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Rei Kawakubo: fashion’s great iconoclast

‘I don’t like the word feminist. I don’t like the word ambitious. I do like the word anti-establishment’ – to mark today’s Comme des Garçons show, we revisit an archive feature

To mark Comme des Garçons’ SS16 show today, we revisit an archive interview with Rei Kawakubo  from the September 2004 issue of Dazed, written as she was preparing for the opening of London’s Dover Street Market. 

Rei Kawakubo is dressed in a black tail coat of her own making, black trousers, the crotch of which reaches almost to the ankles, black brothel creepers, and a concession perhaps to the bright sunlight outside – an equally bright floral-print t-shirt. And with her blunt cut, jet black bobbed hair framing her face she is as beautiful as ever.

The founder and designer of the Comme des Garçons label is in London working on one of her most ambitious projects to date – the construction of a typically challenging concept in fashion retail – Dover Street Market. It is six months before it’s due to open and the designer still has no architect on board, or indeed any idea what the finished result will look like.

“In Japan recently, Burberry opened a multi-million dollar flagship store. It will be the antithesis of that. Fortunately, we haven’t got a lot of money so we can’t afford marble floors. We have to find an idea that won't cost too much.”

To say that Kawakubo is a woman of few words would be something of an understatement. She is notoriously shy and dislikes the interview process intensely, preferring her work to speak for itself. What she does say, however, packs a considerable punch, she is straight talking to the point of being blunt. Her approach to her work, however, is more in keeping with that of a conceptual artist – that is determinedly abstract and elusive – than the brains behind a multi-million dollar global brand. To do her justice, Kawakubo has always insisted that fashion is a craft, and one with its roots firmly in the commercial side of things at that. She is a “fashion designer and a businesswoman”, she says.

The Dover Street Market project aims to challenge our preconceptions of what fashion retail may or may not be. As the likes of Prada, Chanel, Hermès and the aforementioned Burberry fall over themselves to open ever more extravagant flagships, Kawakubo has, in typically idiosyncratic style, opted for a more organic (and far less expensive) process, one that aims to entice the customer through experimentation and innovation rather than blinding them with excess.

“I want to create a market where people from all walks of life can encounter each other in an atmosphere of beautiful chaos,” the designer explains, “the coming together of kindred souls.” Comme des Garçons being Comme des Garçons, the line-up of those “members” already committed is impressive. At the time of going to press, the company describes itself as “at the final stages of negotiations" with Alber Elbaz, currently whipping up a quiet storm at Lanvin, who will design a series of pieces exclusively for the project, Raf Simons, Azzedine Alaïa (who famously wears Comme des Garçons pyjamas and attends each and every show) and UndercoverDior Homme designer Hedi Slimane will present furniture for the first time in the store’s gallery space. The stylist Judy Blame, shoe designer Terry De Havilland and Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio are all also in the frame. As far as the interior is concerned “architectural interventions and interior design as such is dispensed with. Kawakubo is working with theatre and film scenographers to create various backgrounds and atmospheres which will change regularly. These will interact with the spaces of each creator in an accidental and synergistic manner.”

In a world where play-safe tactics dominate, creating something on such a grand scale with such a deliberate lack of concrete structure must be nerve-wracking to say the very least. But then risk taking has always been this particular brand’s modus operandi. Where the world's most high-profile labels notoriously entice the population at large into their fold through the production of sweet smelling fragrances – notes of jasmine or sandalwood, say – Comme des Garcons’ latest series of scents is called Synthetics, and aims to evoke the not quite so people-pleasing smells of “dryclean”, “garage” and “tar”. This takes the idea of the “anti-perfume” (first launched by the company with the by now iconic Odeur 53 and Odeur 71 fragrances) to a new extreme.

“Rei would never have agreed to launch a perfume if it meant compromising the values of Comme des Garçons,” says Adrian Joffe, Kawakubo’s husband of 12 years and the company’s managing director. “So it became just another field to explore the boundaries of, just as with clothes and interiors.”

