Born: Tokyo, Japan, 1942. Education: Graduated in fine arts, Keio University, Tokyo, 1964. Career: Worked in advertising department, Asahi Kasei textile firm, 1964-66; freelance designer, 1967-69; founder/designer, Comme des Garçons, 1969, firm incorporated, 1973; introduced Homme menswear line, 1978; introduced tricot knitwear and Robe de Chambre lines, 1981; opened first Paris boutique, 1981; formed Comme des Garçons, S.A. ready-to-wear subsidiary, 1982, formed New York subsidiary, 1986; launched furniture collection, 1983; introduced Homme Plus collection, 1984; opened men's Paris boutique, 1986; introduced Homme Deux and Noir collections, 1987; published Comme des Garçons Six magazine, from 1988; opened Tokyo flagship store, 1989; introduced, then removed men's pajama line, 1995; unveiled "padded" clothing, 1996; presented fused collection, 1998; opened Comme des Garçons shop in Chelsea, 1999; opened Comme des Garçons Two in Tokyo, 1999. Exhibitions: A New Wave in Fashion: Three Japanese Designers, Phoenix, Arizona, Art Museum, 1983; Mode et Photo, Comme des Garçons, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1986; Three Women: Madeleine Vionnet, Claire McCardell, and Rei Kawakubo, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 1987; Essence of Quality, Kyoto Costume Institute, Tokyo, 1993. Awards: Mainichi Newspaper Fashion award, 1983, 1988; Fashion Group Night of the Stars award, New York, 1986; Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Paris, 1993; Harvard Graduate School of Design Excellence in Design award, 2000. Address: Comme des Garçons, 5-11-5 Minamiaoyama, Minatoku Tokyo 107, Japan.
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My approach to fashion design is influenced by my daily life…my search for new means of expression. I feel that recently there has been a little more of an interest towards those who look for new ideas and who are searching for a new sense of values. My wish is to be able to continue my search for the new.
Rei Kawakubo's work is both paradox and ideological imperative. Minimal, monochromatic, and modernist, her approach to fashion design challenges conventional beauty without forgoing stylish cloth, cut, and color. Her clothing is not so much about the body as the space around the body and the metaphor of self. Architectural in conception and decidedly abstract, the clothing nevertheless derives from Japanese traditional wear.
Kawakubo emerged as a clothing designer by an indirect route, from both a training in fine arts at Keio University in Tokyo and work in advertising for Asahi Kasei, a major chemical company that produced acrylic fibers—promoted through fashionable clothing. In 1967 she became a freelance stylist, a rarity in Japan at the time. Her dissatisfaction with available clothes for the fashion shoots provided the impetus for designing her own garments. She launched the Comme des Garçons women's collection in Tokyo in 1975 with her first shop in Minami-Aoyama and her first catalogue the same year. It was an especially fertile period for Japanese fashion design, with the concurrent rise of Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto.
Kawakubo's themes combine the essence of Japanese traditional work-end streetwear, its simplicity of style, fabric, and color, with an admiration for modern architecture, especially the purism of Le Corbusier and Tadao Ando. Translated into clothing's rational construction, these affinities emphasize the idea of garment—the garment as a construction in space, essentially a structure to live in. The tradition of the kimono, with its architectural silhouette off the body and its many-layered complexity of body wrappings, combines with a graphic approach that is flat and abstract. It is a disarming look that requires a cognitive leap in wearability and social function.
The building block of Kawakubo's design is the fabric, the thread that produces the clothing structure. Her long-standing collaboration with specialty weaver Hiroshi Matsushita has allowed her to reformulate the actual fabric on the loom, the complexities of the weave, the imperfections, the texture of the fabric. Her 1981 launch of the Comme des Garçons line in Paris marked her first international exposure and the introduction of her loom-distressed weaves. What have been referred to as "rag-picker" clothes, an homage to the spontaneity and inventiveness of street people, was based on fabric innovation—cloth that crumpled and wrapped, that draped coarsely as layers, folded and buttoned at random. Most notable of these was her so-called "lace" knitwear of 1982, in which sweaters were purposely knitted to incorporate various-sized holes that appeared as rips and tears or intentionally intricate webs. This was an attack on lingering Victorianism in fashion, on the conventional, the precise, and the tight-laced. It offered a rational argument for antiform at a time when minimalism had lapsed into decorativeness.
