Renegades Series – Rei Kawakubo

Fashion Industry Broadcast and Style Planet TV is proud to present its new 11-part, hour long film docuseries “Renegades”. As a teaser before the 11 films are released, we are revealing a post on THE BROADCAST each week for the next 11 weeks. This week the story is on Rei Kawakubo.

Our Renegades refused to follow the laws of the ‘fashion rulebook’. The dreamers, the rebels, the auteurs, without whom popular culture would never have been quite as interesting. Even if you hold only the most casual interest in the world of fashion, it’s hard to deny the fascinating life stories of every one of our Renegades.

Featuring the lives and legends of:

  • Alexander McQueen
  • Yohji Yamamoto
  • Rei Kawakubo
  • Issey Miyake
  • Kenzo Yakada
  • Malcolm McClaren
  • Vivienne Westwood
  • Jeremy Scott
  • Rick Owens
  • Hedi Slimane

We present to you: REI KAWAKUBO

Rei Kawakubo. Photo Credit: Carmen Busquets

The European old guard of fashion despised her; the critics never understood her. But for Rei Kawakubo, founder of the renowned fashion label Comme des Garcons, that was always the point. For the more polarising a collection was, the more success it accrued. Kawakubo eschewed conventional standards of beauty, ushering in a new era of anti-fashion; a deconstructed wonderland of noir, capable of creating strong, provocative pieces for women with a defiant desire to dress in a way that reflected their own unique sensibilities.

Kawakubo was born in Tokyo in 1942, the eldest of three siblings and sole daughter of the family. Her father was an administrator at Keio University; her mother, a trained English teacher whom remained at home to raise the family.

Though she insisted her home life was comfortable, even ordinary, Kawakubo came from a family of divorce – a rarity in Japanese culture at the time. Her mother had wished to enter the workforce when her children came of age; her father, however, expressly forbade it.

In most Japanese households during that time and of their social standing, this would have been the end of discussion: the patriarchal law meant his word was final. But the Kawakubo’s were no ordinary family – their mother insisted on a divorce, leaving her husband to fulfil her dream of becoming a high school teacher. It was an act that instilled a sense of defiance in her young daughter, teaching the values of independence and determination, a defining moment that Kawakubo would look to for resolve over the course of her life.

In 1960, Kawakubo attended her father’s university and undertook a degree in “the history of aesthetics,” a course that considered both Eastern and Western culture and art. When she graduated in 1964, she left home and without telling her parents, moved into a shared apartment in the seamy Harajuku neighbourhood of Tokyo.

Kawakubo has always asserted she owns a duality of personality, and her early adult years did much to cultivate this notion; while the bohemian lifestyle of Harajuku spoke to her inherent desire to “break the rules,” the other half – gifted through education and the affluent social circles she formed during university – held a deep concern for both “tradition and history.”

Comme des Garcons SS16, Blue Witch. Photo Credit: Kaltbult Magazine

This dichotomy would eventually be shown through her sense of design; an appreciation for traditional Japanese construction undercut by a desire to invert traditional ideals of fashion for shock value.

To support her new lifestyle, Kawakubo found a job in the advertising department of Asahi Kasei, a textile manufacturer. She was afforded an uncommon amount of leeway in her new position, refusing to wear the standard uniform of an office girl and assisting in photo shoots by finding props and sourcing costumes. She held a significant talent for the latter; eventually, one of her colleagues insisted Kawakubo become a freelance stylist, which was uncommon for the time. When she couldn’t find the appropriate clothes for her assignments, despite a lack of formal sartorial training Kawakubo began to design her own.

Photo Credit: Need Supply Co.

By 1969, two years after joining Asahi Kasei, she was confident enough in her skills to begin designing under her own label: Comme des Garcons, French for “like some boys.”

After a few successful years selling her designs in local stores, she incorporated the label in 1973. By 1975, she had opened her first boutique in Tokyo.

