On a chilly Paris evening in October 1996, Rei Kawakubo, the high priestess of forward-looking fashion design, unveiled her latest collection for Comme des Garçons. The audience of editors, stylists and photographers sat in silence, punctuated by the rapid-fire sound of camera shutters, as a parade of models passed by, swathed in stretchy material in Easter-egg colors and disfigured by large, soft, tumorlike protrusions. Kawakubo's vision of spring, which came to be known as the "Lumps and Bumps" collection, is now seen as a seminal moment in 20th-century design, but at the time it was greeted with skepticism and ridicule. The late Amy Spindler wrote in her New York Times review that "the dresses invented whole new deformities for women." High-end retailers like Barneys New York barely sold any of the pieces. This time, they said, Kawakubo had gone too far.
It turned out to be a good career move. The reclusive Kawakubo is now designing a line for the mass-market marvel H&M, due out in November. The one-season collection will encompass men's, women's and children's wear, fragrance and accessories, swiftly carrying the fashion world's avant-garde agent provocateur from the outskirts of public acceptance to the heart of the mainstream "fast fashion" machine. Such marriages benefit both partners; as clothing production continues to accelerate, turnover in taste quickens and consumers' attention spans diminish, both designers and retailers are looking for ways to weather the challenging commercial landscape.
As a key driver of fast fashion—the rapid-fire delivery of new, on-trend merchandise—H&M is one of the major success stories of the new millennium, combining low-margin, bargain-basement prices with a fashion-savvy staff. To remain competitive, however, the company regularly pursues high-fashion collaborations. Since 2004, H&M has coupled with Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney, Viktor & Rolf and Roberto Cavalli. Kawakubo is the first truly avant-garde talent to make the grade. "Things are becoming more accessible, people are more broad-minded, [and] something like this can come out to a bigger audience," says Margareta Van den Bosch, H&M's former design director and current creative adviser. "It's fashion and it's a form of art." To be sure, the audience for sophisticated visionaries like Kawakubo has grown. But even if H&M customers don't warm to her creations like armhole-less shirts, and skirts for men, the resulting media buzz will be the chain's main payoff.
Kawakubo stands to gain, too. "Our guest designers reach out to a bigger audience, at least for a short time," says Van den Bosch. Gabi Asfour, one of the three members of the New York-based design team ThreeasFour, which recently joined forces with the Gap on its latest collection of reinterpreted classic white button-down shirts, is even more direct. "We collaborated with the Gap because we respect capitalism," he says. "If the establishment of America has opened up to us, I'm very happy." Other pairings include London's Topshop with such avant-garde designers as Preen, Marios Schwab, Christopher Kane, Jonathan Saunders and Louise Goldin, whose affordable adaptations of their signature designs draw customers in.
Avant-garde designers are defined by their reputation as experimental innovators, which might seem incompatible with the brand identity of mainstream clothing chains. But industry experts say such collaborations are harmless for the designers, as long as they are short-term. "With a capsule collection there's very little, if any, risk or downside," says Robert Burke, CEO of the eponymous luxury-consulting firm. "It's much more the fact that it will give exposure and viability to the line. If it was a long-term collaboration, then we could talk more about the negatives." Even in the increasingly corporate fashion world, where conglomerates have largely replaced family-held luxury firms and shareholders exert ever greater pressure, Burke believes there will always be a place for avant-garde designers. "There have to be those directional designers that influence all levels, whether it's at H&M and Zara, or in the contemporary market."
Far from jeopardizing their future, strategic partnerships of the sort Kawakubo has mastered—she also recently debuted a capsule collection of custom Louis Vuitton handbags in her Tokyo store—might prove integral to the survival of avant-garde design. While many innovators are showered with editorial attention, most still have to scramble to make ends meet. Initiatives such as the ones offered by H&M allow designers to penetrate the mass consciousness while achieving financially significant sales figures. "At this point, the world is uniting, so there's no point in alienating anything," says Asfour. "The values behind the idea of 'the underground' I would protect to the bone, but what's wrong with getting your message to more people? Underground is not interesting anymore, unless it's overground." And that, after all, is where the high street lives.