Essay: Kawakubo's Camp

by Lara Johnson-Wheeler .

Camp is art which allows the viewer to ask: 'What if the right audience for this were exactly me?' In creating a new form and uniquely layered garments - both in textile and in meaning - Comme des Garçons’ collection for A/W 18 offered exactly this moment.

For A/W 18, Comme des Garçons’ womenswear collection was a flamboyant, extravagant exploration of all things exaggerated. Pillowed head-dresses, thick fabrics that blanketed the body and layers upon layers of lace, sequins, brocade, tulle and satin were presented at the Pavillon Cambon Capucines in Paris. Garments resembled cakes, the designs as delectable as the treats they aped.

Rei Kawakubo, designer and founder of Comme des Garçons, is renowned for her artistry and the skill with which she delivers consistently conceptual collections. Simultaneously, one must note the impenetrable tension between humour and sincerity with which Kawakubo presents her fashion. Cited as inspiration for A/W 18 was Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, Notes on Camp, a 58 point treaty outlining the author’s personal perspective on the sensibility. The press release at the A/W 18 show stated that Kawakubo was 'impressed and identifies with this piece of writing,' continuing, 'RK expresses something new and strong though camp.' 

Evidently, Kawakubo’s concepts for this collection came to mind through contemplation of Sontag’s work. In 58 bullet points, Sontag defines an elusive notion, contemplating 'pure Camp' and 'camping' - or 'Camp which knows itself to be Camp'.1 For Sontag, 'camping' is the act of attempting to play Camp. This, she argues, is less satisfying than Camp which is naïve, a sensibility which does that imitate itself. For Sontag, 'pure Camp' is successful Camp. This contrast between 'camping' and 'pure Camp' can be projected onto an analysis of Kawakubo’s recent work. Arguably, for Kawakubo to create a collection that is conscious of Camp is 'camping'; it is playing at showing the sensibility to which it nods. The key question at play here therefore becomes: is Rei Kawakubo’s A/W 18 collection for Comme des Garçons 'successful Camp', as defined by Susan Sontag? 

Fashion is, by nature, an art which relies upon the necessity to play. It relies on the concept of costume, of dress up. Fashion relies upon artifice. Rei Kawakubo’s world has historically taken this view of fashion, ripped it up and presented it in antithesis on the runway. During the eighties, Kawakubo’s collections were predominantly black, grey or white. At her debut show in Paris, journalists dubbed the clothes 'Hiroshima chic'. Materials were draped and frayed, unfinished and asymmetric, a visual question mark to traditional notions of beautiful fashion. This spirit was one of rebellion, of anti-fashion. It was cool and crucially, it was conscious. 

For A/W 18, colour, texture and whimsy reigned. Here, we can chart evolution in Kawakubo’s work and furthermore, an embrace of that which is parody - or self-parody. 'Camp is either completely naïve or wholly conscious',2 states Sontag. In the puffs and pouffes, the inability for arm-based movement - a continuation from previous collections, see S/S 97’s Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body collection, a.k.a. Lumps and Bumps or A/W 17’s haemoglobin blobs - this collection showed itself to be conscious Camp. Continuing to expound upon the elements that make up this crucial cocktail 'Camp', Sontag inadvertently alludes to much of the spirit imbued in this collection; 'the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate and the naive'.3 

Camp is made of serious stuff. Camp does not try to be funny. We can see in the slow, constricted motions of the models and we can read on her serious, sunglass-hidden face that Rei Kawakubo’s shows are not intended to ridicule. But the element of the ridiculous is present. Referring to the ability of opera to be satisfying Camp, Sontag argues, 'One doesn’t need to know the artist’s private intentions. The work tells all.'4 She continues, to explain that it is due to the fact that composers take operatic melodramas seriously that the sensibility of Camp is successful in this case. This example can be applied to the designer in question as well. That Kawakubo takes her work and her designs so seriously makes a success of a creation that wouldn’t fit inside a cab door; rendering it Camp, rather than comic. 

That this collection is womenswear brings to play one of the key notions that camp insinuates. Sontag is reluctant to see Camp aligned specifically with homosexuality, insisting, ‘Even though homosexuals have been it’s vanguard, Camp taste is much more than homosexual taste.’5 In this collection, Kawakubo echoes these sentiments, removing the concern between sexuality and Camp. In her exaggeration of tops, dresses and skirts into garments that no longer resemble a female form, Kawakubo explores - or queers - Camp’s ability to open its audience. Although the A/W 18 show identifies under the bracket of womenswear, the indication is that the garments are sexless, cocooning the body, yet celebrating a new form, rebelliously humouring the traditional male gaze.

Eve Sedgwick defines Camp as art in which there is a moment of recognition. Camp is art which allows the viewer to ask: 'What if the right audience for this were exactly me?'6 In creating a new form and uniquely layered garments - both in textile and in meaning - Comme des Garçons’ collection for A/W 18 offered exactly this moment.

In point four of her seminal essay, Sontag notes seemingly random examples of Camp, coining the 'canon of Camp'. I am conscious of the anachronism present in this notion, but I would argue that Kawakubo has commended her work to this canon. Had Sontag not sadly passed away in 2004, I would recommend revisions to the text. Comme des Garçons A/W 18 should join the Tiffany Lamps, Swan Lake and Bellini’s operas that appear in Camp’s canonical list. As though pre-empting this, Sontag notes in point thirty, 'Of course, the canon of Camp can change. Time has a great deal to do with it.' Kawakubo further stated, via the aforementioned press release: 'Camp is really and truly something deep and new, and represents a value that we need.' For A/W 18, Kawakubo presented a new Camp, pushing the brand of Comme des Garçons further in its exploration of the avant garde. 

1. p.13 Sontag, Notes on Camp (1964)

2. p.16 Sontag, Notes on Camp (1964)

3. p.16 Sontag, Notes on Camp (1964)

4. p.9 Sontag, Notes on Camp (1964)

5. p.31 Sontag, Notes on Camp (1964)

6. p.156 Sedgwick, Epistomology of the Closet (2008)