Bridging the Art/Commerce Divide: Cindy Sherman and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons
In 1994, Cindy Sherman produced a series of photographs for the clothing company Comme des Garçons that break virtually every rule of fashion photography. As philosopher Roland Barthes has observed, fashion photography is generally governed by a “garment-photograph-caption” formulation, an apt description that cannot, however, be applied to Sherman’s interpretation of Comme des Garçons clothes. Her photographs center on disjointed mannequins and bizarre characters, forcing the clothing itself into the background. The lithe, physically ideal fashion model, so integral to the pages of Vogue, Glamour, and Elle, is nowhere to be seen. In her place are a menagerie of confrontationally unpretty surrogates, like the garishly made-up mannequin in Sherman’s Untitled (#302). The “model’s” excessive makeup, hair in wild disarray, and bruised “flesh” recall the sex-and-violence– saturated fashion photography of the 1970’s. The figure is further complicated by the hollowed chest in which another vacant representation of the painted female face resides. At an unnatural interval, the legs appear wearing . . . what, exactly? Are the pants Comme des Garçons? Or is it the backdrop fabric that was designed by Kawakubo and misappropriated by Sherman? In Untitled (# 304) is the masked mannequin wearing a Comme des Garçons dress as originally designed by Kawakubo, or as altered by Sherman? And which are the Comme des Garçons clothes in Untitled (#300)? And why has Sherman has donned a gloomy, battered mask in place of the model’s traditional bright smile (or look of icy disdain, depending on the current style)? Even the “pretty” picture of the series, Untitled (#296), which features Sherman resplendent with well-lit feathers artfully arranged in her hair as she contemplates a mirror ball, is not about the clothes it purportedly features. They are instead a minor element in the overall atmosphere of the photograph.
These “anti-fashion” photographs’ effects are shocking and discombobulating, particularly when viewed in the light of conventional fashion photography. They are not, however, out of place in the context of Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo’s approach to the business of fashion design, which is strongly inspired by the values of the contemporary art world. Her first big success in the West came in 1981 with her inaugural Paris show, which made her an overnight sensation and unapologetically illustrated her resolutely modernist philosophy of clothing design. She claimed she wanted “to start from zero,” reexamining clothes as if the entire history of costume did not exist. The garments in the initial Paris show seemingly accomplished that goal. With her deconstructed and shapeless dresses in infinite shades of black, Kawakubo questioned all the conventional assumptions of Western fashion, in particular, that clothes should conform to or reshape the body. She simply refused to pander to the usual drama of concealing or revealing the body. In turn, Kawakubo and her intellectuality-imbued schmattes were enthusiastically embraced by devotees of the avant-garde, especially in the New York art community.
While Kawakubo was being embraced as an artist’s fashion designer, Cindy Sherman was made welcome in fashion industry circles. Her Untitled Film Stills series had established her as an able manipulator and interpreter of mass media icons of femininity. Sherman’s forays into fashion photography included a series of photographs for the Paris-based fashion house Dorothée Bis and another for Diane Benson, an American retail entrepreneur who later opened the first Comme des Garçons store in New York City. Sherman also created photographs for both Vogueand Harper’s Bazaar. Indeed, it was a Harper’s Bazaar layout that precipitated her collaboration with Kawakubo. After seeing that layout in 1993, Kawakubo contacted Sherman and provided her with clothing from each of the Comme des Garçons collections, to be photographed however Sherman wished. The resulting images were then used in the direct-mail campaign for the Comme des Garçons autumn/winter 1994–95 collections and also displayed in the company’s SoHo boutique. These photographs are less depictions of saleable product than challenges to the expectation of what a fashion photograph should be.
If Sherman’s take on Kawakubo’s designs is difficult to discuss as fashion photography, that difficulty is mirrored in the fashion press’s attempts to come to terms with Comme des Garçons clothes. Kawakubo has played both the creative genius and the saboteur in the fashion industry. She has rejected most traditional fashion conventions in the design of her clothes, in the decoration and layout of her shops, in her unorthodox advertising campaigns, and in her sometimes confrontational runway shows. In the Comme des Garçons fashion collections, Kawakubo has offered shirts with extra sleeves and neck holes, jackets cut to be misbuttoned, skirts and dresses with wildly irregular hemlines, jackets with slits up the length of the sleeve, jackets bearing only one shoulder, clothing with exposed seams, or asymmetrical padding in unconventional places, and knitwear with holes used to decorative effect: such clothes cannot be discussed in conventional fashion terms. In the early 1980s her stores broke every rule of merchandising, displaying clothing sparsely and under uninvitingly harsh fluorescent light; now this aesthetic has been appropriated or adapted by many others. Her latest shops in New York and Tokyo are the complete opposite—cluttered with wildly assymetrical and curved walls, they invoke carnival fun houses. This rejection of conventional fashion merchandising extends to Comme des Garçons advertising; Sherman’s photographs are only one of many examples. Kawakubo’s catalogues feature minimal fashion content, sometimes omitting the clothing altogether and instead employing an image meant, in an oblique way, to capture the meaning of the collection, such as a sunflower.
In the context of Kawakubo’s destabilizing approach to the established way of doing business in the fashion industry, her collaboration with Cindy Sherman, whose work also undermines the “reality” of particular images, seems almost predestined. The two are well matched in the paradoxical nature of their endeavors. Sherman is a noncommercial artist whose work welcomes and converses with commercial appropriation. Kawakubo manages a financial empire in the most commercial of industries while rigorously impressing an artistically informed sensibility on all of her products. Both Kawakubo as a fashion designer and Sherman as an artist have used their work to question assumptions about what constitutes self-presentation. Though their mediums and the attendant demands of their work are vastly different, both women subvert traditional images of and ideas about femininity. This kinship renders the Sherman-Kawakubo collaboration a rare example of the successful bridging of the art-commerce divide.
Jessica Glasscock, M.A. Candidate, Costume Studies, Visual Culture Program, Department of Art and Art Professions, School of Education, New York University