Kawakubo's use of monochromatic black as her signature is analytical and subtle rather than sensual and brash. Black, which is often perceived as flattering, assumes the status of a noncolor—an absence rather than a presence. Her intent is to reject clothes as mere decoration for the body. Even with the later introduction of saturated color in the late 1980s lines, in which her clothes became slimmer, black was still a basic—evident in the Noir line as well as in Homme and Homme Plus, her menswear collections.
Her control of the presentation of Comme des Garçons in photography, catwalk shows, the design of store interiors, catalogues, and most recently a magazine is integral to the design concept that extends from the clothing. Kawakubo was the first to use nonprofessional models, art world personalities, and film celebrities, both in photography for catalogues and in catwalk shows. Her early catalogues from the 1970s featured noted figures from Japanese art and literature.
The 1988 introduction of the quarto-sized biannual magazine Six (for sixth sense) replaced the Comme des Garçons catalogues and pushed Kawakubo's antifashion ideas to extreme. These photographic essays became enigmatic vehicles for stream-of-consciousness, surrealism, exoticism, and Zen, which informs Kawakubo's sensibility and, ultimately, in a semiotic way, is imbued in her fashion designs. Kawakubo's ideas have explored the realm of possibilities associated with the production and selling of clothing. Her control of the environment of her stores—including the sparse design of the interiors (on which she collaborates with architect Takao Kawasaki), the industrial racks and shelves, the way the salespeople act and dress, and even the furnishings (which she designs and sells)—is total and defining. Her art is one of extending the boundaries of self-presentation and self-awareness into an environment of multivalent signs. It is an extension of fashion design into the realism of metaphysic, of "self in landscape," of which the clothing is a bare trace.
Controversy, for which the inventive icon was often criticized, sparked again when the "anti" designer introduced "Sleep," her Comme des Garçons men's pajama collection. Striped and available in layers, the pajamas came as a reminder of the Nazi death camps, for the show occurred on the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust. The line, described as being stamped with "identification numbers" displayed by "emaciated" models with "shaved heads," soon was removed by Kawakubo herself.
With her disputed pajama line behind her and experimental style still much a part of her work, Kawakubo continued to present obscure designs in her connoisseur show. This time floral prints took to the stage and, contrary to popular belief, screamed success— exactly the recognition the Japanese designer needed to regain her renowned reputation.
Nearing the end of 1996, Kawakubo introduced the concept that "body meets dress, dress meets body and becomes one." Experimenting with new forms and new bodies, the creator inserted basketballsized pads into her clothing. These deformities, according to Kawakubo, exemplify the "actual" rather than the 'natural.' Critics claim the effect depends on the eye—to some, the eye adjusts and the look becomes real; to others, it is merely "strange."
Kawakubo's fashion is based on the event, not the clothes themselves. No music, no theatrics, and not even an audience are typical of the designer's shows. In 1998, the unpredictable artist designed outfits of unfinished patterns. The collection, as Kawakubo put it, was based on releasing energy through fusion. More recent, however, was the addition of her Comme des Garçons shop in the Chelsea district of New York City. The intimate, space-age interior occupies a bold, futuristic setting. The look is supposed to offer a highly personal experience of discovery. Described as mysterious, like its sculptor, the entranceway is hidden to imply exclusivity and says, "If you aren't in the know, then don't bother."
Next came Comme des Garçons Two, which opened in Tokyo, Kawakubo's first shop devoted strictly to clothing. This renovated boutique was inviting to outsiders, focusing on movement and interaction. A Paris shop followed, with "anti" perfumes as its focus. Kawakubo designed the new shops with Takao Kawasaki and Future Systems. Kawakubo's contemporary art and complex fashion trends later earned her the third recipient of the Harvard Graduate School of Design's annual Excellence in Design award.
updated by Diana Idzelis