It's no secret that the fashion industry has inspired many to build out impressive wardrobes of designer labels. But for some fashion fanatics, only one brand will do. In Collectors' Edition, we'll look into why certain designers inspire obsessive collections in its fans.
That Rei Kawakubo has built an extraordinary legacy under her Comme des Garçons umbrella is no secret: Not only is she one of the most widely respected designers working today, she's also the subject of the Met Costume Institute's latest exhibition, a feat only accomplished by a living designer one other time in its history. It's all the more impressive when you consider that she's done so without so much as an It Bag or an It Girl to boost her profile, like so many other labels have done. But to say the notoriously private Kawakubo isn't like other designers would be an understatement. Known for her avant-garde designs, it's the meaning imbued into her collections, not the trendiness of the style or the cachet of a hangtag, that draws in fanatics.
"There's a sense of power injected into these clothes; you feel it in your gut when you put them on, and it's something I've never experienced with a garment from any other designer," says Katharine Zarrella, the founder and editor-in-chief of Fashion Unfiltered. "What attracted me to [Comme] was the drama, the shape, the way the clothes fell and reshaped your body; it was a very transformative experience putting it on — and it still is, every single time."
Committing to her own personal ideas and staying private is partially what has helped Kawakubo find a connection with fans of her work, people who are drawn to her sense of self-reflection on otherwise global issues. She channels her thoughts on concepts like power and culture through the clothes — and thus, in a way, through the customer. "Comme helped me actualize feminism and identity politics in a way that was survivable for me as a kid that was looking for something to hold onto," says writer Arabelle Sicardi. "I was just learning about feminism and how it aligned with why I felt angry and neurotic about the world, and it was like, this is a thing you can do with your creativity and your rage; there are options for you in how you present yourself and you can find meaning in these physical things."
Collecting Comme des Garçons goes beyond buying in-season; Kawakubo has a deep archive of collections to mine. For fans and collectors of the brand, the mid- to late-aughts seem to be a real sweet spot in terms of beloved collections. "I look for pieces from that specific moment because she really experimented with the idea of gender presentation, the idea of aesthetic markers that show that you have good taste," says Sicardi.
Naturally, fans are attracted to seminal collections like "Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body" — a.k.a. the so-called "Lumps and Bumps" collection from 1997. Comme des Garçons also has a number of offshoot brands, including Homme, which Davil Tran, moderator of Grailed (and founder of Vetememes), collects: "The collection I have today is staff uniforms; I'm mainly interested in the ones with years on it," he says. "It shows the year, and it has a history behind it. They're pretty rare, so I try to get them if I can."
It's personal connections to collections that seem to resonate most with fans. Sicardi remembers finding a photo of the "Lumps and Bumps" collection in a book given to them by a friend, a moment they say changed their life around the time they started their fashion blog. "It was basically the genesis of what became my career," says Sicardi.
One of Zarrella's most prized pieces is from the Ceremony of Separation collection, Kawakubo's musing on death and grief. Zarrella's mother had just passed, and she says that watching the runway show was one of the most powerful Comme moments of her life; when she wears the piece, those feelings come "rushing back" and she feels connected to her mom. And one of her most desired pieces she has yet to acquire is inspired by her two pet bunnies. "I literally just emailed Stephen Jones about this, because if I don't find the bunny ear hat from the 2007 collection, I don't know what I'm gonna do — I've been looking for it for years, I can't find it anywhere, I have to have it," says Zarrella. "I have other pieces from that collection, but I don't have that hat, and I will have it no matter what. If I have to sell a kidney to get it, I will!"
Of course, collecting Comme des Garçons isn't easy; fellow collectors rarely part with their most beloved pieces. "I have a dress from [the parachute collection] and it is one of the most cherished items that I own," says Sicardi. "I will be buried in it. I will never give it away. Whenever I travel, and I bring it with me, I have it in my carry-on because I cannot fathom a world I don't own it in — I refuse."
Collectors spend a good chunk of their spare time scouring the internet, using secondhand retailers, including both eBay and Japanese eBay, as valued resources. But it isn't enough to be active online: Many collectors have built relationships with vintage dealers globally who will notify them when they find pieces, meaning these fans can snap up something before it ever hits a sales floor. Sicardi has shopped the rare archival sales ("I go HAM at those"); Zarrella has befriended the Comme des Garçons sales team for help getting in-season pieces. "I joke that it's my second home because I’m there so much," she says.
The work isn't over once the piece is found, either. Because of its scarcity, vintage Comme des Garçons can demand a high price. On her part, Zarrella has gone to great lengths to make sure she has the cash for the pieces she wants, from selling just about every other designer item in her wardrobe to following strangers to the back of a sketchy pawn shop with a corkscrew in her bag (for self-defense, obviously). "I always joke with the Comme des Garçons crew that I'm going to have to sell a kidney to fund my Comme des Garçons habit, but literally anything that isn't spent on life necessities, I spend on Comme des Garçons," she says. And it's important to act fast; collectors know how rare certain pieces are, and hesitating can mean missing out on a coveted piece. "I'm looking for the bombers with the pinstripe sleeves with the year on the back — I think it’s '84," Tran says. "My friend had one, but he let it go a couple of years ago. I don't think I'll ever find it again, I haven't seen one since."
But in the end, the effort is completely worth it for the way that it makes people feel to put on the fruits of their labor. Comme des Garçons is about so much more than the practicality of clothes; it's a spirit, a power that can change the emotional state of the wearer. "Free. Brave," says Sicardi when asked how they feel wearing their Comme pieces. "It makes me feel like the person I wanted to be when I was younger, that I fantasized about being when I was a loser as a 12 year old."
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