“I make clothes for strong women”

Over her 45-year ca­reer, Rei Kawakubo has rad­i­cally trans­formed fash­ion. How­ever, as the fa­mously reclu­sive Comme des Garçons de­signer tells us, hers is an ag­o­nis­ing creative process – and the only way to move for­ward now is to never look back.

Glamour (South Africa) - - Contents - Words by OLIVIA SINGER

How de­signer Rei Kawakubo trans­formed Comme des Garçon

amid some of the world’s finest jew­ellery houses and ho­tels, is a dis­creet pas­sage­way that leads to Comme des Garçons’ home base. Tucked be­tween the glit­ter­ing fa­cades of Pi­aget and Cartier is the brand’s Eu­ro­pean head­quar­ters, where, con­tained within a splen­did 18th-cen­tury build­ing, its very or­di­nary decor is in stark con­trast to the his­toric glam­our of this Parisian square. Here the floors are un­lac­quered, light­ing comes by way of neon strips and ta­bles are of that plain wooden sort found in class­rooms around the world. At the end of the room is a big glass win­dow that gives a glimpse into the main oŽce.

When ed­i­tors and jour­nal­ists come to in­spect her cre­ations in the days af­ter she presents them on the run­way, this is where Rei Kawakubo, 76, sits, her chair pre­cisely ar­ranged so that while you ex­am­ine her de­signs, you can just glimpse her sil­hou­ette. She is om­nipresent yet re­moved, this is, of course, the per­fect anal­ogy for the way that she op­er­ates. Rei is fa­mous for her de­lib­er­ate de­tach­ment from fash­ion’s conventions, as well as for her pro­found im­pact on the in­dus­try at large. When, in 1981, she started show­ing her col­lec­tions in France in­stead of Ja­pan, she pro­voked in­ter­est and out­rage in equal mea­sure: then, con­ti­nen­tal fash­ion was de­fined by the ma­te­rial-girl flam­boy­ance of Thierry Mu­gler and Gianni Ver­sace – but Rei de­fi­antly rejected those high-oc­tane aes­thet­ics in favour of an un­con­trolled non-glam­our. Her first Parisian col­lec­tion com­prised di­shev­elled black gar­ments loosely draped around the body, and was crudely dubbed “Hiroshima chic” by the press. When she sent her ver­sion of ‘lace’ down the run­way, it was not the pre­cious sort, but fab­ric dis­tressed into near obliv­ion: per­fo­rated by mal­func­tion­ing ma­chin­ery, lad­dered and torn. In the ’90s, when bodycon sil­hou­ettes and Tom Ford’s highly sexed Gucci was all the rage, she de­signed ‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body’ – a ground­break­ing col­lec­tion that dis­torted the fe­male form. Hers is a rev­o­lu­tion­ary vi­sion of wom­an­hood, un­bound by ide­alised fem­i­nin­ity. “I make clothes for strong women,” she says. “Women who wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily care what their hus­band thinks – or a lot of other peo­ple.”

State­ments like th­ese are few and far be­tween. She grants in­ter­views only rarely; in lieu of the tra­di­tional post-show ex­pla­na­tion of a col­lec­tion, she oŠers a few sparse words to the jour­nal­ists try­ing to de­code her cre­ations (This sea­son, those words were, “Mul­ti­di­men­sional graŽti.”). In the mid ’90s, a jour­nal­ist in­ter­viewed Rei about ‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body’ and asked her to ex­plain the col­lec­tion; Rei sat down, drew a black cir­cle on a scrap of pa­per and sum­mar­ily de­parted. When I’m in­vited into her glass-walled oŽce to speak with her, I’m ner­vous – but as soon as she shakes my hand and pre­emp­tively apol­o­gises for how ➻

di cult she will find our con­ver­sa­tion, it’s clear that she is more ner­vous. She is tiny and bird­like, with high cheek­bones and an an­gu­lar, grey­ing hair­cut, and she sits down with her arms pro­tec­tively curled around her body, the col­lar of her black blazer pulled high around her neck. It’s dis­arm­ing to see a woman whose propo­si­tion of wom­an­hood is so fiercely rad­i­cal ap­pear mo­men­tar­ily so vul­ner­a­ble.

Last year, the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art staged an ex­hi­bi­tion of Rei’s work through­out her ca­reer. That ex­hi­bi­tion was only the sec­ond ever granted to a liv­ing de­signer there (the first, in 1983, was for Yves Saint Lau­rent) and was uni­ver­sally ac­claimed for its pow­er­fully emo­tive pre­sen­ta­tion of her work. Rei was in­volved in ev­ery­thing from the se­lec­tion of pieces to the ex­hi­bi­tion space it­self; she had a full-size re­cre­ation of the space in­stalled in Tokyo, Ja­pan, to en­sure it would ac­cu­rately re­flect her vi­sion.

