Rei Kawakubo’s Radical Chic


Rei Kawakubo’s Influential Career

Rei Kawakubo, the radical designer of the Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons, is set to become the only living designer besides Yves Saint Laurent to have a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Kawakubo is a cult figure among style followers and a perennial name on “most influential designer” lists. She is in many ways the embodiment of art as fashion: fashion as an idea; fashion as exploration. Throughout her whole career, Kawakubo has blurred the art-fashion divide with creations that often look like sculptures, challenging us to rethink fashion’s place in contemporary culture. Yet if Kawakubo consents to calling her style “rebellious” and “aggressive” it is also one that is intensely feminine in a bittersweet way.

Early in her career, Ms. Kawakubo’s runway clothes resembled actual clothes as in her 2005 “Broken Bride” wedding show, which she characterized as about “anti-conservatism,” featured achingly romantic confections of Victorian tulle and lace. Her shows have been known to move viewers to tears, they rarely make them think, “Hey, I wish I could wear that to my next job interview/anniversary party/date!”  Kawakubo works under the label Comme des Garçons (“like some boys”), though she has never wanted to be like anyone designer. There are few women in fashion who have exerted more influence on the history of modern fashion. Now at 74, she has built a thriving business on a number of more wearable lines Comme des Garçons Play, a “non-fashion” line of basics that has a heart with eyes as a logo, and Comme des Garçons Shirt. She has a uncanny ability to balance art and commerce which has allowed her, as Mr. Bolton said, to “use the runway as a platform to express her thought processes.”  The Japanese designer entered the industry when she took a job at a textiles factory; in 1967 the designer became freelance stylist. Two years later she began making clothes under the label Comme Des Garçons. The designer incorporated the label in 1973, as a direct result of its popularity with Japanese consumers. For the remainder of the 70s Kawakubo refined her aesthetic and built her company, opening a Tokyo boutique in 1975 and adding a menswear line called Homme Comme des Garçons, in 1978. One of the most mocked pieces from her early work in 1982 is a sublimely sorry-looking sweater cratered with holes that she called “Comme des Garçons lace.” A few years later at the time of her Paris debut in 1981 Kawakubo had become so famous that her followers and fans were dubbed ‘the crows’ by the Japanese press. The designer told The New Yorker in 2005 that she “never intended to start a revolution” She intended only to show “what I thought was strong and beautiful. It just so happened that my notion was different from everybody else’s.”  The French Old Guard, needless to say, reviled Comme des Garçons, but it immediately became popular among the downtown persuasion.

She has inspired numerous designers over the decades, making fashion a richer palette. Designers Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester and Helmut Lang have all name checked Kawakubo as an inspiration. In addition, she has helped launched the careers of Junya Watanabe and Tao Kurihara and recently added Kei Ninomiya’s Noir line to the Comme des Garçons umbrella. This is a woman, after all, who once explained the idea behind a show in 2014 by saying, “I was trying not to make clothes,” and who described her most recent collection as “invisible clothes.” A woman who made an entire ready-to-wear line seemingly out of sleeves (the title was “Witch”), another about a skirt — in more than 35 iterations (they will be part of the Met show) — and one about the emergence of the flat-pack world. A woman who undermined all conventional assumptions about beauty and the body. Kawakubo was into her thirties when she met the love of her youth, Yohji Yamamoto. There was something pharaonic about their glamour as a couple, that of two regal and feline siblings with a priestly aura, and they shared the regency of a new generation in Japanese design. Both are alumni of Keio University (Yamamoto was two years behind her) and both children of enterprising single mothers—his a widow who owned a dress shop. Yet, as the eloquent idiosyncrasy of their work suggests, a match between equals is rarely perfect. The enormous competition between Rei and Yohji was something she needed and thrived on. They never collaborated, but “they both wanted to break the rules, and Yohji likes to say that ‘perfection is the devil,’ which I remains true for Rei Kawakubo.


Sleeve Collection Fall 2004

In her Fall 2004 collection for Comme des Garçons, Rei Kawakubo reworked the classic black jacket with leg-of-mutton sleeves, trimmed with bows and feathers. The sleeves were used as the main decorative element and cut into various appliques. The jackets were twisted and paired with several variations of a black skirt – some with pleated taffeta bustles, others were designed to be worn backward and a few short versions were veiled in tulle. With this collection, Kawakubo returns to concepts she has explored in the past including the mourning clothes of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and the boundaries between masculine and feminine dress.


