The genius of Rei Kawakubo

In 1981 there were four fashion capitals- Paris, London, Milan and New York- Tokyo was about to become the fifth. Comme de Garçons’ mantra was monochrome colors, random elasticated and a quest to turn conventional pattern cutting on its head. ‘Red is black’ declared its founder, Rei Kawakubo. The shade, which for a century had been associated with mourning, was about to become the uniform of the fashionable.

Daughter of a university lecturer, Rei Kawakubo studied fine art at Keio University, Tokyo, and then went on to work for the advertising department of a chemical company. Disillusioned, she progressed to styling- a very unusual occupation at the time. Comme de Garçons was established in 1973; two years later Kawakubo showed in Tokyo, and opened her first shop a year after that. But it was until she showed in Paris in 1981 that the full force of the Japanese influence filtered through. What the audience saw was a shock to the system: random ruching, irregular hems, asymmetric seams and crinkled surfaces. At the time, it was named the ‘oblique chic’.

Like her contemporaries, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo is an intellectual designerfor whom fashion is a fine art. Her clothes require a different thought level, her pieces destroy pre-concieved ideas. The Comme de Garçons’ concept sticks to the same principles for decades: minimalist display and perplexing cuts. Often the uninitiated cannot understand where Kawakubo is comming from: sometimes shapeless and complicated, complex and baffling, a Comme de Garçons collection exposed the inner workings of a lapel, leaves edges unfinished and reduces a sweater to a un unintelligible mass of boiled wool. In the autumn/winter 1996 collection, Kawakubo experimented with padded humps. The end product- named Quasimodo by the press for obvious reasons, had removable pads positioned in a variety of places. Her biannual magazine Six (from sixth sense), with its esoteric photographs and references to Zen, will probably one day be the subject of Freudian analysis.

Despite its unorthodox associations, Comme de Garçons has populist appeal: there are more than 300 outlets in 33 countries worldwide. Rei Kawakubo was the first one to use ‘real’ people as catwalk models, including Hollywood stars Dennis Hopper, Matt Dillon, John Malkovich and John Hurt. Wearer of austere expressions and giver of very few interviews, Kawakubo said in Rei Kawakubo and Comme de Garçons (1990), ‘What I do is concered with long term, and yet fashion is cyclical. It is a paradox, but it doesn’t bother me. It’s always exciting to do a new collection’. This year she was the star of the Met Gala, whose patrons organized an homage to the designer’s astonishing career and design. Kawakubo scurried up the Met Gala red carpet so quickly that if you blinked you probably missed her. Most of the guests seemed blithely unaware of the designer and her small retinue in a corner, just as she would probably prefer. The 74-year old designer is best known for pushing boundaries, blurring the lines between art and fashion, and for building a global fashion empire. It certainly takes a while to understand what she does and very often what she presents is very ugly- but in a strange way there is an allure to her clothing.

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Photo Credit:A view of “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between.” Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cover Photo Credit: Rei Kawakubo, The New Yorker