“Today, in nearly every other designer’s collection, there’s a little hint of Rei” – Joan Burstein, Browns

Along similar lines, six months ago Comme des Garçons opened its first Guerrilla store. If Dover Street Market’s secret is a heartfelt spontaneity, fashion anarchy is at the core of the Guerrilla concept, just as the name suggests. With stores already open in Barcelona and Berlin, and more planned for such unlikely outposts as Ljubljana, Vilnius, Stockholm, Warsaw and Brooklyn over the next year, “the idea is to propose to the local population an array of interesting and creative merchandise in a new way that is not beholden to seasons or other industry dictates and where what counts is the choice of goods and the spirit and the energy rather than the appearance of carefully designed interiors.” Succinctly, Comme des Garcons source the spaces in up and coming areas, enter into partnership with a manager who lives locally and runs the store, filling it with their product on a sale or return basis to ensure little financial risk. Managers work with fixtures and fittings that are already in place, only adapting them very slightly to suit their needs. (Berlin, for example, located in a former bookshop, benefited from nothing more complex than a rather fetching lick of primrose yellow paint.) At the time of opening both the Berlin and Barcelona stores had cost the company the not-entirely-princely sum of around 3,000 euros each. “No Guerrilla store will be open for more than a year,” Joffe says. “The reasoning behind this is that we expect these up-and-coming areas to change, to have upped and come after one year and so we will want to move away. You could say that the more successful we are, the more we will want to move.”

It is, all in all, a restless and even contrary vision. And at the heart of it, sitting in the bar of the Connaught Hotel, her hands folded gently in her lap, her back poker straight and her gaze directed at the floor, is the deceptively small and delicate figure of the 60-year-old fashion designer Rei Kawakubo. Her quietly modest demeanour belies her considerable power and, of course, the fact that she has been the most consistently ground-breaking fashion designer of the past 30 years. 

Born in Tokyo in 1942, the daughter of a senior faculty member at Keio University, Kawakubo started school while Japan was still under US military occupation. “By the time she graduated,” writes Deyan Sudjic in his 1990 monograph on Comme des Garçons, “the country had decisively emerged from the ranks of the developing world. The ferment of those years provided unique opportunities for the members of a generation that was ready to make the most of them. They enjoyed the fruits of an economic success story which enabled Japan to look at the outside world in more objective terms, to make its own creative contribution and, in the process, to assert its own identity as a mature, modern state.”

Kawakubo says today that her earliest memories of fashion as a child are of “navy and white and polka dots” – this is, of course, spare to the point of being mischievous. Whatever, there's no talk of doodling dresses or cutting costumes for beloved teddy bears with this particular designer, who is about as far from whimsical as it is possible to be. Instead she stumbled on what would become her chosen career almost by accident. Having graduated in 1964, she worked first as a stylist in the advertising department of a major chemical manufacturer but soon found she felt more of an affinity to the photographers and art directors she collaborated with on outside projects than her colleagues. With this in mind, she took a leap of faith and went freelance. In retrospect, this was the turning point because, when Rei Kawakubo couldn’t find the clothes she wanted to order to enable her to do her job in an interesting way, she turned to designing them herself. She had no formal training.

“I can understand how some women want to marry a rich man. They may be happy for the rest of their lives but they will never be free” – Rei Kawakubo

As a woman starting out in a famously chauvinistic country, this cannot have been easy. But to Kawakubo then, as now, independence was perhaps the most precious commodity. Joffe explains. “She has always said she made the company because she wanted to be free and independent. Then came the way of doing it, based on what she believes about creation and freedom and individuality and about breaking rules.” Kawakubo puts it more emotively. “I can understand how some women want to marry a rich man,” she has said. “They may be happy for the rest of their lives but they will never be free.”

As such, the starting point for every collection to this day is “a strong woman”. The current autumn/winter collection takes this a step further, “I was thinking about witches. Witches in the original sense of the word, in the sense of a woman having power. The original witches were benevolent but because people didn't understand them they bullied them. We're left with a bad image of them.”

If Victoriana – and the mourning dress of that period in particular – appears also to be key, Kawakubo speaks more broadly of a new formality. “There’s a certain rigidity about formalwear and I appreciate those limitations,” she says. “The idea was to concentrate, concentrate, concentrate, then to break any self-limiting formality down. Some of the jackets have four sleeves.” Extremes of received notions of femininity and masculinity are ripe for exploration: full-skirted, frilled and bow-bedecked garments rub shoulders with more that are clearly borrowed from men. Embellishment comes in the form of tangles of shredded fabric decorated with buttons, beads and jewels, gleaming feathers and fine tulle overlays. And, of course, the collection is almost entirely black. “Over the 20 years or so since I first showed black clothes in Paris, the colour has completely lost its specialness and strength, however, I think I have proved again that black is still a special and strong colour.”

