Born in Tokyo in 1942, Rei Kawakubo started the clothing label Comme des Garçons in 1969. The shockwaves sent in every direction by her Paris debut, in 1981, continue to reverberate with power: every important designer of our time admits to her influence, and not so long ago, the critic Suzy Menkes declared her “one of the great fashion forces from the last decades of the 20th century to now.” Through it all, Kawakubo silently reigns over a business that is as meticulously crafted and complex as any garment to emerge from her famous patterning studios. In 032c’s Issue 20, we devoted a 40-page section to Rei Kawakubo at COMME DES GARÇONS. Here, in a candid personal essay, American filmmaker John Waters shares his life with the label and its designer. Next, our specially compiled alphabet systematically uncovers the enormous diversity of response that Kawakubo’s work has provoked. Hilton Als, of The New Yorker, closes the dossier with a note on love, loss, and Comme.
Fashion is very important to me. My “look” for the last 20 years or so has been “disaster at the dry cleaners.” I shop in reverse. When I can afford to buy a new outfit, something has to be wrong with it. Purposely wrong. Comme des Garçons (like some boys) is my favorite line of clothing, designed by the genius fashion dictator Rei Kawakubo. She specializes in clothes that are torn, crooked, permanently wrinkled, ill-fitting, and expensive. What used to be called “seconds” (clothes that were on sale in bargain basements of department stores because of accidental irregularities) is now called “couture.” Ms. Kawakubo is my god. The fashion historian Kazuko Koike has described Rei as “almost like the leader of a religious movement.” I genuflect to Rei’s destruction of the fashion rules. She is formidable, reclusive, intimidating, and has described her work as an “exercise in suffering.”
Ms. Kawakubo’s reviews have mostly been brilliant but the bad ones make me prouder to wear her clothes: “unwearable,” “postatomic,” “that shrunken, hopeless look,” “as threadbare and disheveled as Salvation army rejects,” and, best of all, “fashion is having a nervous breakdown.” “I’m always more or less annoying,” Kawakubo admitted to Judith Thurman in a revealing 2005 New Yorker profile. Wearing what Ms. Thurman describes as “Rei’s favorite accessory – a dour expression,” Kawakubo admitted that, between collections, she and her husband, Adrian Joffe (president of her company, who sees her once a month), “travel to Yemen or Romania” for … what? Fun? when asked by Thurman, “What makes Rei laugh?” she answered without a smile, “People falling down.
I had first heard of Comme des Garçons in 1983, when my friend Gina Koper, who was from Baltimore but now lives in New York, said to me, “You’ve got to see this new fashion place that opened in my neighborhood – you won’t believe it!” Since I knew Gina understood radical fashion situations from working as a white teenage girl in 1969 in a Baltimore Super Fly–type men’s store called the Purple Bone, I eagerly went with her. The first Comme des Garçons boutique in America was in SoHo, on Wooster Street, and it looked like a morgue. A few black rumpled pieces of clothing lay like wounded bodies on slabs. “Is that a hat or a coat?” nervous customers would ask the severely intimidating sales staff (or “co-combatants” as Rei later called them – “We are the Comme des Garçons army. ‘Staff’ is too boring a word”). I was amazed at the gall and the wit of the Japanese clothing designs. Many pieces looked fresh out of the sale bin at the Purple Heart thrift shop in Baltimore, but as Vogue later put it, “Destruction has its price and it’s not cheap.” I couldn’t afford any of the men’s clothes at the time but I hoped one day I could. Suddenly I felt like a drug addict who takes his first shot of heroin. I was about to become addicted to Comme des Garçons and maybe, if I worked hard, Rei Kawakubo could be my dealer. I left the store feeling like a king.
I always cared about clothes but I rebelled early against the preppy look my parents wished I’d wear. Even today, the sight of a pair of khakis turns my stomach. As soon as I got out of the house and moved to downtown Baltimore I discovered thrift shops and, brother, did we have good ones. Still do. where do you think all the vintage shops in New York get their stuff? it’s just a three-and-a-half hour drive south to “Charm City,” and even though today the most mutant thrift shop worker in the deepest ghetto knows what a Bakelite bracelet is, Baltimore is still cheaper than anywhere else. Our favorite fashion showroom in the sixties was the Carry on Shop, then located downtown on Howard Street. Most of the clothes were donated by rich people associated with Johns Hopkins Hospital, which ran the place. I remember “Fill Your Shopping Bag for a Dollar” day, when all the Dreamlanders purchased their looks for the year. We bought so many clothes there for our early movies it felt like the wardrobe department at MGM. And even on regular days, when the prices were a little higher, we got creative. Especially Divine and David Lochary. Outraged that any item might cost more than three dollars, they began bringing their own pricing equipment: cardboard that matched the existing price tags, a crayon the same color as used in the store, and a trusty little stapler. Ripping off the existing price tags, scribbling in the price they felt was fair, and stapling it back on the garment made stylish clothes available to even the poorest fashion fanatic.