Bikers Ballet Spring 2005

Rei Kawakubo Biker/Ballerina collection for Commes des Garcons Spring/Summer 2005 pairs hand-crafted black leather jackets with delicate, feminine skirts inspired by ballerinas’ tutus. Kawakubo stated that the collection was inspired by the “power” of motorcycles and the “strength” of ballet dancers. The rough hewn biker jackets atop delicate tutus continues Kawakubo’s longstanding exploration of clothing that expresses the strength and independence of women.  The collection features jackets with crude saddle stitching paired with ballet tutus. “I thought about the power of the motorbike – the machine itself – and the strength of a ballet dancer’s arms,” Kawakubo said. Jackets in shades of black, tan and orange are beautifully contrasted against the fragile pinks and whites of the tutus. Other fanciful details included powdered wigs, patent ballet flats and the bird-inspired feather decorations on dance skirts.


Broken Bride Fall 2005

Rei Kawakubo extraordinary “Broken Bride” collection for Comme des Garçons Fall 2005 deconstructed the traditional wedding dress into romantic, Victorian era creations of ruffles and mountains of lace. Models wore antique lace veils that trailed to the ground covering their white powdered faces with eyes traced and detailed in sequins. The poetic wedding ensembles featured dramatic silhouettes with leg-of-mutton sleeves, fan pleating and daisy chains of pure white lace. The brides advanced down the runway in headdresses, which burst into garlands of paper flowers, tinsel and chains: a symbolic tour of the power of love, hope to the strains of High Church organ music with the occasional sounds of marriage celebrations from Gypsy, Jewish, Mexican and Caribbean weddings. Rei Kawakubo declared that her nuptial rites were about “anticonservatism, ” not any one religion.


White Drama Spring 2012

In a subversive twist for Comme des Garçons Spring 2012 collection “White Drama”, Kawakubo executed her idea of bridal with many restrictive elements to provoke thoughts about the bonds of marriage and femininity. Adrian Joffe, her husband and business partner added that the collection is “Everything that makes most people happy and sad in life.” The first bride appeared on the runway in a white, duchess satin, knee-length dress with a puff skirt and bow tying her hands together. The deliberate all-white collection featured fragile white lace and daisy-form crochet, ruffles, tulle, three dimensional flowers and delicate veils. Kawakubo’s lace filled dresses and structured skirts, all bare an uncanny resemblance to cages with the forced concealment of hands through exaggerated trumpet sleeves and capes with no armholes, furthering the restrictive theme. For the finale, the bride emerged completely cocooned from head to toe in lace and roses evoking a sense of lost identity. The symbolic imagery of the bride voluntarily walking toward her forced submissiveness in marriage closed the show.


Two Dimensions are the Future Fall 2012

For Comme des Garçons Fall 2012 collection “Two dimensions are the future”, Rei Kawakubo playfully mixes the elements of shape and color in clothes that are rendered flat and two dimensional. The models, unlike paper dolls wear two-dimensional clothes hooked onto their shoulders as decoration. One wore an exaggerated, bright red, wool coat that flared out at the hips with extra-long sleeves and hung well past the model’s sinewy limbs. This was followed by pink, lavender and cerulean blue, enormous, cutout, shapes that formed seamless coats, jackets and jodhpurs made of felted wool, free of any fastenings. The silhouettes extended beyond the boundary of the body with massive sleeves trailing behind curvi-form skirts. A series of daring patterns included graphic jigsaws in camouflage, leopard spots, polka dots and checkerboard patterns mixed with distorted flower printed coats and dresses. Kawakubo’s use of bright colors in the collection are unusual, considering  Kawakubo penchant for black.

 Blood and Roses Spring 2015

This V Magazine editorial starring Karlie Kloss in Comme des Garcons’ spring 2015 collection shot by Steven Klein and styled by Patti Wilson. Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo explained the theme’s inspiration as “Blood and Roses is the expression of a deeper significance of roses, typically happy and pretty,” she said. “Often in history the image of the rose was more connected with blood and wars, in relation to political conflict, religious strife, and power struggles. This is what was interesting to me this time.”

Invisible Clothes Spring 2017

In Comme des Garçons Spring 2017 collection “Invisible clothes”, Rei Kawakubo constructed some of the largest geometric shapes to ever occupy a Paris runway. The show continues Kawakubo’s tradition of tackling the disturbing and painful experiences that often come with being female. The opening look of the show is a giant flounced black coat with a cut-out porthole that reveals a swollen belly, representing pregnancy. The many stark pieces that followed included vibrant red coats and dresses with extreme proportions that lacked the traditional aspects of conventional garments. The finale look is a voluminous, black velvet three dimensional dress with a pristine white collar of spikes that sprout from the neckline. Here, Rei Kawakubo’s clothes are the farthest thing from invisible, but they exude a sense of absence and disillusionment. Her complex design aesthetic and refusal to explain her work continues to fascinate the fashion industry.

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