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Comme des Garçons goes to the mall with H&M

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Call it avant-garde for the masses.

Launching Thursday, Comme des Garçons for H&M is one of the most interesting fast-fashion designer collaborations to come along in a retail scene full of them. Because Rei Kawakubo, who designs the high-end Comme des Garçons collection, is anti-fashion. She doesn't follow trends or pander to celebrities. She's known for head-scratching runway shows, the kind that make you feel like you're the only one not in on the joke (women in hunchback pillow dresses and men in skirts), as well as for opening temporary "guerrilla stores" in gritty neighborhoods such as downtown L.A.

But now she's setting her sights on the world's mall shoppers.

It's probably no surprise that her men's and women's collection for H&M plays it safe with Pink Panther prints or gold lamé for men. Still, the mostly black and navy pieces have enough subversive details to please the faithful if you look closely -- an asymmetrical seam here, deconstructed panels or unexpected holes there. And any designer collection at H&M prices should pique the interest of fashion outsiders who ask "Comme" who?

Kawakubo has been in business since 1969, but she was a leader of the 1980s deconstructed-fashion pack more interested in clothes as conceptual art than in dressmaking. Since then, she has built her vision into a powerhouse brand with nearly $200 million in annual sales by creating wearable secondary lines such as Play, by bringing Junya Watanabe and other designers under her umbrella and by launching fragrances like no other. (Imagine perfumes formulated to smell like incense or wood and coffee.)

Though Comme des Garçons may seem like an insider's club, it's really not. And the H&M line proves it with the kind of offbeat basics, priced at $24.90 to $349, that you always find in the high-end collection when you scratch the cartoon-like surface. Also, because Kawakubo often uses utilitarian fabrics in her high-end line, you're not sacrificing a lot of quality when you buy the H&M versions. In some cases, it's difficult to tell the difference.

Outerwear is a standout, as evidenced by a men's boiled-wool peacoat ($199), a women's zip-up motorcycle jacket ($99.90) and belted gabardine trench coat ($199) that shock only in their simplicity. The shapes are true to form with whimsical touches such as oversize cloth buttons on a women's jacket. Knitwear is also safe and sane, with merino wool cardigans for men ($69.90) and women ($59.90), sans prints or logos.

Kawakubo's rebellious nature begins to surface with the addition of prints, ruffles and asymmetry. Her trademark outsize polka dots turn up on a women's navy-and-white dot blouse ($49.90). Men's button-down shirts ($49.90 to $59.90) are artfully decorated with asymmetrical seams, diagonal pinstripes and patchwork details. The balance between the brand's playfulness and somber utility comes across particularly well in the men's two-piece suits, one in green plaid with a diagonal seam across the lapels ($299).

Kawakubo's avant-garde esprit shines with the women's separates: A deconstructed black pleated skirt ($79.90) has a panel that pops out. Pants come with a harem-style drop ($59.90). A women's zip-up jacket has holes under the arms that allow the print of a blouse to peek through ($120). Dresses are conversation pieces too. A black velvet style with a scalloped hem ($129) appears innocent enough in the front, but has a circular cutout revealing the wearer's lower back. A $349 deconstructed coat dress -- the most expensive piece in the collection, and the one that most resembles a runway style -- comes embellished with funereal black ribbons and ruffles.

Accessories include $59.90 canvas sneakers, a $69.90 navy-and-white polka dot scarf, a $49.90 polka dot tote and a $69.90 embossed leather version of a popular square zip-around Comme des Garçons wallet.

The timing couldn't be better for teaming up with the Swedish cheap-chic retailer -- which has collaborated with Karl Lagerfeld and Viktor & Rolf in the past -- as stylistas rein in their spending. But Comme des Garçons is equal opportunity, having recently partnered with French luxury brand Louis Vuitton on six limited-edition logo bags and launched a fragrance with British hat maker Stephen Jones that retails for $150.

The H&M Comme des Garçons eau de toilette is a cool $34.90 and smells synthetic and sweet, kind of like the collection.

Comme des Garçons for H&M is available in limited quantities at only two Southland stores -- H&M at the Beverly Center, 8500 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, and H&M Sunset Boulevard, 8580 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.

Padilla is a freelance writer.

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