Of course there were cheaper thrift stores, but you had to work hard to find good stuff at places like the Hadassah, a real dive that even homeless people snubbed. Maybe stuff was free; I can’t remember. But you can see Divine shoplifting there in a scene in Mondo Trasho that was filmed while the shop was open, with real customers, and without permission. Divine, dressed in a gold lamé toreador outfit and a tousled blond wig, just walked in and started picking her way through the dresses, many crammed in so tight you could hardly move the hangers, while I just filmed away with my silent 16 mm movie camera. In those days, our parents’ generation had just thrown away all their 1930s and ’40s clothes, and since those were freshly out of fashion, our gang started dressing like we were in a low-budget Busby Berkeley movie. I soon grew tired of the Dick-Powell-on-amphetamines look and switched over to a style I developed that made even speed freaks nervous. I loved finding the most hideous cowboy shirts, ones with padded guitars on them, or shrunken heads, or my favorite – giant tarantulas (Stiv Bators later ripped off the sleeves and wore it in Polyester). I found a jacket that was a uniform for some sort of dog handler/watchdog company that featured a giant snarling German shepherd on the back and wore that for years (you can see me in it on the cover of the A Date with John Waters CD). Pointy-toe suede shoes were easily purchased pre-punk, and we called them “shit-kickers.” With my pre-moustache skinny 6’1”, 130-pound frame and my long stringy hair, I succeeded in horrifying even seasoned thrift shop enthusiasts.
Then, in 1970, in a misguided attempt to steal Little Richard’s identity, I grew my pencil-thin moustache. At first it didn’t work right. It’s tough for a white man who isn’t that hairy to grow one. Sure, I shaved with a razor on top and trimmed the bottom with cuticle scissors, just like I do every day now, but it still looked kind of pitiful. Then “Sick,” the friend of mine from the Provincetown tree fort who had moved to Santa Barbara and changed her nickname to “Sique,” gave me some fashion advice when I was staying with her. “Just use a little eyebrow pencil and it will work better,” she advised, and then showed me how. Presto! an “iconic” look: A ridiculous fashion joke that I still wear forty years later. Surprised? Don’t be! It is called a “pencil moustache,” isn’t it? and there is only one pencil that does the trick – Maybelline expert eyes in Velvet Black. My entire identity depends on this magic little wand of sleaze. it has to be sharpened every time it’s applied, too – which in my case is twice a day or so. More if you’ve been making out. Believe me, I’ve tried expensive, smearproof eyebrow pencils, but they’re too thick, too penetrating, too indelible. There’s only one eyebrow pencil for me – and that’s Maybelline!
I always carry one in my pocket, keep another in my car, and have backups in each of my homes. Once I was in the hospital after being mugged and I guess because of my concussion I had forgotten to bring my Maybelline. I was so panicked that I would limp over to the mirror and try to gouge it on with a regular number two lead pencil used for writing. It didn’t work. Since Ii knew the only visitors I had scheduled that day were my parents, I decided to involve them. I didn’t have much of a choice. We had certainly never discussed how I did my moustache. I just remember their vaguely nauseated expression when they saw it for the first time when I came back from California. We had so many issues at the time, the moustache had to get in line. I bit the bullet, called my mother, and said, “Don’t ask any questions, just go to the drugstore, get me a Maybelline eyebrow pencil in Velvet Black, and bring it to me in the hospital.” Silence on her end. “Okay,” she finally muttered with mortified annoyance. When Mom and Dad came in the hospital room, she snuck the prized package behind her back and gave it to me without my father seeing. We never ever discussed it again.
I’ve forgotten to put on my moustache some days and I have to lurk around like Clark Kent looking for a phone booth until I find a car mirror on an uncrowded street (not easy in Manhattan!) or a public restroom where I can, unobserved, repair the damage to my image. i remember once starting out the day with a visit to Mary Boone’s midtown art gallery. Mary came out of her office, took one look at me, and blurted in a horrified voice, “What happened to your moustache?!” Instantly feeling nude in public, I realized the problem, mumbled some excuse about the lighting, and left immediately. I raced home in the privacy of a cab, drew it in, blended it, and started the day all over again.
You, too, can have an iconic signature. It’s not about money; it’s about a look. Angela Davis, the beautiful, black radical who helped free the Soledad Brothers in the sixties and ended up on the FBI’s Ten Most wanted list is, much to her chagrin, remembered today more for her amazing afro hairdo than she is for her radicalism. “It is humiliating because it reduces the politics of liberation to a politics of fashion,” she complained in a Baltimore speech, now wearing blond dreadlocks, which made it hard to feel much sympathy for her. But just because you are identifying yourself as a communist, as she is these days, doesn’t mean you have to be dreary. You can be smart and be known as “The Hairdo,” if you play it right. Think Mao – nobody refers to him as “The Jacket,” maybe because he never complained about being labeled a fashion influence. Or Che, who may have known how to wear a beret but was a homophobe in real life who rallied against “longhairs” and homosexuals. He was a sexual reactionary, not a “friend of Dorothy,” but cool people refuse to believe the truth because of his iconic look, which proves all ideology can be embraced if the leader dresses well. You can be a committed Marxist and a fashion enthusiast. Remember the Cockettes? Those bearded San Francisco drag queens from the late sixties who, high on LSD, read Lenin, put on their outlandish makeup, and actually believed “the revolution” was going to happen? They were influential and leftwing, and their amazing take on female impersonators liberated drag queens everywhere.
You don’t need fashion designers when you are young. Have faith in your own bad taste. Buy the cheapest thing in your local thrift shop – the clothes that are freshly out of style with even the hippest people a few years older than you. Get on the fashion nerves of your peers, not your parents – that is the key to fashion leadership. Ill-fitting is always stylish. But be more creative – wear your clothes inside out, backward, upside down. Throw bleach in a load of colored laundry. Follow the exact opposite of the dry cleaning instructions inside the clothes that cost the most in your thrift shop. Don’t wear jewelry – stick Band-aids on your wrists or make a necklace out of them. Wear Scotch tape on the side of your face like a bad facelift attempt. Mismatch your shoes. Best yet, do as Mink Stole used to do: go to the thrift store the day after Halloween, when the children’s trick-or-treat costumes are on sale, buy one, and wear it as your uniform of defiance.