Be­fore it opened, Rei was wor­ried that no­body would at­tend, claim­ing that she was not par­tic­u­larly fa­mous in the US. In­stead, more than 560 000 peo­ple did. I ask her whether she feels proud of its suc­cess, but she says, “I en­joyed noth­ing. Re­cently, I haven’t been en­joy­ing any­thing about work. I’ve been do­ing it for so long that the en­joy­ment has gone out of it. The weight of ex­pe­ri­ence is heavy on my shoul­ders.”

When Rei speaks, it is through Adrian Joše, her hus­band of 25 years and the pres­i­dent of Comme des Garçons. He lives in France and she in Ja­pan, but their part­ner­ship is re­mark­ably ešec­tive none­the­less. Where Rei is cau­tious and clipped, her voice quiet and low, he is charm­ing and ešusive; all smiles and rows of kisses at the end of emails. For the pur­pose of this in­ter­view, Adrian op­er­ates as his wife’s trans­la­tor: she speaks only Ja­panese (at least sup­pos­edly, she can cer­tainly un­der­stand plenty of my ques­tions), and he ex­plains con­cepts to her that ap­pear out­side her realm of un­der­stand­ing. When she tells me how she hated look­ing back through her work for the ex­hi­bi­tion, he tries to ex­plain to her that most peo­ple love ret­ro­spec­tives. She doesn’t seem to be­lieve him. “Each time I do some­thing, there’s never to­tal sat­is­fac­tion, so it’s painful to be re­minded of the things that I was dis­sat­is­fied with,” she says. “She thinks ev­ery­one is like that,” he ex­plains.

Part of the prob­lem at hand is that Rei’s am­bi­tion with Comme des Garçons is to at­tempt to cre­ate things that didn’t ex­ist be­fore, which para­dox­i­cally means that there can never be suc­cess be­cause as soon as you’ve done some­thing, it’s not new any­more. In 2013, she reached a break­ing point: paral­ysed by the afore­men­tioned weight of ex­pe­ri­ence, she re­alised that the only way to do some­thing that didn’t ex­ist be­fore was not to do it. So she stopped send­ing clothes down her run­ways and in­stead pre­sented a col­lec­tion ti­tled ‘Not Mak­ing Clothes’, which set out a blue­print for her new mode of cre­ation. What she has been ošer­ing in lieu of cloth­ing ever since is ex­plo­rations of form and fabri­ca­tion, mag­nif­i­cent processions of sculp­tural sil­hou­ettes. Th­ese avant-garde ab­strac­tions then fil­ter down to in­form the more eas­ily wear­able pieces that later ap­pear on shop floors the world over. Their graph­ics or de­tails ap­plied to ev­ery­thing, from A-line coats to em­bel­lished T-shirts. In­ci­den­tally, Rei ex­plains that this method is far from fool­proof. It’s now caus­ing her the same level of trauma as her for­mer col­lec­tions. “I’ll have to have an­other idea as good as that, it has to have an­other change,” she says. “Each thing has a time limit; things get old, I get tired of them. There will have to be an­other way in.”

But in the mean­time, we still have not-clothes – and this sea­son, they in­cor­po­rated the works of 16 dišer­ent artists, from Re­nais­sance mas­ters to manga car­toon­ists, col­laged into prints, while arte­facts of girl­hood – plas­tic toys and stušed an­i­mals – were tan­gled into wigs and turned

“If peo­ple didn’t feel any­thing, there wouldn’t be any point do­ing it.”

into bodices. Huge dresses were ex­ploded into torn folds and frills or ex­ag­ger­ated with over­sized horse­hair and foam­padded pet­ti­coats. Sent out to the sounds of FKA Twigs and Aïsha Devi, they felt painfully melan­cholic, like a meditation on lost in­no­cence. For the fi­nale, all of the 15 mod­els walked down the run­way to­gether and stood com­pletely still, fac­ing the au­di­ence.

Rei asks me how the col­lec­tion made me feel, and I ten­ta­tively tell her: that the wide-eyed car­toons and gi­ant overblown dresses, some with wings pro­trud­ing from their backs or sides, felt like a heart-wrench­ing [re­flec­tion on mor­tal­ity] and that I wanted to cry. I ask if that was what she had in­tended. “If peo­ple didn’t feel any­thing, there wouldn’t be any point do­ing it,” she re­sponds bluntly. “I do it in or­der to move peo­ple, to make them feel some­thing. It’s im­por­tant for hu­man­ity, for the progress of hu­man­ity, to feel things and to see things that didn’t ex­ist be­fore. I hope that each per­son, in feel­ing what­ever they feel about the col­lec­tions, would then have their own progress. But what you feel is free: there is no right or wrong.”

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