Yuki Maekawa, former London press consultant for Comme des Garçons and a friend and colleague of Kawakubo’s for many years, met her at the time of her first Paris collection in 1981 and remembers it well. Kawakubo's business was by that time well established in Japan and was now ready for an international stage. “It was a small collection of no more than 30 or 40 outfits,” Maekawa says, “and a miniature show.” Nonetheless, the impact of boiled wool pieces, or “lace” knitwear, in particular, was considerable. Joan Burstein, owner of designer fashion store Browns was among the first to buy it – she opened the Comme des Garçons shop in London in 1987 and has since said: “Today, in nearly every other designer's collection, there's a little hint of Rei.” It wasn't until her third Paris show, however, that Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons caused a scandal. “You have to remember,” Maekawa explains, “in those days, there would be four models at the back of the catwalk and they would come down and be photographed posing for the camera in pairs – that was how it was done.”

Kawakubo changed all this forever. The show was called Destroy. Models came out and stood on the spot while blinding lights flashed all around. She sent out leggings with sweater cuffs at the ankles teamed with tunics that turned into shawls, oversized knits peppered with holes and scaled up overcoats that buttoned from left to right “comme des garçons”. Models wore flat shoes (“I think that the body should be on the ground,” the designer says today.) In place of the conventional hourglass silhouette came a far less stereotypically body-conscious aesthetic that was about as far from the proverbial eye candy as is possible to imagine. Even models’ lipstick was displaced, painted to one side of their mouths on their cheeks. And clothes were, almost without exception, inky black. With a fashion establishment which boasted, on the one hand, the bourgeois likes of Chanel, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, on the other the more radical 80s designers Mugler and Montana and the Italians Versace and Armani, Kawakubo's vision was too extreme a contrast. More than a few feted fashion commentators simply packed up and left. Struggling to get to grips wth an entirely new aesthetic, the majority of critics took the easy option and wrote it off, coining the particularly unfortunate moniker “Hiroshima's revenge”.

“I don't like the word feminist. I don't like the word ambitious. I do like the word anti-establishment” – Rei Kawakubo

It is entirely likely that Kawakubo's subsequent deep-rooted mistrust of the press has contributed to her reticence to discuss her work or indeed anything else, particularly, matters remotely private. She has said: “It would be much better to know someone through that person's work. With a singer, the best way is to listen to the song. For me, the best way to know me is to look at my clothing.” She will say: “I don't like the word feminist. I don't like the word ambitious. I do like the word anti-establishment.” Still to this day, she insists that she called her company Comme des Garçons simply because “I liked the way it sounds”.

At the end of the 80s, when designer fashion had realised the peak of its power and financial potential and the twice-yearly women’s ready-to-wear collections became the media circus they are to this day, Kawakubo pulled right back. Instead of inviting 2,000-odd buyers and press to her shows, Comme des Garçons now seats no more than around 300 people, a select group which it is hoped will be, if not necessarily sympathetic, at least open to Kawakubo's ideas. “I have never changed what I wanted to do whatever people’s reaction has been,” she says. “I think it is totally normal and right that there are reactions both ways. Right from the start, I always wanted to challenge people, move them to have a reaction. Whether it is a good reaction or a bad one is unimportant.” Whichever way you choose to look at it, the lady must be doing something right. Comme des Garçons’ turnover for the year ending February 2004 was $150 million. There are now 12 different lines and stores all over the world including 270 in Japan alone. Rei Kawakubo says that what continues to drive her is “the sense of responsibility for the many, many people that work directly and indirectly for Comme des Garcons. The second reason is that I haven't yet made clothes that I have been totally satisfied with and maybe I never will.”

When asked why she thinks, in the past, people have reacted so extremely to her clothes she says: “Maybe it is because it is a human weakness to feel fear in front of something that you haven’t seen before or have not experienced. Most people don't like to see values expressed other than their own.” This, of course, brings us neatly back to the subject of witches. Quite how far the designer identifies with this most recent source of inspiration it is impossible to say. “I don't think I’m criticised as much as I used to be but maybe that’s a bad thing because I'm not designing things that are so strong,” Rei Kawakubo says. “On the other hand, maybe it's a good thing and because of Comme des Garçons more challenging clothing is now accepted.”