But past the age of forty you need all the help you can get. Now is the time for designers and, believe me, Rei Kawakubo has made it possible for older people to be as fashion daring as the young. “Too rich? Too nuts?” Yesiree, these are Rei’s customers, and we are proud to be her cult members on “Planet Rei.” Rei Kawakubo was “the first to make polyester cost more than silk,” the model Linda Evangelista told me when I met her at a film festival in France. Rei is not a fashion designer; she’s a magician.
All celebrities would look better dressed by Rei Kawakubo. Why do all female movie stars show their tits at the Oscars? Pamela Anderson, Traci Lords, Mariah Carey, even Jessica Rabbit would look so much sexier dressed in a Comme des Garçons creation, one that showed confidence in being smart by purposefully downplaying their curves and looking, as a Washington Post critic described them, as though “they had a bad night and gone to bed sweaty and smelling of smoke.”
Even Aretha Franklin could benefit. She may be the “Best Soul Singer Ever,” but she designs her own clothes and someone should intervene. Lady Soul even wore a black version of Divine’s red fishtail gown from Pink Flamingos but forgot to bring the humor. Wouldn’t it be great if Aretha surprised us all by showing up at her next gig wearing Rei Kawakubo’s most notorious design – the “bump” dress, dubbed the “Quasimodo look” by the fashion press? “The ugliest dress of the year,” as Vogue reported the reaction. The dress with built-in pads that “deformed the stomach, hips, or shoulders,” the very parts of the body most fashionable women go to the gym to eliminate. Not since Chanel introduced the “sack dress” in the fifties had a garment caused such a fury. Wouldn’t Aretha shut up her severest fashion critics by wearing the Comme des Garçons “hunchback” look! Don’t try to be sexy at three hundred pounds, aretha; be cutting edge. Exaggerate the bulges in your body through fashion and nobody will see the real weight. Anybody that calls herself “the Queen” and hopes to get away with it has to have nerve.
I modeled for Rei Kawakubo once. In Paris. In those tents outside the Louvre where collections are unveiled every year. I was really surprised to be asked but leaped at the chance for a new job. Me? A model? I guess Rei had seen press photos of me wearing some of her outfits to openings, or maybe the salespeople told her what a fan I was. Before accepting, I begged that Comme des Garçons consider my age (forty-six at the time) and maybe let me wear some of her more conservative outfits, not the most ridiculous ones. I loved the most ridiculous, but, please, let the “real” models strut their stuff in them. However, I soon learned there were no “real models.” Rei likes her menswear modeled by amateurs – boys off the european street – who are somehow rounded up to wear her amazingly ludicrous and beautiful clothes on the runway.
Arriving backstage for rehearsal the day before the show, I realized I was the fattest model among the scrawny, gorgeous, blasé street urchin skeletons who were trying on their outfits and pointing at each other and laughing good-naturedly at their Comme des Garçons makeovers. My first outfit was a relief – a black suit with flood-length trousers and a white shirt with an exaggerated shirttail partially worn outside and hanging halfway to the knees. But then I saw the crazy hat. No man looks more stupid in a hat than I do. Oh God, I wondered, could I talk Rei Kawakubo out of the hat? When I saw her enter, I trembled in my Comme des Garçons boots. There she was – dressed all in black with that Louise Brooks bob hairdo and looking like she had been locked in a cell for months meditating on the deconstruction of the concept of hemlines. Baldheaded girls, who I think were her assistants, hovered around her. When I was introduced, I just told her how proud I was to be there and then begged her to let me not wear a hat. She frowned deeper, then without a word, switched my hat to one a little less ridiculous. Suddenly I thought, What the hell! She flew you over here first class, is paying you, giving you some free clothes. So just shut up, wear a hat, and do what you are told.
The day of the show, I’m backstage with all the motley cool pretend models who looked more like drug-addled janitors or concentration camp victims (Rei later got in trouble for designing pajama-type outfits that some misguided critics claimed were reminiscent of death camp uniforms) and I realized that here were the kind of boys I like best – my type if there ever was one. I could hear the buzz (or was it the venom-dripped whispers?) of the A-list fashion press on the other side of the curtain and suddenly I got up my nerve. Until I was told I had to go out first. Talk about terror. Right before I had to go on, I had to pass through the stylists and end up later under the hawk eye of Rei herself for a final inspection. She took in my entire look in one critical glance and suddenly grabbed the collar of my shirt and yanked it sideways so it hung clumsily. Whatever courage I had managed to work up vanished instantly, but she gave me a severe pat of confidence and shoved me through the curtain onto the runway.
Jesus Christ, I’m a model in Paris. Don Knotts meets Mahogany. Cover of Spy magazine, here I come. But be brave, I thought, hold your head high and look unafraid. I walked to the end of the runway, turned around, and people applauded, quietly and severely. Other models followed me. No one laughed. It started to feel kind of great. It’s a long way from Lutherville, Maryland, to the runways of Paris. How did this ever happen?
Later that evening, after the show, there was some kind of party for the models, and boy could these Comme des Garçons recruits drink! Few could speak English, but who cared? Maybe it was their newfound fashion aggression, but they sure were friendly. I was in hog heaven. I can’t remember much about what happened after the party except driving to the hotel in the backseat of my limo with a gang of crazy, young, drunk street models who were hanging their heads out the windows and howling at the moon before being dropped off. What a great Paris memory! Isn’t fashion fun? And you know what? I didn’t end up on the cover of Spy magazine but on the cover of DNR, the men’s version of Women’s Wear Daily, and I looked … well, not so bad.
