“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.
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 oce.
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 oers a few sparse words to the journalists trying to decode her creations (This season, those words were, “Multidimensional grati.”). 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 oce 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 Joe, 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 eective nonetheless. Where Rei is cautious and clipped, her voice quiet and low, he is charming and eusive; 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 oering 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 dierent artists, from Renaissance masters to manga cartoonists, collaged into prints, while artefacts of girlhood – plastic toys and stued 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.”