To Rei Kawakubo, she isn’t the trailblazer revolutionary designer since Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in the fashion industry. To her she is nothing but a business woman. One who started making clothes because she couldn’t find anything that she was looking for, went on to create a brand that since has changed not only how we view fashion, clothes and women with respect to each other but also changed how the industry approached doing business.
Looking at Kawakubo and her brand, Comme des Garcons’ legacy is almost overwhelming. Ever since the Met Gala for The Costume Institute’s Spring 2017 exhibition “Art of the In-Between” celebrating her work, I threw myself down the rabbit hole that is her work – pulling articles, interviews, past shows, what have you. I couldn’t stop, the more I read about her, the more information I wanted. In college, I barely knew of her work. I had come across it several times, but I didn’t know then how to appreciate her clothes. They weren’t wearable. They weren’t pretty. They definitely did not flatter the one wearing them. The clothes almost always devoured the wearer leaving only the impression of their outlandishness. I didn’t understand it. And that’s what precisely one of Kawakubo’s aims is. When her clothes translate their purpose easily to the outside world, be they critics or buyers or consumers, it irks her. She refused to include her Fall 2005 “Broken Bride” collection or Spring 2005 “Motorcycle Ballerinas” in the exhibition because she deemed it too “understandable”. She doesn’t want to be understood. When understanding isn’t an option, all they do is stir up emotions. The clothes walking down the runway want to strike a chord deeper than merely understanding them cerebrally. Very few designers can move an audience to tears like in her Fall 2015 show titled “Ceremony of Separation”.
To me the appeal of Kawakubo is twofold. First and foremost, it’s her clothes. What motivated her in 1969 hasn’t changed much from her motivation in 2017. Her drive to continue creating the new, approaching matters at hand in a new way, looking at things in a new way is primary. When I started to go through her old archives from the 90s and the 00s, it didn’t feel dated. Take a look at her Spring 2002 and you will find high street brands saturated with similar concepts that have trickled down from recent shows. Although they shocked the critics at the time by being nothing like anything that came before, her clothes from 30-20 years looks contemporary now. Her clothes, if I can call them that as she has stopped making clothes, still shock us, but they aren’t cheap thrills. She delves into concepts and gives it all she has to create masterpieces. Her Fall 2012 commonly known as her Paper Doll collection where she explored clothes in 2-dimension still remains an iconic piece of work of the 21st century. When she couldn’t fathom new silhouette, she created new bodies to drape dresses around, giving us the “Body meet Dress, Dress meets Body” of Fall 1997. She isn’t creating mere garments for popular consumption, not for the main Comme des Garcons line. She is creating what comes next, as she has always done. She is tuned with the future like no other. She creates what truly can be called “modern”.
Second, it’s Rei Kawakubo herself. Her clothes, shrouded in mystery as they are, are still open to interpretation. But Rei herself is an enigma. A titan of the fashion industry, having erected an empire independently, a figure revered and worshipped, but what do we know about her? She doesn’t explain her work, she stopped taking a bow at the end of her shows, her interviews come across as short, dry and deadpan. There isn’t another figure of her stature that comes across as guarded as her. To me, she feels like the quintessential Japanese. No pomp and show, her work creates the noise on their own without a peep from her. To me, she’s also a BAMF, a punk BAMF. There is a “fuck you” in her work that you can’t miss. She doesn’t do anything according to the establishment. Whether it is her clothes rebelling against the beauty standards or her brand refusing to associate itself with a celebrity in the name of having a face, or just her refusing to talk about her design process, she never did anything to compromise her own vision and truth. That’s rare. That’s legendary.
Photograph Courtesy: The New York Times