So now, when I get dressed every day, I pretend I’m a model. Even in Baltimore, where people I love insult me daily over my fashion choices. “That’s a shame about that coat,” a big bruiser blithely told me, eyeing my meatball-brown, permanently wrinkled polyester sports jacket as I stood next to him on a Friday night in a favorite biker bar, the Holiday House. The jacket my old dry cleaner had tried to “fix,” unaware it had been designed by Rei Kawakubo so it could not be ironed or pressed no matter how hard you tried. True, this great little coat had dry cleaning instructions inside more complicated than the ones for assembling the atomic bomb, but who could figure them out? Only I knew that this Value Village look-alike garment had actually cost a thousand dollars. “Thank you,” I answered, as I ordered the biker a drink and caught him shaking his head at my pinstriped shirt, which was permanently stained with what looks like oil. Since I was in a blue-collar bar, I thought for sure I’d fit in better in this Comme des Garçons tribute to grease monkeys everywhere. If I was lucky, maybe somebody would rub more grease on my shirt after the bar closed. “It comes like that,” I tried to explain before he noticed the Comme des Garçons Shirt Line pants, the ones with panels sewn in the bottom of each leg in a different material and that seem to have been hastily altered because you had mysteriously grown in height. “I’ll take a beer,” he chuckled, mercifully not commenting on my Rei Kawakubo – designed brown oxfords that came with shoelace holes, but no laces, just elastic underneath the tongue that kept them magically on your feet and eventually was copied by every tennis shoe designer in the world.
The next day it’s Saturday, so I go to visit my parents and I hesitate while choosing an outfit. They know about “that lady whose clothes you like,” but I try not to start a fight by wearing Rei’s most insane, like my gold lamé sports jacket similar to one Elvis wore on that album cover for 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. Well, Ten Fashion Casualties Can’t Be wrong either, but i decide to spare my parents this debate. Similarly rejecting my off-white shag rug favorite – the sports jacket that looks so much like a dirty bath mat that strangers always laugh in my face – I also pass by the blue shirt with the pink splotches all over it. “You bought that?!” my dad (who died in June 2008 at the age of ninety-one) had bellowed when he first saw it, and I must admit, a shirt that makes you look like a moving target for a paintball gun did have a certain fashion edge. Even I hesitated before leaving the house wearing it, but some days you just need fashion gall.
Today can’t be that day. I lunge for and then reconsider my favorite CDG pants, the ones with the seams that have the threads hanging off, the trousers that literally unravel without falling apart as you wear them. “Don’t worry, they get worse,” the salesperson told me with a fashion wink as I signed the credit card slip. And I certainly knew better than to wear my pink leather pointy-toe Comme des Garçons tennis shoes, which I also have in bright orange. Matter of fact, I bought all six colors in the canvas style, too. I can’t get enough of Rei’s pointy-toe tennis shoes, and in the summer in Provincetown I line them all up on the floor like some kind of art installation, but today I’m dressing for the family so I’d better be careful. Pink shoes and Dad are a fight waiting to happen.
Trying to be conservative, and remembering my parents’ hoot of derision when I showed them the press clipping of me being named to the Best Dressed Men list when it was written by the late Eleanor Lambert of Women’s Wear Daily, I slip into my gray pinstripe jacket designed by Rei to look normal on the outside. Underneath was a whole different story, of course – coffinlike blue satin ruffles that made you both fat and ready for the undertaker give the jacket an inner lunacy that you could keep secret as long as the coat remained buttoned. Finally choosing my “inside-out” Comme des Garçons shirt with the pockets sewn inside, therefore making them impossible to use, I figured this “fashion theory” was too complicated to be noticed by fashion civilians like my parents. I took a chance and wore tennis shoes from the same inside-out line. I knew my mom and dad wouldn’t notice the size and model number painted on the outside of the shoe and hoped they wouldn’t pick up on the shoe tongue flapping in the wind over the laces. Being inside-out fashionwise is the best way to visit your parents if you can be stealthy about it and slip away before they get pissed off at the whole idea.
Now, it’s Saturday night and I’m headed to the Kitty Kat Bar, my favorite ska/punk rock saloon, filled with non-racist skinheads and punk-rock boys, even angrier and cuter because they are too old to be in a band. If it’s summer, I know I can get away with the jacket i wore to the new Hairspray movie musical premiere at the Kennedy Center, the one The Washington Post called “the ugliest sports jacket in the world.” I might get beaten up if I wear this hideous Rei-designed Dunkin’ Donuts – like patterned jacket on the street, but at this great dive bar nobody notices, because the boys here dress like iRa members at the height of the conflict. I remember a New Year’s Eve at the Kitty Kat Bar when I was there in some ridiculous outfit – probably my green plaid Comme des Garçons jacket that was shrunken hideously by Rei throwing it into the washing machine instead of having it dry cleaned. With my favorite two-toned Comme des Garçons tie that featured bad stitching and pseudo rips, I felt all ready to ring in the New Year. Right at the stroke of midnight, all these kids suddenly wrapped scarves around their heads like terrorists, put on ski masks, zipped up their hoodies, and ran outside into the streets and set off the most frighteningly insane display of fireworks I’ve ever seen. Industrial-strength ones. All noise and no beauty. Bomblike explosions on a tiny street instead of a stadium. The neighbors flipped, the cops came, and everybody scattered in fashion terror. If Rei Kawakubo had been there that night, she would have been so inspired.
