Rei Kawakubo is a contemporary Japanese fashion designer with no formal fashion design training born in Tokyo in 1942. She founded her line, Commes des Garçons, in 1969, shocking the West and challenging the general trends towards an overly commercial and glamourized understanding of fashion. Her fashion has sometimes been called anti-fashion due to its lack of conformity to conventions and her refusal to take into account prevailing trends and preconceived, mainstream notions of beauty. Kawakubo challenges the commercially conceived expression of glamour and instead designs independently of trends and historical developments in fashion. Her clothes are sculptural and her silhouettes emphasize structure rather than surface. Her extensive experimentation and innovation includes upside-down pockets, de-emphasized shoulders, extra-long sleeves, holes in sweaters, dismantled jackets and garments being worn inside out. In 2004, Kawakubo opened Dover Street Market, her London-based store in which she curates various fashion labels. Today, she is at the head of a multi-million business and reputed for her ability to keep her creativity untainted by commerce. [i] In the words of the innovative fashion retailer Carla Sozzani, Kawakubo has “interpreted a change of mind in women and opened up a whole vision of femininity.”[ii]
Kawakubo’s aesthetic vision extends beyond her clothes to embrace every facet of her company, giving consistency to her brand’s image. Kawakubo states that what she would like is to “transmit and tell people … the values in which I believe. It wouldn’t be interesting if everyone wore the same clothes or worked the same ways. I want to convince people to be courageous and try things differently.“[iii] Kawakubo attempts to express the world and what is going on in it through her fashion. “What is important to me is information (in the journalistic sense of relating news). I like to tell a story. Without news, nothing is alive. The final result of everything must say something. Information deepens the work. So, if anything, I am maybe more of a journalist than an artist!” [iv] Kawabubo states.
Faith, emotion and feeling play a very important part in Kawakubo’s design process. She starts every collection with a single word, which she then develops. “I deliberately avoid any order to the thought process after finding the word and instead think about the opposite of the word, or something different to it, or behind it. The technique is intellectual because I am using my brain, but the result is shaped through instinct and emotion,”[v] she adds. Moreover, separateness and neutrality are indispensable to Kawakubo’s creative process and she thus chooses to avoid critical opinions on her subordinates while maintaining her transcending influence over the company. This is her method to materialize her abstract concepts into actual material clothing.
She makes her profit so that she will have the means to create and innovate for the next season available to her, and in this sense, it is always about the next project to Kawakubo.[vi] To do so, she chooses to work alone and independently. She thus maintains control over every facet of her business in an attempt to preserve the high quality synonymous with her brand. She keeps her business very secretive and separate from other aspects of her life (family, press). However, she works openly with her design assistants, which she calls ‘paterners’, by never explicitly communicating her feelings for the collection. In this way they learn to intuitively come up with designs that work for her and respond to her one-word inspiration. Her silence thus says a lot by allowing her assistants to have some independence and use their imagination, teaching them to think creatively and innovate by themselves. In this way, Commes des Garçons is run much like a medieval guild system, in essence preparing apprentices for the day when the master leaves.[vii]
Kawakubo is continually challenging current ideals of body shape, garment construction and use of colour and refuses to conform or ease her controversial level of experimentation. Kawakubo’s designs and her innovative designing strategy has influenced designers such as Martin Margiela, Helmut Lang and Ann Demeulemeester.[viii]
[i] Suzy Menkes, “Positive Energy: Comme at 40,” New York Times, June 8, 2009, Fashion Section, Online edition.
[iii] Petronio, Ezra. Self Service 13 (Autumn/Winter 2000): 154. Mendes, Valerie. Black in Fashion. London: V&A Publications, 1999.
[iv] Suzy Menkes, “Positive Energy: Comme at 40,” New York Times, June 8, 2009, Fashion Section, Online edition.
[vi] Cathy Horyn, “Gang of Four,” New York Times, February 28, 2008, Fashion Section, Online edition.
[vii] Jessica Glassock, “Bridging the Art/Commerce Divide: Cindy Sherman and Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garcons,” NYU Grey Art Gallery Database. http://www.nyu.edu/greyart/exhibits/odysseys/Commerce/body_commerce.html
[viii] Sarah Bodine, “Rei Kawakubo,” Fashion Encyclopedia. http://www.fashionencyclopedia.com/Ja-Kh/Kawakubo-Rei.html
Bodine, Sarah. “Rei Kawakubo.” Fashion Encyclopedia. http://www.fashionencyclopedia.com/Ja-Kh/Kawakubo-Rei.html (accessed April 28, 2010).
Glassock, Jessica. “Bridging the Art/Commerce Divide: Cindy Sherman and Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garcons.” NYU Grey Art Gallery Database. http://www.nyu.edu/greyart/exhibits/odysseys/Commerce/body_commerce.html (accessed April 27, 2010).
Horyn, Cathy. “Gang of Four.” New York Times, February 28, 2008, Fashion Section, Online edition. http://www.nytimes.com/indexes/2008/02/24/style/t/index.html#pageName=24comme
Petronio, Ezra. Self Service 13 (Autumn/Winter 2000): 154. Mendes, Valerie. Black in Fashion. London: V&A Publications, 1999.