It was around this period Kawakubo became romantically involved with fellow Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto. They were alumni attending the same university and shared a proclivity for design, creating clothing that challenged traditional concepts of beauty: dark, over-sized and asymmetrical garments that failed to adapt to the contours of the human body.

Although they never collaborated, they were close traveling companions making their international debut in the same year as fellow contemporary designer Issey Miyake, the three were tagged as the renegade Japanese designers determined to push Western conventions. Not that Kawakubo ever appreciated the comparison: “I’m not very happy to be classified as another Japanese designer,” she remarked in 1983. “There is no one characteristic that all Japanese designers have.”

Photo Credit: Fashion Bomb Daily

Happiness was an elusive characteristic for Kawakubo. She rarely smiles, holds disdain for the social conventions of small talk, and by her own admission is “angry all the time.”

Her bitter melancholy is reflected even in the earliest of her designs: the jagged and fraying edges of her asymmetrical garments, textured with her signature black tone. So often used to appear slimming and beautiful in Western culture, in the hands of Kawakubo it signalled an emptiness within fashion – absence, rather than presence. Even as she expanded into colour later in her career, believing the tone to be tired, black remained an integral feature of Comme des Garcons through her “noir” line.

Kawakubo developed as a designer over the next decade. She became fascinated with the imperfection; in her eyes, “perfection was the devil,” and like the Japanese temples of old, her garments remained unfinished to resist such temptation.

Her preoccupation with asymmetrical shapes was born out of an interest in modern architecture and the traditional flat, layered styling of the kimono; her garments adhering to flexibility and comfort rather than the standard silhouette that defined the orthodoxy of Western beauty.

Photo Credit: New York Times

More than anything, the clothes of Comme des Garcons represented attitude: the desire to find new and provocative concepts within fashion, to shock and upset the status quo through innovation, revolutionising the world of design. They were almost anarchistic in their intent; indeed, the matriarch of rebellion, Vivienne Westwood, once described Kawakubo as “a punk at heart.”

By the late 1970s, Comme des Garcons was one of the most influential, provocative labels in Japan and the greater East. She had added a men’s line in 1978, Homme Comme des Garcons, and even developed a cult following consisting of anti-fashion enthusiasts the Japanese press labelled as “crows.”

And yet, despite her rampant popularity in the East, Kawakubo was still relatively unknown in the West. That all changed in the early 1980s. Comme des Garcons had debuted in Paris in 1981, turning heads with her deconstructed, flowing garments, but it was her collection the following year that summoned a storm of controversy and shook the conventions of Western fashion to its core– the aptly titled “Destroy” collection of 1982.

All black, militaristic and damn near apocalyptic, Destroy caused a furore amongst the Parisian press, who condemned the collection as “Hiroshima’s Revenge.” Models in furious war paint thundered down the runway to the incessant beat of war drums, draped in oversized garments, loosely knit and scarred with holes as if slashed with a cabal of knives.

The fashion world was cleaved in two. While Kawakubo “never intended to start a revolution,” Destroy did exactly that: for every critic and high couture designer mortified by the collection, Comme des Garcons found a convert – the avant-garde and individualists of society who flocked to the Kawakubo anti-fashion like the crows of their namesake.

The 1980s were a time of rapid expanse for Comme des Garcons. Her first Parisian boutique opened in 1983, along with a store in New York; by the late 1980s there were over 300 stores scattered across the globe, a fourth of which was founded outside of Japan.

In 1988 Kawakubo launched “Six,” a biannual magazine named after the sixth sense. The magazine replaced their traditional catalogue and concerned itself more with the stream-of-consciousness and surrealism than with fashion itself, focusing less on words in favour of illustrations, art and photography – including shots from notable photographers Bruce Weber and Peter Lindbergh.

Despite her cultural background and the insistence of many fans, Kawakubo insists her work has never been as an artist: “I have only continued all these years to try and make a business with creation … I cannot separate being a designer from being a businesswoman. It’s one and the same thing for me.”