How far can you push fashion in blue-collar Baltimore? My onetime favorite bar, Kildaire’s, is still there, but under a whole different management these days. For a very short while this watering hole held a special place in my vodka-soaked heart. I liked to go there alone. Then stuff can happen. Never bad stuff, because I dress appropriately. Comme des Garçons can be subtle, especially if danger is lurking. I have on one of Rei’s jackets that looks sort of normal from a distance, but up close the blue material looks stained. Some might say with a semenlike pattern. Spurted. Glamorous “pecker tracks,” if you will. The mostly all-male, heterosexual clientele, who are white, dress like Eminem, and dance feverishly and by themselves to gangster rap music, don’t notice my sartorial detail. But I know I have on a killer jacket, and as I sit alone at the bar marveling at the scene before me (where are the girls?), I feel accepted. Sure, they know who I am, but they don’t seem the slightest bit impressed. The DJ, the only black man in the house, honors my presence by playing Eminem’s “Puke” every time I come in the door, but this small tribute hardly qualifies him as a star fucker. “Hey, John,” a hopped-up but scarily cute redneck guy says as he makes eye contact, “watch this.” Suddenly he slam-dances the table near the dancefloor with all his might, splintering the wood in front of me. As he gets up off the floor and gives me a sheepish grin, I applaud his destructive dance steps and feel so happy to live in Baltimore, secretly dressed by Rei Kawakubo.
But wait, down some steps at the back of the entrance hall is a whole other bar. And guess who that’s for? The Hells Angels! For real. The true fashion leaders of the universe. They’ve always been nice to me, no matter how unbutchly I was dressed. The Fat Boys, too – another local biker gang I’ve known for years from hanging around another bar up the street. I even went once to the Fat Boys’ secret clubhouse that was so Scorpio Rising. One of the main Hells Angels, though, was a tougher nut to crack. It took him ten years to finally say hello to me, but after agreeing to appear in A Dirty Shame he was downright cordial. “Wanna come downstairs with me and have a drink?” I ask the cute slam-dancing “wigga” upstairs, marveling at the fact that this is a convertible bar – two in one! Downstairs: bikers; upstairs: whiteboy gangstas. Could there possibly be a better setup?! But “Noooooo,” the imitation African American answers in fear, “I’m not going down there. No way!”
What the hell. I go downstairs alone in full fashion confidence. I mean, bikers have the best possible look, but it is a style that is vanishing. Young bad boys don’t want to be bikers anymore; they want to be black. Unfortunately, for the young these days, Hells Angel is a trick-or-treat outfit. It’s a confusing look, too. In the one store in Baltimore that sells custom-made biker leathers, there are two very different breeds of shopper: the straight bikers and the gay sadomasochist crowd, and both are going through the same midlife crisis. S&M men are having a hard time recruiting, too! Young gay people don’t feel guilty about being homosexual – they don’t need to be paddled or whipped anymore. Still, the middle-aged enthusiasts of both biker and gay culture ended up wearing the exact same look with very different intentions. They have no choice but to shop side by side, avoiding all eye contact. No wonder the bikers didn’t punch me out for wearing Comme des Garçons.
In some Baltimore drinking establishments, the patrons are so happily drunk you can model your most ridiculous Comme des Garçons outfit and no one will be sober enough to see it. Dimitri’s, at last call, is the perfect place to wear my ludicrous Burberry-like brown plaid sports jacket with a panel of the same material sewn on the bottom, making it too long. The plaids don’t line up and this extra material added in by the designer gives the jacket the embarrassing suggestion of a skirt. Many nights I put it on before I go out, look in the mirror, and chicken out. But not tonight; it’s late and what the hell, i need some new stories. After all, this is the tavern where I stupidly asked a guy, “What do you do for a living?” and he said, “Can I be frank?” when I answered, “Sure,” he replied matter-of-factly, “I trade deer meat for crack.” You can’t make this shit up. Screenwriters are paid a fortune in Hollywood to come up with this kind of dialogue and I get it for free. The only problem is, in Dimitri’s, many of the karaoke customers are so sloshed and have such Baltimore accents that when they try to have conversations, they can only yell at top volume in your face in a kind of excited gibberish that only a local (and I mean four-blocks-away-local) could possibly understand. It really doesn’t matter to me and I yell back, having no idea if my answer addresses their question. One thing I do know for sure – no one has noticed my ridiculous brown plaid Comme des Garçons coat that looks like a stupid skirt. And I’m sixty-three years old!
On the way out, a young tough-looking white kid who has his own ridiculous look – full-tilt ghetto baggy – follows me out and offers, “Hey! My dad used to know you from up BJ’s.” BJ’s, a long-ago-torn-down legendary scary white bar up the street, was used as the location for the final scene in my movie Pecker. “Who is your dad?” I ask, remembering fondly the night when a friend and I went into the men’s room to take a leak and came face-to-face with two junkies freebasing. “Beat it, Curley,” one barked at my friend, and we turned in our tracks and fled. “He’s dead now,” the kid responded sadly, “but he told me he used to watch your back up at BJ’s and I just want to tell you I’ll watch your back from now on whenever you come in here.” Now, that’s what I call accepted. And safe. I was touched. Who knows, maybe next time I’ll wear my gold lamé Comme des Garçons tennis shoes.
Wearing fashion in New York is a whole different story. “Dressed in his thrift shop finest,” the press has written many times when I go to openings wearing Rei Kawakubo’s newest reinvention of “bum wear.” But here, I can model my “I, a Notebook” jacket, the one made out of material exactly like the black-and-white cover of every schoolkid’s composition book, and no one will bat an eye. Sometimes strangers ask, “Is that Comme des Garçons?” I can slip into my hideous gold-and-copper fake-snakeskin-patterned Beatle boots that Mary Boone bought from Comme des Garçons and gave to me for my sixtieth birthday, and a few will recognize that they didn’t come from the sale bin at the Flagg Brothers shoe store. Even if I go out to my favorite New York restaurant, Prune, and wear my snappy little fall jacket that zips up crookedly and hangs on me in an unflattering way, no one will sneer. New Yorkers understand that sometimes everybody needs to dress crookedly.
