Climate-controlled storage, acid-free paper or humidity fluctuations; designer and fashion icon Michelle Elie does not care much for the details that are of utmost importance to a fashion collector. “I wear everything,” she says. “Clothes are meant to be worn or else they are not alive, they are just ideas of creation.” Elie’s avant-garde wardrobe, consisting of Rei Kawakubo’s unapologetic creations, is currently on display at Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt.

Life doesn't frighten me
. Michelle Elie wears Comme des Garçons runs until 1 November 2020 and charts the stories behind the pieces of Elie’s bewildering collection: from the discovery to the acquisition, to the experience of wearing the pieces and the reactions that wearing them provokes. The exhibition showcases some of the most extravagant creations by Kawakubo including the pastel padded dress from the famous Lumps and Bumps collection, an ensemble of three rose-red garments from the beautifully unnerving Spring/Summer 2015 collection, and the enchanting Blue Witch piece from Spring 2016.

“For something to be beautiful, it doesn’t have to be pretty,” the legendary Japanese designer once said. Elie’s passion for Comme des Garçons lies in Kawakubo’s relentless query into the notions of beauty, proposing the endless manifestations and complexities of the idea that’s commonly proposed as a singular image. “The whole notion of beauty is so restricted and this fixation on keeping up to the certain image of beauty is too one-dimensional,” Elie says. “What about the rest of us who do not fit in that mould? I never want to fit in!”
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Paris 2012 © Phil Oh
When did you first become aware of Rei Kawakubo?
I grew up in New York before moving to Germany and I discovered the shop on Wooster Street in the early ‘90s. It was the area I hung out all day and went to the gym. I lived in Brooklyn but took the train every day to the city from morning until late at night. Soho and West Village were my territories. We used to have a saying between true New Yorkers who wore designers and went to art galleries and gym that ‘if you go beyond 25th Street you will get a nose bleed.’ Downtown was where the creative class of true New Yorkers was shaped.
Don’t forget there was also Yohji Yamamoto, Matsuri, Romeo Gigli, Barneys, Patricia Field, drag queens, clubs, Tower Records, Palladium, The Tunnel, CBGB, and art galleries. CDG was right there in the heart of creative and cool New York. All the tastemakers were Downtown. I just walked in. It was immediately different. It was not mainstream and only the insiders of fashion knew the brand.
Why Comme des Garçons? What drew you to the brand in the first place?
Searching for something extraordinaire. And new. I did not know much about Japan and I wanted desperately to go there. I had heard that the Japanese kids were very fashionable but totally different. This was my escape, going to the shop on Wooster Street. I spent a lot of time visiting all the designers Downtown, as well as Yohji Yamamoto. I wanted to know more and experience my world outside of NYC.
The exhibition features some of the most iconic and extravagant pieces Rei Kawakubo has ever designed including the pastel padded dress from the Lumps and Bumps collection. Can you remember the very first Comme item you acquired?
By the time I could finally afford to buy my very first piece of CDG was in Spring/Summer 1995. I was modelling then to be able to travel and go to Europe. I got my first Maybelline beauty campaign and I went straight to the shop and bought my very first piece. It is in the exhibition – I no longer fit into it, but I started to run again and cut out a few guilty pleasures to fit into it again once the exhibition finishes and my clothes are back home.
The pieces from Lumps and Bumps, I acquired much later in around 1997. I had the most transformative moment when I walked into the shop in Soho and tried to figure out which piece would suit me the best, but I left the shop without purchasing a piece because, I must be honest, I did not know what to make of this collection. But it haunted me for two years until I was lucky to get two pieces from that collection when I moved to Germany. I was so happy to find it in Köln! I bought it immediately. I am still longing for more of these incredible and epic pieces from the collection. The only thing is, anyone who has it in their archive will refuse, at any price, to sell it. It is very tough to get but I keep on searching.
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Paris 2014 © Phill Taylor
Unlike many collectors who put the collectable garments away in acid-free papers and boxes, you wear the pieces some might think belong in a museum. Is there a point collecting clothes if you don’t wear them?
I wear everything; it is the only reason I invest in the pieces. Clothes are meant to be worn or else they are not alive, they are just ideas of creation. When they are worn, they transform the designer's ideas into life and motion, and this exchanges the energy between the designer and the wearer. This is why clothes need a body. I love fashion, I enjoy wearing my clothes, I get so much energy and power from them. If an exhibition comes with it, then it is an added plus, but the intention is to experience and wear the clothes. Clothes say a lot about the wearer.
