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Avant garde fashion and its political role

Is avant-garde fashion political?
Picture of the designer Rei Kawakubo by Steven Klein
© Institut Français de la Mode

Caroline Evans is professor of history and fashion theory at the Central Saint Martins School in London and published Fashion at the edge in 2003. She proposes a reflection on the work of designers such as Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, Martin Margiela or Viktor&Rolf, whom she defines as “experimental”, opposed to commercial, “conventional or generalist” fashion.

If the latter appears as “an ingredient of the process of civilization” (N. Elias), the “avant-garde” fashion would rather reveal a “neurotic symptom”, a resurgence of “repressed desires and anxieties” of the late 20th century. Often also referred to as “conceptual”, “anti-fashion”, or related to the notion of “deconstruction” (see the writings of Y. Kawamura or B. English), the work of Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, Martin Margiela, the “Antwerp Six”, or Hussein Chalayan and Helmut Lang, is very important if one chooses to focus on the political role of fashion. Finally, let us look at how their creations take a critical position through a study of the second generation of Japanese designers in Paris (Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto), and Martin Margiela’s work.

The Japanese and the questioning of Western conventions

Respectively born in 1942 and 1943, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamomoto both grew up in the context of post-war Japanese austerity, before presenting a joint collection in 1981 in Paris. Worn, torn, with impressive volumes, the clothes are associated by some critics with a “post-Hiroshima” aesthetic, an “aesthetic of poverty” (Harold Koda, American Vogue, April 1983). They specifically target two foundations of Western fashion:

1. A reassessment of the notion of perfection

First of all, they propose a reassessment of the notion of perfection. Yohji Yamomoto wants to report on the effects of time on his clothes. This is how he evokes it:

“In his lifetime, a human being ages. Similarly, textiles, which is a living material, is getting older. If they are allowed to age for a year or two, the fibres naturally tighten up and the charm of the fabric increases (…) That’s why vintage clothes sometimes make me feel fiercely jealous (…) This paradox of design is in my opinion an essential question, that I am constantly trying to solve”

To do this, he operates various processes of washing, crumpling, raw cutting. The collections of Winter 1981-1982, Summer 1984, or Winter 1984-1985 illustrate the quest for imperfection: while the first one plays with raw wool, rustic knits, the second one is inspired by photographs of August Sander’s anonymous farmers, and the last one features clothes with visible seams, coats resembling blankets, in addition to numerous raw cuts.

Rei Kawakubo, on the other hand, is looking for something new in accident. For this reason, she develops a special relationship with the machines that her team disrupts by sometimes removing a nut or computer program to vary the irregularities. But she also tries to mimic the patina on her clothes as she did in the summer of 1983.
This re-evaluation of the notion of perfection will also take shape in their use of asymmetry. Rei Kawakubo thus diverts the garment from its primary function. Her tunics were transformed into shawls in 1981, the sleeves and buttons removed in March 1983. Yohji Yamamoto extends sleeves, shortens pants, lowers buttons, or moves pockets (Winter 1985-1986).

2. Rethinking the relationship between clothing and gender

The two designers rethink the relationship between clothing and gender. The choice of the name “Comme des Garçons” appears here as a desire to free women from clothing conventions. Rei Kawakubo develops a hostility towards the “body conscious”, no more considering clothing as intended to enhance the female forms. The Autumn-Winter 1983-1984 show is an illustration: the woman’s body is cancelled, her hips, waist, buttocks, and hair disappearing under the layers of fabric.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Yohji Yamamoto criticizes the virility that he defines as an instrument of control. He aims at deconstructing the Western male costume inherited from Savile Row. To do this, it removes or rounds off traditionally padded shoulders, moves buttons or pockets, exaggerates hems, and shortens the length of trousers.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Martin Margiela, “the ethics of style” (O. Zahm, 1994)

Launching his first collection in 1988, Martin Margiela develops general reflection on the foundations of his discipline, in particular by criticizing the notion of “new” in fashion, as well as its “spectacular” character.

1. Rethinking the time of fashion

Defined by the Situationist International (SI) as “the reuse in a new unit of pre-existing artistic elements”, the technique of “detournement” is central to capture the first aspect of Martin Margiela’s work. In this way, he introduces a critique of perpetual change by diverting old clothes and reusing some previously used materials in his craft collection. Dozens of old sandals were dedicated to making a top for Summer 2006, several old scarves for a long skirt (Summer 1992), or several military socks for a sweater (Winter 1992).
Similarly, its Replica collections (lines 4 and 14, launched in 2003 and 2004) aim to reproduce anonymous and unscratched old clothes from different historical periods. A doctor’s jacket from the 1920s was resurrected for Summer 2005, like a French costume jacket from the 1970s or an old aviator’s jacket for Winter 2005-2006.
Martin Margiela therefore rethinks the relationship between fashion and time. It is no longer a question of running away from it in a cyclical and continuous change, but of using it as a language in its own right.

2. A critique of “fashion spectacle”

Then, the Belgian designer makes a formidable criticism of the spectacular nature of fashion.
His propensity to dissolve into the collective contrasts radically with the cult of the individual in the 1980s fashion world, magnified by his mentor J.P. Gaultier. Anonymity appears to be the basis of his project. He does not resolve to make any public appearances, limits interviews, and leaves his labels blank until 1997. This relationship to anonymity is also visible during collection presentations. The faces of the models are covered with masks without holes in the AW 1995-1996, Winter 1998, half painted for Winter 1996-1997, or hidden under pure fringes in Winter 2000-2001.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Priority is also sometimes given to her team, as in Summer 1998, or 1999, when she is the one who presents herself to the public.

As the second generation of Japanese, Martin Margiela is a strong critic of fashion. If the first ones aimed at challenging the Western conception of clothing around a reevaluation of the notion of perfection and a questioning of a gendered conception of the costume, the Belgian designer will defend a clothing archaeology, as well as a criticism of “the fashion spectacle”.

By studying these various works, we can clearly see to what extent fashion can also be used as a critical support.
How to think about fashion criticism today?


  • English, Bonnie, Japanese Fashion Designers : The Work and Influence of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo, New York, BERG, 2011.
  • Evans, Caroline, Fashion at the edge, Yale university press, 2003.
  • Kuwamura, Yuniya, The Japanese Revolution in Paris Fashion, New York, BERG, 2004.
  • Zham, Olivier, Une avant-garde sans avant-garde, Les presses du réel, JRP, 2017.
© Institut Français de la Mode
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