Rei Kawakubo, for more than four decades, has redefined what it means to be a creative in the fashion industry. Her constant challenging of the standards of beauty, and her refusal to veer from her creative vision, whatever it may be, has solidified her position as one of the modern geniuses of design.
Comme des Garçons was birthed in Tokyo in 1969. Kawakubo was previously working in advertising at a textile company, and began her move into fashion after being encouraged by a coworker to pursue freelance styling and design. By 1975, the first Comme des Garçons boutique opened in Tokyo, and, as Kawakubo put it, catered to a woman “who is not swayed by what her husband thinks.”
“I Just Decided To Make A Company Built Around Creation, And With Creation As My Sword, I Could Fight Battles I Wanted To Fight.”
By the time Kawakubo made the Paris debut of her collection in 1981, she already had a cult following in Japan known as “the crows.” Her stated intention from the start was to show “what I thought was strong and beautiful. It just so happened that my notion was different from everybody else’s.”
Concurrent with her 1981 show was the debut of a fellow Japanese designer, the inimitable Yohji Yamamoto. The pair would unknowingly become the champions of Japanese design in the coming decades, and were actually romantically involved for some time around when they presented their first shows in Paris.
Rei Kawakubo & Yohji Yamamoto, Paper Magazine
One of the most noteworthy collections by Kawakubo came in spring/summer 1997, with a collection that she titled “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body.” Many people refer to these dresses as the tumor collection, as forms literally looked as though they were growing from the models’ bodies. Her ideas stood in stark contrast to her peers’ otherwise more traditionally “flattering” silhouettes. These pieces have become highly sought after by Comme des Garçons collectors and perfectly embody Kawakubo’s middle-finger-to-the-sky attitude when it comes to creating fashion.
“Comme Des Garçons Is A Gift To Oneself, Not Something To Appeal Or Attract The Opposite Sex.”
Backstage. Paris, 1987.
“The Only Thing Important To Me Is Making Clothes.”
A fiercely private individual, Kawakubo has offered the press little insight into her personal life and her creative process. In a rare interview, she stated, “I don’t like to explain the clothes, how I made them, the theme, et cetera. It’s because the clothes are just as you see them and feel them. That’s what I want…just see and feel them. How I thought about them, where any idea came from, what the process is, is not something I like talking about to people.”
The few times she has given glimpses into the method behind the madness, Kawakubo has made one thing abundantly clear: she sets out to design things please her creatively, period. She is often labeled a rule-breaker, to which she responds, “I’m not interested in the rules, or whether they are there or not. I do not consciously set out to break rules. I only make clothes that I myself feel are beautiful or good-looking. People may say that this way of feeling is against the rules.”
“I Always Had Good Reactions From People With A Good Eye And A Vision…And Very Terrible Reactions From Those Who Are Afraid Of People Who Are Different To Others—At The Beginning And Even Now. I Have Never Worried About It Too Much.”
Kawakubo has made waves in the fashion world in more ways that just designing clothing. In 2004, she opened Dover Street Market in London, a high-end concept store that showcases not only Comme des Garçons designs, but the work of Kawakubo’s noteworthy contemporaries as well. Dover Street Market opened its first NYC location in early 2014.
Despite her near nonchalance toward the subject, few dispute Kawakubo’s monumental contributions to the fashion world. Apart from the clothing she’s created and the retail spaces she’s opened to showcase her work and her peers’ work, Kawakubo has undeniably influenced (and continues to influence) some of the world’s fashion elite. Marc Jacobs has gone on record to say that both his namesake line and his creations for Louis Vuitton paid homage to Comme des Garçons. Jacobs stated in an interview, “I’ve never denied how influenced I am by Margiela, by Rei Kawakubo, those are people that inspire my work; I don’t hide that.”
Where Kawakubo will go next is difficult to predict. Season to season, her audience patiently awaits her presentation, which is still one of the most anticipated runway shows after over 30 years on the catwalk. No one knows what to expect before the first model turns the corner at Kawakubo’s show. Only one thing is for certain – it will be blissfully irreverent, in such a way that only Rei Kawakubo can achieve.