(Bloomberg) -- When the Metropolitan Museum of Art opens its retrospective on Japanese label Comme des Garçons on Thursday, it will award one of the highest honors in style to designer Rei Kawakubo. The annual exhibition at the Costume Institute is a regular blockbuster: More than 600,00 people went to see the show of Alexander McQueen, making it one of the biggest in the history of the august institution. Recent subjects have ranged from the theme of punk to the math-minded dressmaker Charles James.
This year’s show, entitled “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between,” is also an excuse for Vogue editor Anna Wintour to invite 600 of her closest friends for dinner. But what does the regular guy need to know about this cultural event?
First, the basics: Kawakubo was born in 1942, began her enterprise in 1969, and blew up in the ’80s selling arty ladies an anti-yuppie option for dressing powerfully. You could name-check the dark and brooding Goth collection that earned her, with peer Yohji Yamamoto, a breakthrough spread in Vogue in 1983. More ambitiously, you could ad lib your way through an analysis of the “lumps and bumps” collection in the spring of ’97, feigning expertise on what a shock it was to see dresses reconfigured into science-fiction costumes with tumor-like bulges of fabric.
“Directional,” “experimental,” “deconstructed,” “severe,” and “surreal” are all correct adjectives to use in describing Kawakubo’s work, which often features unfinished seams, asymmetrical intricacies, and none-more-black fabrications. “Objects for the body”—shaped and sewn to interact with ideas of human physicality—is how she described it. Definitely do not say “zany.”
When it comes to menswear, CDG generally exists at a comfortable remove from pragmatism. The most famous of them are clothes for your young cousin with the master of fine arts and a trust fund: A deliberately wrinkled CDG Homme pinstripe suit made of a fancy polyester may be intended as a provocative commentary on shape, but people looking at you may assume that you’ve got a lawsuit pending against an inept dry cleaner.
What this means is that a man needs a certain independence, in both the spiritual and financial senses, to wear CDG’s most celebrated designs without looking like a clown.
Nonetheless, the famously press-shy designer with her husband as chief financial officer now controls a sprawling empire of sub-brands—Comme Des Garçons Homme, Homme Plus, Man, Shirt—that reportedly earn about $280 million a year. The most accessible points of entry to the CDG universe come from Play, a line of well-made, casual-wear basics that can range from T-shirts, polos, cardigans, and a $125 pair of Converse sneakers. The logo, if you can call it that, is a naively drawn, sharp-eyed heart that is assumed to be Kawakubo’s self-portrait.
“Accessible,” in this case, also means that stuff from the Play line is easy to get, which is no small feat. For instance, it is impossible to find an attractive Comme Des Garçons Homme Deux belt, available in select stores, online right now. This belt is just a normal, good-looking cowhide number, fairly priced at $195, with a subtly interesting curve to its buckle, and the people who sell it don’t even have a photo of it.
Nor am I able to show you another of CDG’s most wearable items, a rugged, rumpled khaki-colored jacket designed by Kawakubo protégé Junya Watanabe and priced at $1,030. It exists nowhere on the internet.
This aura of exclusivity shrouds a hard core of actual exclusivity, which strikes me as an excellent business move, preventing overexposure. Such instances of obscurity allow the brand to undertake partnerships with the biggest brands in the industry—H&M, Levi’s, Converse—while retaining its underground cred.
Comme des Garçons also operates Dover Street Market, one each in Tokyo, New York, London, Beijing, and Singapore. It sells its own wares, such as a $330 poplin dress shirt in a powerfully tranquil blue, as well as Gucci sneakers, Supreme skateboard decks, Raf Simons jackets, and more from edgy upstarts, all with the vibe of a gallery installation curated to delight the bohemian eye.
Most guys will have more luck fitting CDG into their lives by way of its accessories. The sturdy bags, the slick wallets, the sober socks—all of them basics essential to business success—are proudly made with humble craft. They exhibit a stellar understanding of first principles, amounting to firm proof that CDG knows better than anyone exactly which rules its high-design stuff is breaking.
This season, as part of an ongoing collaboration with NikeLab, CDG is selling see-through high-tops. The sneakers tie in with a larger project riffing on fashion’s favorite Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes. Now the modern man can buy a $200 T-shirt proclaiming that “the king is naked.” Even more enthusiastic CDG adopters can buy a $1,930 translucent polyurethane overcoat.
Though I can’t say that the coat is going on my Father’s Day wish list, I admire both the craft of its fabrication and the art with which the theme of the collection preempts jeers from the balcony. It is more than merely cheeky to implicate yourself, the reigning avant-garde design house, as the beneficiary of a mass pretense. It is high-level trolling. Which is an art in itself.