her arch-rival Christian Dior opined that black was "the most popular and the most convenient and the most elegant of colours. It is the most slimming of all colours and, unless you have a bad complexion, it is one of the most flattering. You can wear black at any time. You can wear it at any age. You may wear it for almost any occasion."

While Dior and his ilk argued that black was easy, an eminently safe and reliable option, for other, perhaps more high-minded souls, the use of black encouraged creativity. Black, it has already been argued, may hide a multitude of sins, but for the great couturier Cristobal Balenciaga, it was the ultimate colour for women in need of a grand entrance gown. More importantly, from his point of view (and that point of view was always more prized than that of his customer, who came a strict second) black's severity, and even austerity, threw the value of cut and construction into the spotlight.

Colour for such an uncompromising talent was, like much surface embellishment, merely a whimsical distraction from the essence of clothing: the perfection of proportion and silhouette. Later Kawakubo and her contemporary, Yohji Yamamoto, also argued that at least part of their reason for using black so liberally was to ensure their following appreciated the unconventional shape and texture of their garments more fully. At the height of black's domination of fashion, the legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland went so far as to declare that fashion's fascination with black was a matter of it being "the hardest colour to get right".

In George Lucas's epic Star Wars movie series, Darth Vader, that be-masked and bewitching slave to "the dark side" is black. So, too, is Venom, Spiderman's deadly alter-ego, who sheds his ebony skin on to the typically blue and red-clad superhero to thoroughly unpleasant effect. The celluloid vampire is invariably clad in black garb. The term "vamp", meanwhile, suggests on one hand a predatory, sexually aware female dressed predominantly in dark colours and, at its most extreme, the dominatrix in her black rubber corsetry and gimp mask. Perhaps that's why, despite a certain everyday acceptance of black clothing, when I asked my nine-year-old son what the effect of my being dressed head-to-toe in black might be – black sweater, black skirt, black pumps, black bag – he replied: "It means you're bad, you're evil." Of course, to a child, black's darker implications may well be restricted to cartoon-like caricature. But whichever way one chooses to look at it, perhaps because of its association with grief and mourning (and therefore with death) black has for more than a century been the colour of villains and villainous behaviour, from early 20th century pantomime pariahs to the Wicked Witch Of The West.

"That's certainly the case," agrees Eiseman, "In the end, we cannot underestimate the fact that black is today a fabulous background colour, though. Whatever else happens to be the colour of the season, black is the mainstay, women still have dependable black to rely on. Black is acceptable. You can wear black to a wedding, to a funeral, for any special occasion and women often do so because they know that they're not going to stand out, that there are going to be other people who are wearing black which makes them part of a group."

Comme des Garcons' BLACK collection appears, at least in part, to have been created in acknowledgement of this fact. While Kawakubo's summer main line collection boasts more than its fair share of black, throughout her offering for autumn/winter, it is conspicuous in its absence. When asked how the recession had affected this, the most high-end and innovative of her many lines, she said "not one single iota".

Recession is openly the motivation behind this latest venture, however. In the process of a two-week marathon which involves the opening of no fewer than 11 BLACK stores – six in Japan, and one each in Hong Kong, Seoul, London, Paris and New York – Adrian Joffe maintains that this particular collection does indeed represent a rather more accessible side to the Comme des Garcons brand. "It's not H&M accessible," he laughs – Kawakubo collaborated with the Swedish chain on a collection earlier this year. "But because of the large quantities, because of the fact that instead of producing only 20 or 25 of each design we will produce 200, and new designs will go into the stores every month the volume is high and we're able to keep the cost down. We don't want to do it forever. Rei has said she wants it to continue for as long as the recession lasts. After all, how many iconic pieces are there?"

If, at one time, there seemed to be little more openly confrontational than a woman dressed in black Comme des Garcons, today that same person may choose to invest in this by now less openly subversive side of Kawakubo's aesthetic to create the backbone of her wardrobe.

Stranger things have happened. Because, in the end, black is nothing if not a multi-faceted beast, one associated with both humility and denial, money and power, the avant-garde and the mainstream, the radical and the conservative, with good and evil, with the sacred and the profane. There is no other colour that carries such diverse connotations, that means so many different things to different people. Given the famously fickle arena that it continues to dominate, it is surely these very paradoxes that give the colour its enduring appeal.

BLACK Comme des Garcons is available from June 18th at Dover Street Market, London W1, 0207 518 0680. Leatrice Eiseman can be contacted at www.colorexpert.com

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