Ahead of the new Comme des Garçons collections being shown Next Saturday in Paris, I want to talk about this new handbag that CdG matriarch Rei Kawakubo designed for Louis Vuitton, as part of their ‘Celebrating Monogram’ series, which features a series of collaborations with fashion, art and design luminaries reinventing the iconic LV monogram. The collection includes collaborations with: Karl Lagerfeld, Frank Gehry, Cindy Sherman, Marc Newson, Christian Louboutin and Rei Kawakubo. You can see the complete collection HERE. The press notes indicate that there's a slight precedent for this, as Vuitton celebrated their 1996 centenary collection by including collaborations with Azzedine Alaïa, Manolo Blahnik, Romeo Gigli, Helmut Lang, Isaac Mizrahi, Sybilla and Vivienne Westwood. That one sounds cute, no?
This isn't Miss Rei-K's first time tangling with Vuitton, of course. She put together a daffy little collection of mutant handbags, deformed little monster pouches and purses back in 2008, when she approached LVMH with the idea of a collaboration to celebrate Vuitton's 30th anniversary in Japan.
Those handbags were gorgeous, and so precious that one's still baffled and finding any of their pricing information. You couldn't just go buy one. You couldn't call the store and order one. You had to go to one of the specified limited CdG x LVHM "shop-in-shop" locations, officially order your preferred bag, and then pay for it in advance of them being made and then shipped out to your local Vuitton dealership, or some such thing. The story of that collection goes that Kawakubo had been so "excited" to see Vuitton opening in Tokyo in 1978, it had seemed to her to usher in some new sense of optimism or excitement that French luxury fashion brands were expanding into the Japanese market. That's a nice thought, but I do struggle to envision Kawakubo getting particularly excited about shopping, excited about purses. I do like thinking of her in 1978 though. At that point, Comme des Garçons had developed a fairly cultish following in Japan, her followers already known as カラス族 ("Karasu-zoku" or "Gang of Black Crows"). In 1978 she had yet to show her work in Paris, and it's nice to think of her encountering a brand-spanking new Vuitton boutique in Tokyo and getting "excited" about the cross-cultural implications of designing and promoting luxury. She referred to her 2008 collaboration with Vuitton as a collection of "party bags" to celebrate the brand's 30 years in Japan. Does Rei Kawakubo seem like someone who often thinks about or talks about "parties"? Here's a photo of Rei Kawakubo and former LVMH CEO Yves Carelle (RIP) together at the launch of the Vuitton x CdG collection in 2008:
ANYWAYS. The 'Celebrating Monogram' collection features the collaborators describing their work, posing with the finished product (Cindy Sherman wears the new Spring collection by Ghesquière in her portrait), and providing a brief on their inspirations for their collaboration, perhaps a behind-the-scenes picture or two. Kawakubo dispenses with the formalities and the celebrity worship, naturally. Nobody who's even remotely familiar with her work or her approach to marketing would bat an eye at the fact that for her photo, she's had a pencil drawing hung behind the handbag instead of posing with it, or the fact that there are no behind the scenes photos, duh.
On her inspiration for this collaboration:
"Breaking the traditional Louis Vuitton Monogram was the premise of this one work—which was to find something that would be new, some kind of new value. Although there are various ways of breaking to create something new, this time I tried to play it straight: I simply made some holes in the fabric of the bag. I generally like small bags."
I'm really curious about the translation here. Did she actually say "play it straight"? Is that an idiom that resonates in Japanese, or French? For that matter, you know homegirl knows a thing or two about her LGBT brethren, and you know Miss Thing speaks much more English than she lets on. The idea of "straightness" as it relates to the work of Rei Kawakubo. I'm off on a tailspin about this. Anyway, here's what "playing it straight" means, to Rei Kawakubo, in 2014. Here is her "Bag with Holes":
Just fucking cut holes in the damn thing, right? I love that for Kawakubo, "playing it straight" means not, y'know, coming up with some fussy twisted shape (a la Gehry) or fucking with some oversized or conceptual "sport-y" silhouette like Lagerfeld and Newson. No, for Rei Kawakubo, "playing it straight" means just slashing holes right through the bag, so that you can see through it. The bonded interior lining "to keep belongings secure" seems like something the higher-ups at LVMH insisted on, for the sake of practicality. Kawakubo notes that she generally likes small bags. This is a red herring, CdG has never just been about Kawakubo creating clothes that she wanted to wear. That's what Comme des Garçons Robe de Chambre (which has since become Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons, or "Comme Comme") is for: to recreate her own wardrobe. Yeah, usually Kawakubo is rocking one of the vintage wallet-sized purses, or one of the teensy Paco Rabanne chain-mail collaboration purses. I doubt we'd see her, even at a "party", rocking this huge flat thing with holes slashed out of it. I don't think so. I love that this is her way of paying tribute to, somehow reckoning with Vuitton's "heritage." And yeah, it is something new, I guess.
"I feel," says Kawakubo, "that Louis Vuitton is the house that most beautifully and skilfully transforms what is tradition into what is now. Yet I always approach all of my work in a way that is exactly the same: I look to create something new."
SO, again, she's being kind of a punk here: Yes, Vuitton is all about tradition and history and making history relevant. That's all well and good, but Kawakubo, lest y'all forget, has one mandate, the same one Ezra Pound pounded: Make it New.
Continuing on, she says: "When designing the bag for this project, I was looking for some new design, something that hadn’t been done before, something within the limits of possibility."
These are certainly new. Hear me out: these aren't the randomly applied fraying holes she used to great acclaim in the early 1980s in the garments Suzy Menkes so charmingly dubbed "Swiss-cheese sweaters". No, these holes are artisanal, super-deliberate, a form or decoration. These holes are the concept of embroidery doggedly purse pursued to their logical conclusion. They seem reminiscent of the crafted holes cut out of the Comme des Garçons Homme Plus Fall/Winter 2014 collection, the "Holy Jacket" collection, which featured these stylish little kicks:
These are new, these are a new way of exploring texture, shape, volume. And embedded in the design is an implicit indictment of the luxury and tradition Kawakubo claims to have been to taken by, back in 1978. This is her trying to "Play it Straight": don't fuss with any kind of fancy shape, color, material or process: just find a new way to ask philosophical questions about materials, history. Play it straight, right? Just carve a fucking hole in the precious object. For Kawakubo, "playing it straight" means literally ripping the thing a new orifice.
But let's back up for a second. Her stated goal here was to keep to her usual modus operandi of finding a way to make something new, and she also notes that in addition to newness, she was looking to design "something within the limits of possibility." Possible how exactly? Possible as in practical? This is the woman who famously designed chairs that weren't really designed for, you know, sitting as such. Maybe she means "possibility" in terms of something that could, physically, exist in our reality at this time. Or maybe she's referring to "the realm of possibility" in another way.
I don't know if these collaboration pieces will be as hard to buy as the last time she tangled with LVMH, but out of the six artists chosen to design new products for this collection, Kawakubo's contribution with a suggested retail price of $2790.00 USD, is the cheapest one in the collection.