Why the designs at Comme des Garçons are getting more and more curious

At Comme des Garçons, simple clothes get a subversive twist - thanks to the playful genius of Rei Kawakubo. Susannah Frankel gives the designer a big hand

Some people were born to swim against the tide. So, while the current collections were notable for an obviously empowered and womanly stance - from Christian Dior's modern-day sirens clad in sharply cut rainbow hues to Yves Saint Laurent's discreetly elegant city slickers - Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons went out on a sartorial limb once again. For autumn/winter 2007, the high priestess of avant-garde fashion appeared to travel all the way back to the nursery.

Out came the youngest, most fresh-faced models imaginable - at least some of them sporting Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse ears - in faded, floral-print blouses with exaggerated puffed sleeves, frilled dresses in the type of sugar-pink hue that is barely respectable for wear by anyone over the age of six, say, and more in equally winsome parma violet trimmed with bows. So far, so cute. Comme des Garçons being Comme des Garçons, there was, of course, a twist. Aforementioned blouses were worn over chunky outerwear, the lumps and bumps of bulkier material showing proudly through. The pretty pink dresses, meanwhile, had disconcerting doll-size replicas of more pretty pink dresses stuck roughly to their fronts. Finally, any bows were padded - as, indeed, were buttons, patch pockets and even the odd pair of hands, strategically placed on snake-slender hips. As if to add to the rather unsettling nature of it all, each look was finished with a pair of candy-coloured fishnet ankle socks and shoes that wouldn't look out of place worn by Florence, The Magic Roundabout's resident fashion victim.

Commentators struggled, once again, to find meaning - Kawakubo claims to dislike conceptual analysis of her work, although its extreme nature may, not unreasonably, be said to invite it. This time, the collection was labelled "surreal". Its creator took issue with this - she is uncomfortable with any allusion to fashion aspiring to art - saying that she was thinking about "curiosity" when she designed it. Sexual curiosity, perhaps? Given the exaggerated girlishness of the clothes and the doll-like hair and make-up, this supposition might not be far-fetched. "No, not that at all," Kawakubo insists. "I said 'curious' meaning strange, being interested and open, unexpected, searching, looking for something new."

The first time this collection was shown on the catwalk, it was notable for its peculiarity. This is often the case where this determinedly innovative brand is concerned. Now that the clothing has actually been produced and sold, however, the most remarkable thing about it is that it is commercially viable, playful as opposed to provocative, and worn by everyone from front-row fashion editors to a loyal Comme des Garçons clientele - the type of woman Kawakubo hopes is "strong, independent and free". True, no one in real life was ever likely to don turquoise eye-shadow or rabbit ears with their Comme des Garçons jacket, but clothing embellished with padding - from fingers to coin dots - looks surprisingly subtle away from the spotlight.

If Kawakubo argues that there is nothing much surreal about this collection, her contemporaries may beg to differ; having embraced the theme, they then run with it a good few months down the line. Take Marc Jacobs - the most high-profile Comme des Garçons devotee in fashion. When Jacobs was accused, by none other than the International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes of borrowing from Comme des Garçons for his spring/summer 2008 collection, the spat of the season ensued. In her review, Menkes described Jacobs' offering as "a freak's costume party" and "a bad, sad show", going on to opine: "The concept of clothes sliced apart and attached to sheer voile was just a weak version of designs pioneered fashion aeons ago by Comme des Garçons." Ouch.

Unsurprisingly, fashion's favourite jackdaw was unlikely ever to take this lying down. Instead, he got straight on to the phone to Women's Wear Daily. "I'm attentive to what's going on in fashion," he told the powers that be there. "I'm influenced by fashion, that's the way it is. I have never, ever hidden it. I have never insisted on my own creativity, as Chanel would say. I have my interpretation of ideas I find very strong." Then, in an acknowledgement of another designer's power that is unprecedented in such a competitive industry, he said: "Jil Sander is influenced by Comme des Garçons, Miuccia Prada is influenced by Comme des Garçons, everyone is influenced by Comme des Garçons." It almost goes without saying that this is praise, indeed.

It is also true. Since she emerged on the international scene almost 30 years ago, Kawakubo has been the most consistently influential force in fashion, sending out garments that seem odd and even quite frightening at first sight - the three-armed jacket of fashion folklore hails from this particular stable - but which are noted and absorbed by fashion's most fêted names. Nor is Comme des Garçons nearly as difficult to wear as some might have it. Of course, the It Girl in search of Christmas-party fodder might not choose to shop here, but for those who bow down at the altar of Comme des Garçons - and there are many - a biannual visit is nothing short of essential. The wardrobes of those who do not choose to shop at Comme des Garçons, meanwhile, more than likely will still be touched by the designer's mindset. This is not the first time that a superpower like Jacobs, himself one of the world's most copied designers, has chosen to reference the designer, after all - and it will not be the last.

Kawakubo would probably rather die than admit to being just the slightest bit flattered by any such attention - she is notoriously shy, and refuses to even come out on to the catwalk to take her bows, despite her audience's persistent desire that she should do so. Instead, this elusive fashion deity has only this to say on the subject of the current Comme des Garçons collection.

"Being curious," says Rei Kawakubo, "is something that adults often forget how to be."

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