Only in Manhattan do I dare wear a fragrance. And that’s Odeur 53, Rei Kawakubo’s scent that to me smells exactly like Off! insect repellant. The best thing about Odeur 53 is that the smell doesn’t last very long. “Rei doesn’t really like perfume for men,” a sales person needlessly tried to explain. I love the idea of a perfume that disappears – you don’t need to convince me! Designed to “confront the nose” – the press release’s copy for this “anti-perfume” was art in itself – “a memory of smell … entering the world of abstraction by way of a feeling … the future, the space, the air.” With astonishing seriousness Rei listed the inorganic ingredients: “the freshness of oxygen, wash drying in the wind, nail polish, burnt rubber, and the mineral intensity of carbon.” That’s exactly what I want to smell like! How did she know?!
You have to be careful about fashion at the beach. And Rei Kawakubo refuses to acknowledge the seasons, often showing air-suffocating polyester or wool for summer or skimpy little jackets with mesh seams cut in that make the hawklike winds of New York City even more shocking to your skinny body. in Provincetown, I try to blend in. I’m always on my bicycle, so I can’t wear any of Rei’s suave little orange suede loafers that might slip on the pedals or her black “fashion stunt wear” pants with the strings hanging off that could get caught in the spokes. And since I love minorities and Provincetown is a gay fishing village, I hang out in the two straight bars. My first stop is always downstairs at the Bradford, which is a little-known large bar beneath a popular Commercial Street drag karaoke tourist hangout. The grouchy stock boys who work in the local supermarket and refuse to make eye contact with you in the aisles, the handymen around town who don’t show up for their jobs renovating all the expensive new condo conversions, and the hetero townies who grew up in a gay town and have a certain wariness about the homo majority without being homophobic make up the customers. There’s a pool table and a DJ who plays all rap music. It reminds me of that Jodie Foster movie The Accused, where her character gets raped on a pinball machine by a gang of New Bedford–type morons. I usually wear my brown CDG sports coat that Rei Kawakubo hastily spray-painted black right before putting it out on the rack. You can tell because, if you turn up the collar, you can see she forgot or, better yet, chose not to spray underneath. It’s a really ugly jacket but it makes me feel … well … of the people. So many of the customers here could just go home and spray-paint their daywear uniforms and presto – they’d be right in fashion, but I wisely decide to keep that information to myself.
If that place is dead I go across the street to the Old Colony, which used to be a fisherman bar but now is a nice place for budding alcoholics. It looks like the set of a whaling movie, and there is some vomiting at the height of the season. Since people knock into you a lot, I like to wear a blue coat that, if you look really closely, you realize, no, it doesn’t need to be cleaned; those coffee stains are part of the fabric. This way if a drunken sherman spills a drink on you, you’ve turned him into a fashion designer and he’s none the wiser.
My real passion is hitchhiking and I do it a lot in Provincetown. I have a sign that reads LONGNOOK BEACH on one side and PROVINCETOWN on the other. Very Depression-era, just like today. But it works. Cars pick me up immediately; it’s like hailing a cab. I try to look very hobo-like, yet not scary. If it’s chilly I’ll even wear a sports jacket – Rei’s very conservative green number that looks completely normal except for one hideous, large clown-like button on the front. But when the temperature soars I go for her lightweight pajama-type jacket, so preppy yet so Titicut Follies – mental institution. Rei has never done a men’s bathing suit as far as I know and I tremble to think what she could come up with – drawstrings that hang to the knees? Shorts with faux beet-red suntan lines? A reason to live.
I have a place in San Francisco, too. My filth empire keeps expanding and I’m so happy to once again spend time in the first city where my films caught on outside of Baltimore, way before New York. I live in a great apartment on Nob Hill, just five blocks from where I used to pull over and sleep in my car in 1970. I don’t feel that different. I still dress like I’m homeless. The weather is so perfect for fashion here – always a slight chill, so I’m free to wear year-round the jacket from Comme des Garçons I wear most. It’s a beautifully cut traditional three-button black sports coat, but Rei must have had a fashion vision the day she was finished, because she angrily tore off the entire collar. It’s now ragged, and dirt gets caught in the tears, but “la mode destroy” never looked so beautiful. Of all my CDG jackets, this is the one the dry cleaners hate the most. “No! No! No! Don’t repair it!” I always have to yell when they look at the jacket with a dumbfounded expression. To make matters worse, I like to pair it alongside her all-white dress shirt buttoned up to the top (I copied David Lynch, who invented this look) with one half of the front collar in black, which always gives a cockeyed optical illusion when worn with a black tie.
I’m obsessed with taking public transportation in San Francisco so I can feel like a real local. I read about someone in LA who rides the buses just to pick up people. A “transfer queen”? I wouldn’t be very good at this because when I get on a bus, people in the Bay Area start laughing. Not meanly. And I don’t think at what I’m wearing – a lightweight four button black sports coat with the fabric around the shoulders dyed gray in a dripping motif paired with a CDG white shirt that has a random mismatched piece of green material sewn awkwardly on the front for no apparent reason. No, it’s just because they don’t expect to see me. “What are you doing on a bus?!” they ask, as if they expect me to have my own personal filthmobile and driver. What can I say? I’m just a model-about-town and the bus routes are my runway.
