The Spring/Summer 2020 fashion week belonged to a pair of shoes. They might have begun as conservative heeled pumps, which evolved into its final bulbous form. Almost clunky, disproportionally enlarged, with a duck-bill silhouette, they were not quite “elegant” in the generic sense of the word — save for Bottega Veneta’s very-distinguished intrecciato weave. But how the style set loved them, as they sauntered into shows shod in creative director Daniel Lee’s quirky sole sensations.
Many in this rabid following also splashed out on one or a few Bottega Veneta Pouch bags. “Flying off the shelves,” according to retailers when asked for their take. There’s even a term, New Bottega, derived from the fan-run Instagram account of the same name, which describes anything designed by Lee.
Indeed, Bottega Veneta is enjoying its new reputation as an unlikely home of anti-cool fashion. British-born Central Saint Martins alumni Lee, who was appointed to his post only last year, has rejuvenated the house admirably. If anyone is cool right now, it’s Lee. But “cool” is a mercurial term whose meaning often gets lost in fashion: Is it a synonym for trendy? Is it supposed to subvert? Or is it found only on the cusp of discovery?
Perhaps it’s a combination of all this, but invariably, cool can be found in the anti-cool, which lurks in the unchanging corners of fashion. Before Lee, such unrelenting perspectives were championed by Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo. When she first brought Comme des Garcons to Paris in 1981, her sober palette of black and white and figure-disregarding silhouettes stood out in stark contrast to the excesses of European designers.
A surface analysis might suggest that Kawakubo’s schtick is seriousness in the face of frivolity, but the lasting genius of Comme des Garcons — and Kawakubo’s mind — is a tenacious search for the new. Kawakubo’s approach is more cerebral, and she’s not interested in making pretty clothes, hence she’s invested in every possible permutation and extent of clothing.
It’s the reason why so many Comme des Garcons runway collections look inexplicable to many. The Autumn/Winter 2019 line-up, which is based on present-day grimness, was an intellectual exercise in deconstruction. Hard leather was refashioned around the body like pieces of armour while fabrics were spliced open and left gaping. Meanwhile, silhouettes played up the awkwardness of the body. In essence, it paid absolutely zero attention to what’s trendy in fashion.
And figures speak volumes: Comme des Garcons rakes in an average of US$300 million ($408 million) in annual sales. There are 12 main lines designed by Kawakubo as well as designers like Junya Watanabe and Kei Ninomiya, who have sprouted up under the brand’s umbrella. Comme des Garcons is cool because it doesn’t try to be so.
Many adherents are lifelong devotees who don’t shy away from the brand’s more outlandish runway showpieces. Marketing manager Parveen Hassanbhai wears and collects Kawakubo’s designs because they “make me feel different and comfortable in my own skin, not being in a cookie-cutter style like everyone else”.
A similar strength of vision is present in the works of designers like Yohji Yamamoto and Rick Owens. The former, who led the Japanese avant-garde takeover in Paris in the ’80s alongside Kawakubo, still espouses his mastery of craftsmanship and deconstruction of historical references in his Autumn/Winter 2019 collection. Owens, meanwhile, applied a desire for glamour to his canon of post-apocalyptic distress for his Spring/Summer 2020 showcase; he evolved his drape work to reference the American couturier Charles James by stripping the latter’s bourgeois version of couture down to its barest foundations of construction and shape, and assimilated them into his fashion lexicon.
The defining quality of both is that their clothing is immediately recognizable. You are almost certain to never see them splashed across a billboard. But if you saw someone in the flesh in Yamamoto or Owens, there would be no mistaking the exacting, tailored lines of the former or the inimitable draped shapelessness of the latter. And isn’t that what all the cool kids aspire to own? An immediate visual association they want to be aligned with.
Which brings us back to the matter of cool. Does “New Bottega” owe its appeal to the fashion set-turned-fans? Or is it so desirable because Lee’s designs, almost purposely dowdy at times, feel like a departure from the labour other brands poured in to be cool?
If good taste is a prevailing sensibility, then Lee’s anti-cool approach has shifted that paradigm. He gets to recast taste and reset agendas. It’s tremendous power — being able to make the ugly seem desirable — and one that very few designers wield.
Perhaps what really matters is the conviction to turn one’s vision — no matter how at odds it is with everyone else — into a reality. Whether that becomes cool is no longer the point.