“I work in three shades of black,” Rei Kawakubo once said. She could be describing her immutable and iconic black bob, sunglasses and draped outfits, or be revealing some of her perplexing personality. Either way, the creative director of Comme des Garçons likes nothing more than to confuse and challenge her critics and audiences.
During her youth in post-war Japan, Kawakubo experienced a number of personal difficulties. Her parents’ divorce was seen as socially abnormal and led to her feeling conflicted between rebellion and tradition. Completing a degree in aesthetic history lead her a job in the textile industry, which then grew into creating her own garments. At that point, a professional pathway and sense of renegotiating her individualism was beginning to form.
After years of selling her clothes locally, she opened her first boutique in Tokyo under the label Comme des Garçons. These first designs reflected her dark personality and a cynical, almost contemptuous attitude towards established values in fashion.
By the late 1970s, Comme des Garcons had captivated the Japanese fashion world. In 1981 when Kawakubo brought her label to the West for the first time to Paris, she unleashed both shock and horror. Models walked the runway to the beat of battle drums, wrapped in slashed black robes and sinister face paint. Parisian critics condemned it as “Hiroshima’s Revenge.”
Since then, Kawakubo has cemented her iconic status by bending notions of the female form, subverting conventions of Western culture and distorting perceptions of reality.
Kawakubo doesn’t like to label herself. She hesitates calling fashion an art and is only happy when an audience does not understand her intention. In 2011, she was disheartened that the concept behind her collection White Drama was easily deconstructed, saying she does “not feel happy when a collection is understood too well.”
At age 74, Kawakubo has created a legacy, although she still continues to work relentlessly at reshaping discourse in the fashion world.
You can read the full story of Rei Kawakubo in Fashion Industry Broadcast’s, Masters of Fashion Vol 39 Renegade, available globally from Amazon.