She commands a near total control of her label, from deciding on the sparse, industrialist design of her stores to the furnishings each one contains, and even the way her employees are required to act and dress.

Yet there have been times when Kawakubo concedes she is, at the very least, a “businesswoman (slash) artist.” Indeed, her creative process when envisioning a collection sounds less like a traditional designer and more like that of a conceptual artist.

Five ensembles from “18th Century Punk,” autumn/winter 2016-17. Comme des Garcons. Photo Credit: WWD

Although she goes to great lengths to avoid explaining herself, occasionally Kawakubo has divulged the methods that envelop her creativity:

“My design process never starts or finishes. I am always hoping to find something through the mere act of living my daily life … often in each collection, there are three or so seeds of things that come together accidentally to form what appears to everyone else as a final product, but for me it is never ending.”

The dissimilarities between Kawakubo and her designer contemporaries extend beyond her creative process. While other fashion moguls indulge in mansion hopping, art collection and socialising with the celebrity elite, Kawakubo enjoys a quiet lifestyle dedicated to her work; her only indulgences, it seems, are her love for animals and her monstrous Mitsubishi car from the 1970s.

Beyond this, Kawakubo leads a life of relative solitude. Few are close to her; fewer still have been granted access to her home, an apartment close to her business headquarters in the Aoyama shopping district of Tokyo.

Even her husband, Comme des Garcons CEO Adrian Joffe, lives separate from her – running the international wing of their company from their headquarters in Paris.

Kawakubo and Joffe became an item in the early 1990s, after Kawakubo separated from former flame Yamamoto. After a short courtship the couple married in 1992; Joffe has since become CEO and personal translator for his wife, effectively handling any communiqué between Kawakubo and the outside world.

Despite his integral position to the company no one – especially not Joffe – is under the illusion that Comme des Garcons is anything less than the domain of Kawakubo. This is, after all, the woman who once famously declared her label for “women who do not care what their husbands think.”

Clockwise from top-left: Junya Watanabe, Tao Kurihara, Fumito Ganryu, Junichi Abe, Chitose Abe, Kei Ninomiya. Photo Credit: Business of Fashion

Kawakubo relaxed the reins of her company around the time of her marriage, allowing other designers to put their own unique spin on Comme des Garcons style. Beginning with Junya Watanabe in the early 1990s, her stable now includes Tao Kurihara and most recently Kei Ninomiya, who design under the Comme des Garcons umbrella through their own distinct sub-labels.

Kawakubo allows her designers a strong sense of independence, just as she herself appreciates, and rarely sees their collections until just before their public unveiling.

Dover Street Market storefront

In line with this Kawakubo founded fashion concept store Dover Street Market in 2004. DSM showcased her architectural flair, an art space housing the clothing and accessories of Comme des Garcons alongside a curated selection of innovative designers from London, New York and Tokyo with pop-up collaborations and events. Its six-flagship store hit LA in 2018 adding to the pioneering spaces across London, Paris, New York, Singapore and Tokyo.

Comme des Garcons has unleashed over two-dozen lines since its inception in 1973, even consenting to create easier-to-wear subsidiaries like the Comme des Garcons Comme des Garcons range; they have collaborated with a host of diverse and established brands over the years, including Lacoste, Fred Perry, Nike and those nobles of Parisian high couture, Louis Vuitton.

But those who believe the aggressively unique designer is softening in her old age may want to reconsider. Kawakubo is still capable of causing controversy when she so chooses; in fact, she seems to relish it.

Photo Credit: Comme des Garcons Homme Plus / Tumblr

In 1995, the presentation of her men’s collection “Sleep” – a series of baggy, striped pyjamas evocative of the prison uniforms worn in Auschwitz – created outrage for all the wrong reasons. The collection, stamped with “identification numbers” on each garment and displayed by models with shaved heads – was unveiled on the 50th anniversary of the holocaust.

