Who Is Rei Kawakubo? The Visionary Behind Comme Des Garçons | CoolJapan

Rei Kawakubo is an enigma. She's mysterious, unapologetically ridiculous and at the same time, a genius. Her designs are as mystifying as her. Before she came into the scene, no designer ever dared to do what she does. Parading unfinished hems, adding random bumps and lumps into silhouettes, designing clothes without armholes — these creative decisions are indeed outrageous, some might even say impractical. Who in the world would ever want to wear such comical looks?

The answer lies in a popular quote attributed to Kawakubo: “I make clothes for a woman who is not swayed by what her husband thinks." From the very beginning, her designs have been rooted in independent thought and a rebellion from the norm. Keep this in mind as we examine the brilliance of her works.

Rihanna at the Met Gala 2017 wearing a Comme des Garçons piece

To fully understand the legacy of Kawakubo, you need to reframe the way you think about fashion. View it as more than just clothes but also as an art form. And why does art exist? To provide us with an opportunity for introspection, reexamine the conventional, push boundaries and to simply make us feel something. When you think about fashion this way, you would begin to understand that Kawakubo designs her clothes to appeal more to the soul rather than the eyes. They may not look conventionally pretty but they will surely get a strong reaction out of you — whatever that may be. 

Breaking the status quo

In 1997, she released one of her most infamous collections called Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body. Models were sent down the runway in pastel-coloured gingham pieces while — wait for it — sporting random lumpy pads on their bodies. Because Kawakubo often shies away from interviews, editors and critiques were left to dissect the meaning of this seemingly absurd collection themselves. 

Rei Kawakubo's Spring 1997 collection worn by Merce Cunningham Dance Company dancers

According to Francesca Granata of The Museum of Modern Art, the collection became controversial but the press "hailed it as innovative and challenging ideals of beauty through this system of padding that made reference to body out of bounds and pregnancy." Indeed, Kawakubo has never subscribed to the ideal. Her leanings have always geared toward reshaping the body rather than maintaining the status quo of the era's ideal figure. But this notorious "disturbing" collection isn't the first time she veered away from conventional practices.

Even before becoming a world-renowned designer, Kawakubo was already fearless with her designs. Her very first show in Paris shocked the international audience in 1981. The looks weren't particularly vulgar nor offensive, but they still stirred the then-gatekeepers of the industry simply because they're so different from the glamourous couture of Hubert Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent, who were the favourites of the time. Instead of seamless stitches, Kawakubo's designs featured frayed, unfinished hems complete with tattered holes and featured a monochromatic colour palette rather than trendy vibrant neons. 

Fashion critics of the time christened the collection "Hiroshima Chic". Hiroshima, as you may recall, was one of the hardest-hit areas in Japan during World War II. The tattered look was interpreted by many as a symbol for the hardships and poverty experienced by Japan. But she disputed this in an interview with The Guardian in 2015 — three decades after her first international showcase — saying that "the critics had it all wrong" and that the devastation in Hiroshima "had no bearing" on her work. "Growing up in postwar Japan has made me the person I am, but it is not why I do the work I do. It is a very personal thing — everything comes from inside," she said.

Even though Kawakubo's international debut may not have been met with unanimously positive reviews, it still put her on the map. Now everybody knows about Rei Kawakubo, the Japanese designer who has guts. Back in Japan, by the 1980s, Kawakubo had already built an empire. Fast forward to today, Comme des Garçons is a popular store for "distressed" pieces and drapey, free-flowing clothing.

It was a surprise that Kawakubo's alternative style got popular in a country that places high value in conformism. Ianne Ubalde, a scholar of Asian and Japanese Studies, has an interesting theory about why this happened. "It's a form of escape from a rather 'rigid' Japanese society," she says, comparing it to today's outlandish Harajuku subculture. "For some Japanese, it's an avenue to let loose and take a break from the monotony." She adds that the shapeless clothing may have been Kawakubo's response to how women were fantasised in Japan during that era. "In a way, she is somehow deconstructing gender norms through clothes," she said.

Kawakubo will go on to surprise audiences for decades, sending groundbreaking clothing down the runway season after season. And the most surprising of all is when she, a fashion designer, declared that she's not anymore making clothes and transitioning to making "not clothes". "The only way of doing something new is not to set out to design clothes," she told The New York Times at a September 2013 show.

True to her word, Kawakubo's designs shifted to an even more offbeat and bizarre tone with models appearing on the runway wearing theatrical makeup and dressed in elaborate pieces, not clothes.

The legacy of Kawakubo

Even to this day, Kawakubo still gets criticised for her impractical, "nonsensical" designs. The 2017 Met Gala, whose theme was Kawakubo and her brand, highlighted the dismissive attitude most people have towards her work. When celebrities arrived decked in Comme des Garçons looks, comments on Instagram were overwhelmingly focused on how ridiculous the designs are. But Kawakubo never intended to be practical, she intended to be an artist — one that had a lasting legacy of breaking the status quo and is revered by other designers as their source of inspiration

Whether you're aware of it or not, Kawakubo has shaped the way we shop for clothing today. "Until now, Japanese people like wearing black, white or grey," Ubalde shares, saying that the colours were previously heavily associated with funerals before Kawakubo made it fashionable.

At 77, Rei Kawakubo is still helming Comme des Garçons and will continue to influence the fashion sphere for years to come. Get ready to be surprised.

(Cover photo from: Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC BY)