The Comme des Garçons boutique on West 22nd Street in New York is my favorite of all Rei’s stores. When you walk in, it feels architecturally like you just entered the Tilt-A-Whirl. Tomoko is my favorite salesperson … no, excuse me, fashion warrior. Even though she, I think, has a good sense of humor, she is quite serious about her customers. Once she called me at ten p.m. in Provincetown, and since it was kind of late for a “school night” (weekday nights before the next day’s writing hours in the morning), I didn’t pick up, but heard her voice on the answering machine. “We got them in!” she breathlessly announced. Stumbling from my bed where I had been reading, I picked up the phone, worried she was in some kind of trouble. “Got what in?” I asked, mystified. “The new line!” she responded without the slightest suggestion of a joke. “Is this some sort of fashion emergency?” I asked half in jest. “Well … yes,” she declared like a proud drug dealer. “I thought you’d want to know we got everything through customs.” She was calling from the airport?! God, how great! “Of course I want to know, Tomoko! Thank you for calling, and I’ll be in to see the new stuff the first day I get to New York.” “Good night,” she said, and hung up. Fashion bulletins! I slept easier that night knowing Tomoko was looking out for me in the fashion trenches.
I’ve only been to the Tokyo flagship store twice: the old one in Aoyama once and later the new one in Minamiaoya, Minato-Ku, that opened in 1998. The very best thing about shopping here is the woman who seems to be the manager, although that title hardly seems appropriate. She is, quite simply, the ultimate Comme des Garçons woman and has worked there for years. Her name is Ms. Keiko Mimoto and she is of undetermined age, wears such fierce CDG outfits that I’m not even sure they are for sale, and looks exactly like a witch. A stunning, stylish witch like the one in Snow White with the crooked teeth. Imperious, yet flawed in a brand-new way, she is hardly who you’d expect to greet you as you enter a high-end fashion boutique. I am actually scared of her chicness. No one would ever laugh at her “look,” no matter how Kawakubo’d-out she may appear. She is not a fashion casualty; she is fashion authority itself. You almost expect her to offer you a poison apple. I’d eat it. I bow down to her fashion divinity.
Rei Kawakubo’s Dover Street Market store in London is one of her newest experiments: an actual Comme des Garçons department store that also sells other designers whom Rei deigns to anoint. You have to see it to believe it. Six floors, thirteen thousand square feet of fashion lunacy. Or, as Rei puts it, “an ongoing atmosphere of strong and beautiful chaos.” in other words, “DARE TO SHOP HERE!!” You walk in past off-putting freakish taxidermy displays, and if you decide to try something on, there are porta-potties instead of dressing rooms, and if you purchase your item, you pay in Mortville-style checkout huts that bring back images of Tent City, U.S.A. It truly is the deconstruction of the department store you may remember from your youth. There are beautiful velvet drapes, but they are torn and tattered and have holes in them that bring to mind a hungry moth attack. To further alienate the traditional shopper, rap music or obscure speed-metal fills the air instead of Muzak. There is a bookstore stocked with obscure vintage art books. And yes, there is a lunchroom, but here it is called an “organic café.” It is so sparse that any kind of appetite is mocked. Lunch specials? Parsnips, the day I was there. Yummy! I’ll have two orders, please. On the basement level is an actual CD shop, and I was amazed to see that I had not heard of one of the musicians for sale. In the back is my favorite section. You have to bend down to kind of semi-crawl through an opening leading to an entire section of “elf wear”: tiny, shrunken, amazing little outfits that are designed to be too small for the skinniest, most severe Japanese male fashion radicals.
I’ve never been to Rei Kawakubo’s Guerrilla Stores, but I want to open one in Baltimore similar to the kind she began showcasing in 2005 in remote, ungentrified areas in cities of Europe. Like Dogme 95 movies, Comme des Garçons has a strict series of guidelines for their shops that are explained in Guerrillazine – Extracts of a Corporate Nightmare, a combination shopping guide–instruction manual whose cover is riddled with bullet holes. One can picture Rei Kawakubo nailing her “guerrilla rules” to the door of the Gap or Banana Republic like a fashion-obsessed Martin Luther.
“Rule Number one – The Guerrilla Store will last no more than one year in any given location.” Heresy for Baltimore, a town where the word “trendy” seems almost preposterous. Ideal, however, for the ten shoppers here who might actually like to be CDG customers.
“Rule Number Two – The concept for the interior design will be largely equal to the existing space.” Perfect! and I know just the spot for the one I’m going to manage in Baltimore. Armistead Gardens, a neighborhood originally built as public housing for the in flux of people coming to work in factories during World War II. It has been called a “white ghetto” of “row-ranchers,” surprising in their “now outdated modernity.” There is an amazing graveyard nearby where the star of my early movie Eat Your Makeup, Maelcum Soul, is buried. No one ever shops in Armistead Gardens.
“Rule Number Three – The location will be chosen according to the atmosphere, historic connection, geographical situation away from established commercial areas or some other interesting feature.” Well, I remember seeing the perfect house. A tiny little home surrounded by vinyl siding, concrete block exteriors, and Formstone motifs. Where, driving by, spying on a location for a movie script I was writing, I saw an amazing Russ Meyer–type woman walk out her front door with her little baby nestled in her giant silicone bosoms, which couldn’t be hidden even under a winter coat. She looked so bold, so exaggerated, that I kept making up fictitious biographies of her in my mind. There she goes – an obvious exotic dancer who happens to be a single mother in Armistead Gardens. Trying to make ends meet, just like everybody else, on her way to work, first dropping off her kid at daycare before showing up to lap dance her way to the mortgage payment. Her apartment is the perfect place for a hidden Comme des Garçons – John Waters boutique.