Rei Kawakubo is notorious for avoiding press and meetings at all costs. What was it like meeting arguably one of the most significant designers of our time?
It was so short, no more than a minute or less. I did not plan to meet her this way, backstage. I always dreamt of going backstage to meet her before the show and to see the preparations and all the girls together. I always wanted to see the collections in the line-up before the presentation. I would have loved to have experienced this and then have met her, but it all happened so fast.
She was genuine and quiet, she has an incredible presence. She generates a powerful force of energy and at the same time fragility. It would be amazing to meet her in her world, in her atelier in Tokyo, and to be able to spend time there or just have a tea in her kitchen chatting about everything else but fashion. This is my dream meeting.
You have mentioned that Life Doesn’t Frighten Me is quite personal for you. What do you hope the viewers take away from the exhibition?
Life Doesn’t Frighten Me is very personal because it is what my gorgeous late mother always embedded in all of us – her five children –, not to be afraid of life. She always encouraged us to go and experience the world and open our eyes. Do everything, see everything and learn everything and conquer all fears and challenges. So this title is a dedication to my mother. She loved fashion. She was never seen without her heels and jewellery.
I truly hope that the viewers get a different angle on clothes and what clothes can actually do apart from just be worn: that clothes can empower us. If not this, then I hope they experience something new and different.
For the past few months, we have been living in the dystopian nightmare. The exhibitions and events have been cancelled or postponed. How do you think the audience will react to your physical show after having to experience culture through digital reality?
I think they will appreciate culture much more and do all the things they have not done because of procrastination. Time is precious and our freedom can change at any given moment, so let’s embrace life. Fashion is a crucial part of it, or, in this case, culture, and ‘vive la différence.’
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Paris 2018 © Acielle,
In the exhibition booklet, you speak about the reactions of the public when you wear Comme. What has been one comment from the public that really stuck to you?
That I belong in a comic book. I will gladly accept that as a compliment. I love it to bits because it is exactly how I feel wearing some of the pieces – an incredible superpower and incredible energy and force of nature. I can do anything and conquer everything. How beautiful it is to feel empowered. I can’t say much more…
In Gianluca Matarrese’s film, you talk about the idea that amidst fashion critics, journalists and editors, we forget that clothes have life beyond the runway, we forget who the real customer is. Do you think it’s worth designing something that has no life beyond the catwalk?
Fashion, once it comes off the runway and is no longer in the editorial pages, must stand as powerful and strong as it was originally projected to us. Clothes must generate the same energy alone, on the racks, in the store and the minute you put it on in the dressing room. These clothes must do what they were supposed to do – empower, beautify, transform and elevate. If they can’t do that, then it has all been fabricated. The same clothes must continue to inspire you years after the season.
In the film you say of Kawakubo that “she creates beauty within deformities and she re-questions what beauty is.” How would you personally define beauty today?
She includes everyone in her designs. All types, all sexes, genders, shapes and sizes. She clearly says that her clothes are for women who are strong, and she challenges the established notions of beauty. There is beauty in everything but we must recognise and embrace it. I personally relate so much to this notion of beauty, beauty of all types, shapes and sizes. I find that the fashion world doesn’t embrace anyone that is not size zero. It is totally absurd and a lie to create images and samples based on such young, size-zero models and expect the rest of the world to fit in. Fashion doesn’t include disabled or deformed. The whole notion of beauty is so restricted and this fixation on keeping up to the certain image of beauty is too one-dimensional. What about the rest of us who do not fit in that mould? I never want to fit in!
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Ausstellungsansicht. Photo: Wolfgang Günzel © Museum Angewandte Kunst
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Ausstellungsansicht. Photo: Wolfgang Günzel © Museum Angewandte Kunst
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Ausstellungsansicht. Photo: Wolfgang Günzel © Museum Angewandte Kunst
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Ausstellungsansicht. Photo: Wolfgang Günzel © Museum Angewandte Kunst
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Ausstellungsansicht. Photo: Wolfgang Günzel © Museum Angewandte Kunst
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Ausstellungsansicht. Photo: Wolfgang Günzel © Museum Angewandte Kunst