It was an unintentional step too far for Kawakubo, who discontinued the line and released an official apology for her blunder. There would be no apologising two years later however, when the 1996 collection “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body” was unveiled and Kawakubo shocked the world once more.

Incensed by a Gap window displaying banal black clothes – her signature tone, reduced to something incomprehensibly generic – Kawakubo began experimenting with new forms of structure, inserting basketball-sized pads as a deformity intended to highlight the “actual” over the “natural.” By adding these extensions Kawakubo believed she could control the perception of reality, making deformity seem as conventional as the Gap blight that had inspired her designs. Critics of the collection were less convinced, declaring it a perversion of design that conjured nothing other than the “strange.”

View of Comme des Garcon’s ‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body’ Spring 1997 Collection. Photo Credit: Wanderlustful

Kawakubo has always been unafraid to reject progress and convention, even after embracing it. When her 2011 collection “White Drama” was too easily understood – its cryptic title easily deconstructed by critics as a journey through the seminal events of life – Kawakubo became despondent, later declaring she does “not feel happy when a collection is understood too well.”

It is a desire for the unique that permeates every facet of her business. In 2004, Kawakubo, together with Joffe and Comme des Garcons, were credited with originating the pop-up store trend, introducing the label to cities around the globe for less than a year in any given location; once the idea entered the mainstream Kawakubo denounced the idea as tired and ceased producing pop-up stores.

A 2008 collaboration with H&M produced similar results. Despite its rampant popularity – the collection produced a near-riot in Tokyo – Kawakubo is reluctant to travel the same path again, going so far as to criticise the fashion industry outright:

“I don’t feel too excited about fashion today, more fearful that people don’t necessarily want or need strong new clothes, that there are not enough of us believing in the same thing, that there is kind of a burnout, that people just want cheap fast clothes and are happy to look like everyone else, that the flame of creation has gone a bit cold, that enthusiasm and passionate anger for change and rattling the status quo is weakening.”

Yet the “flame of creation,” as Kawakubo elegantly puts it, continues through the litany of high-profile designers she has influenced through her nearly five decades in fashion; European converts like John Galliano, Martin Margiela and Raf Simons – legendary designers enchanted by the anti-fashion that Kawakubo dragged into the consciousness of couture all those years ago.

Having started CDG at age 27, Kawakub, now 76, shows no sign of slowing down. The designer is still staging at every Paris fashion week presenting her unique brand of high-concept that translates into an estimated $280 million a year commercially. It is a singular dedication to “the work”, as she calls it, that propels her in the present, with little thought given to her posterity.

A view of “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between.” Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Despite this that legacy was honoured in the 2017 Met Exhibition: Rei Kawakubo (slash) Commes des Garcons: Art of the In-Between. Equivalent to the fashion world’s Oscars, this Gala, which is organised on behalf of the New York Costume Institute, is only the second mono graphic exhibition on a living designer since the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1983 exposition on Yves Saint Laurent. Curated by Andrew Bolton and assisted by Kawakubo, the exhibition features 150 garments that span the brands archives since the 1980s. Split into 9 spaces and blocked by colour, it explores the timeless fluidity of the designers work which also manages to escape definition, with the only text presented as dichotomies across the 9 themes, Absence (versus) Presence, Design (against) Not Design and so on, exploring the art of creation and recreation revolutionised by Kawakubo.

As difficult as it becomes in the modern era of fashion, when so many have injected themselves into the medium with the same deconstructionist aesthetic Kawakubo in part inspired, her aspirations to push the boundaries of fashion continue to delight and offend in equal measure.

Kawakubo wouldn’t want it any other way.

Rei Kawakubo designs. Illustration by Liz Riccardi. Photo Credit: NYLON

Check back every Tuesday for the latest teaser for FIB and Style Planet TV’s newest docuseries, Renegades.

Written by: Charlie O’Brien
Edited by: Jess Bregenhoj