“Rule Number Four – The merchandise will be a mix of all seasons, new and old clothing and accessories …” I can just picture the shop now! You walk through her front door under a ladder for bad luck and see the most radical Comme des Garçons women’s lines displayed on plastic-covered furniture stamped “March of Dimes,” the sweaters with purposely stitched holes or the pants with a bonus leg that my buddy Dennis Dermody once described as “fashion formerly owned by onetime Siamese twins.” The few misfires, the CDG lines I didn’t like, would definitely be carried here, too. The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers tongue – patterned men’s wear and anything with a cartoon character in its design, especially Oswald the Rabbit. I’d put them all in the bizarre female urinal in the bathroom, the one we’d borrow from the ladies’ room of the nearby Bengies Drive-in Theater. This actual working toilet, made and then abandoned in the 1940s, was for women to urinate in standing up. Don’t believe me? Go look for yourself. Just enter the ladies’ room at the drive-in (the same one we shot the final scene of Cecil B. Demented in) and there it is, on the right-hand wall, lonely, just begging to be used.
Inside the living room would be the main shopping area of our little Guerrilla Store. We’d have shelves that collapsed if you touched the “Hiroshima chic” classics, but a helpful salesperson from the Man Alive program, high on methadone, would wait on you and assist in picking up stuff. In the tiny kitchen our stripper muse would have left out some old pit beef to nibble on, and if it was humid outside there would be some rusty ice shavers and a few bottles of the most obscure syrupy flavorings, like Egg Custard, and you could cool off by making yourself a snowball. But don’t get too comfortable. As soon as you even try to sit down, short high school dropouts from the neighborhood, hiding beneath the cushions of the furniture, will push up and “reject” you just like the couch did in Pink Flamingos after Divine had licked it. and payment? Well, we do accept food stamps.
“Rule Number Five – The partners will take responsibility for the lease and Comme des Garçons will support the store with the merchandise on a sale or return basis.” “Sale?” Yes, they have sales at Comme des Garçons, but what about the stuff that doesn’t sell even then? I had always heard of the great Comme des Garçons fire, but I’m not sure it’s not just a fashion myth. Supposedly, on the final day, after the final sale, in a secret location, the remaining stock, the stuff absolutely no one in the world wanted even reduced in price by 80 percent, is burned in a giant bonfire so as to not end up in some common outlet shop. Even if this tale isn’t true, couldn’t we have the fire for the first time for real at my Baltimore shop? Think of the amazing photograph! Couldn’t Rei light the first match herself? Think of the polyester-and-rayon-polluted smoke drifting over the Armistead Gardens neighborhood and the magic spell it could possibly cast on the unsuspecting neighbors. The ecstasy of rejection, the raptures of unavailability, and the open-sesame of Rei’s vision could turn this beautiful downscale section of Baltimore into an international fashion mecca.
Rei, I have a wish list for you. I know you’re busy. I realize you don’t take “notes” (the new n-word for all film directors), but I just have some ideas for future outfits that I would happily pay you too much money for. I hate weddings; I’ve never had fun at one in my life. I know you’ve designed a black wedding dress with a white veil, and it was so cutting-edge Modern Bride. But how about something for me to wear to a wedding to take my mind off the romance pressure I feel pulsating around me? Something secret, because I’m not a rude person and you never want your outfit to upstage the bride’s or groom’s. How about an elegant black wool Vincent Price-type suit: on the outside so seemingly conservative and beautifully tailored, but inside lined with the fur of the mice who were living and nesting under the hood of my car in my garage, nibbling away at the engine’s wiring harness and causing about a thousand dollars’ worth of damage? Wearing fur coats always makes one look like an old person, but poisoned or trapped mouse-fur lining seems politically correct to me, especially when the same little fuckers had friends who were setting up house inside the exterior air-conditioning compressor of my Baltimore home and chewing on the wiring. If we hadn’t discovered these little Ben and Willard movietype wannabes and had turned on the cooling system the first hot day, these unwelcome squatters would have been ground up by the motor fan blades and their death fumes would have been piped into my home in all their decomposed glory. So what better purpose could their deaths have than to be recycled as fashion? Even their little heads could be designed as buttons for the inside pockets!
Let’s talk about the suit pants. Couldn’t they have faux “scraped knees”? You like to see people fall down – here’s the perfect reminder for your customer of the one thing that gives you pleasure. You’ve already done shirts with triple collars, but how about one with an extra arm that hangs in the back under the coat that nobody but me would see or know about? Of course the tie, an item of clothing I love and you seem to rarely design, should be covered with clever soup stains. We know how hard and expensive it is to properly clean a tie, so you can now charge double the price and it will still be a deal, because you’d never have to take it to the dry cleaners.
My dream socks that you would create only for me would be mismatched and stretched out with holes where the big toe sticks through (“summer socks,” we used to call these castaways). Your belts would go around me twice and would be tested for possible autoerotic strangulation use. It would be too vulgar to ask you to design faux “skidmark” underwear, so how about white boxers stained from purposely washing them with a load of brightly colored laundry?
But, Rei, my final wish is a pair of creepily sophisticated faux Pic ’N Pay shoes that I hope you’ll design for me to wear inside my closed (as my will demands) coffin. Like the ones the Moe Howard look-a-like, the “shoe bomber,” wore that day on the airplane. Scruffy, ugly oxfords whose hideousness has been negated by your “relentless sobriety,” as the critics have written. Shoes with wires and fuses hanging off them. And real dynamite inside. Scary and aggressive footwear – the perfect accessory to my final outfit. The worms go in, the worms go out; the worms play pinochle on my snout. Now i’ll be ready to blast off into Comme des Garçons heaven.
Text JOHN WATERS