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“Life doesn't frighten me,” says the Haitian-born Michelle Elie. It’s hard to believe, but she can back it up. Not only is the designer and collector courageous enough to wear Rei Kawakubo’s maximalist, impractical designs, she does so with zest. She’s perhaps the first person to take Comme des Garçons from the runway to the streets—bounding with joy as she does so, much to a street style photographer’s delight.
“Why do you wear such a difficult piece? You cannot move. Aren’t we going to a party?” When she shows up to a birthday party in a gown immobilizing her arms, her husband asks the questions on everyone’s mind. To which she replies, “It’s a performance. I don’t care. Leave me alone.”
For Elie, fashion is about interfering with social norms. For Kawakubi, design is about breaking with conventions—deconstruction, destruction, and distortion. The two are really a match made in heaven. It’s no wonder, then, that Elie has such a sizable collection of Comme des Garçons garb. And now, 50 of those personal pieces are on view at Frankfurt’s Angewandte Kunst Museum about a two-hour drive from Elie’s home in Cologne. Originally scheduled for April, the show was postponed due to Germany’s nationwide quarantines but is slated to run through August.
Spanning the uppermost level of the museum, the 50 Elie lookalike mannequins sculpted by Moch Figuren wear some of Comme des Garçons’s greatest hits—a 1997 pastel padded dress from “lumps and bumps” and a 2013 “two-dimensional,” geometric dress. Paired with each mannequin, a SoundCloud file with Elie’s voice sharing context and personal anecdotes.
Elie, however, is careful to avoid making the exhibition all about her—even though it’s her wardrobe and story. “We’ve seen these clothes already at the Met, on Vogue Runway, in magazines,” she says, “So what I find more interesting is [thinking about] what happens to the clothes after a fashion show, or after a magazine has photographed them and they’ve been curated for you. Do the clothes have the same strength when they’re on the rack in a store? How does someone choose one outfit and decide, this is for me? On the runway, it’s an illusion, and in the store, it’s another illusion. When you take it home and actually wear it, that’s a completely different conversation.” In true Elie style, she takes a trip to a museum and gives you something to think about.