Fashion A to Z: It's all about Rei Kawakubo

There are designers, and then there's Rei Kawakubo.
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A is for Art. One of Rei's main interests is art and literature. Without having gone to fashion school, these two passions turned her into an emblem of the industry, under its brand Comme Des Garçons.


B is for Businesswoman. She is a designer but at the same time, she is a great businesswoman. Whether it's Comme or Dover Street Market, she does not stay only in the creative process of a collection. Rei loves being part of everything that encompasses a brand experience. She always visits the stores and she pays attention to how the clothes are shown and who buys their clothes. Some say that you can even see her folding clothes at Dover Street Market."


C is by Comme des Garçons. The brand created Rei in 1969. The name came from a phrase in the song of Françoise Hardy: "comme les garçons et les filles de mon âge". In 1981, she travelled to Paris accompanied by Yohji Yamamoto to present her collections which changed the way she saw fashion and appropriated the "technique" of construction and deconstruction of the patterns, which was followed by the wave of Belgian designers years later. One of her best-known collections was Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body of 1997, which consisted of dresses placed on pads, referring to the modification of the body throughout history.


D is for Dover Street Market. Following the success of Comme des Garçons, and taking into account its focus on creating a unique customer experience, she decided to open Dover Street Market. A space that works as a space to host established designers like Raf Simons, Gucci, Céline and Rick Owens, and a platform for new talents like Jacquemus or Off White. "I wanted to create a market where people could enter and find beautiful chaos."

E is for Creative Expression. While one of its pillars, is to create garments, Rei has made it clear that it is not her only form of expression. "I am always thinking of the total idea, and the context of everything". The designer has always looked for ways to stimulate all kinds of people. The way to achieve this is to have that motivation to create pieces that stand out among the great designs that we see.

F is for Feminism. Kawakubo has made it clear that she is not a feminist. The name of Comme des Garçons is, in fact, a reaction against it, "like children," moving away from any feminine notion. However, she has been one of the few women who has managed to establish a brand in Japan, a place known for its misogynistic corporate culture. She once said to Vogue in 1995, "Comme des Garçons is a gift to oneself, not something to appeal or to attract the opposite sex."


G is for Georgia in the 80s. Georgia in 1989. In the field of Tbilisi and with Rei Kawakubo wrapped in a black blanket, the image is part of an A3 magazine publication. The photographer was Brian Griffin, (without having experience in fashion photography) was the one chosen to capture the residents of the Soviet Georgia dressed in gifts of Comme des Garçons.

"What's really impressive about her is that she's never backed down"

H is for Happy Classical. For Comme des Garçons' fall/winter 2016 collection, the designer asked musician Frédéric Sanchez to create a soundtrack that was "happy classical" and the result was a combination that left the audience with a big smile as they listened to mix of The Nutcracker Tchaikovsky with fragments of alternative music.  

I is for Integrity. In an industry where it is easy to change course according to what the market dictates, Kawakubo is one of the few designers who has held firm to her creative beliefs of being unpredictable, breaking rules and challenges conventions every season. Her designs are simple reflections of what she is thinking at the moment. She works and lives according to her own terms and yet, she is one of the best fashion entrepreneurs, with a brand that generates great profits annually. Alexander McQueen highlighted it occasionally in an interview for Another Magazine : "What's really impressive about her is that she's never backed down".

J is for Junya Watanabe. Rei Kawakubo is known for being a mentor to various designers. One of them is Junya, who began his career working at Comme des Garçons before opening his own brand under CdG's roof in 1992. His first collection was made from fabrics found in London markets, and it became a major collection for the season. Other prodigies include Chitose Abe of Sacai and Noir by Kei Nomiya.

K is for kachikan. Kachikan means the value of a system or soul. Rei's kachikan was to establish a company with the premise of always finding something new. That ideology has been in Comme des Garçons for more than 40 years. "I would not change it because otherwise, it would not be Comme des Garçons."


L is for Lab Coat. A plastic jacket, a kind in black with white letters printed on the back, is a popular piece of the brand Vetements, as well as the white robes, which you will always find work by Maison Margiela's staff. But, the pioneer in making the atelier lab coat was Rei Kawakubo, who started in the 80's, as a way to identify her employees during her shows.  The coats even have the date of the show on it.

M is for Met Gala. Over 140 pieces from the Comme des Garçons collection by Rei Kawakubo are now exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of New York for her solo exhibition – Art of the In-Between. After Yves Saint Laurent in 1978, she is the second living designer to be honored with a retrospective of her work.


N is for Not Making Clothing. Not Making Clothing was the name given to her spring/summer season 2014 collection, after having gone through a kind of "creative crisis". Her way of solving it was not making clothes, but creating whatever emerged to her mind at that time, without any concern. "It was the only way I could continue to do what I wanted," she said in an interview.

O is for her outstanding Fall/Winter 1988 campaign. When Rei Kawakubo ran an image of two girls with braces for the Fall 1988 season, she established an "anti-commercial" advertising style. Instead of fashion, she focused on showing the beauty of adolescence through the photography of two sisters taken in 1977 by his father, Jim Britt. A PR of Comme des Garçons contacted Britt to buy the rights to the photo after Rei saw it on People magazine.

P is for Paris. Although she had a good following in Japan since the 1970s, the breakthrough of the brand was her debut in Paris in 1981. There, she challenged the way men and women were dressed, and demonstrated a radical use of proportion through abstract shows, in addition to establishing black as the only indispensable color in any wardrobe. When Harvard University awarded her the Design Excellence Award in 2000, they stated that she had "invented" the black.


Q is for her Quote

"Without that impetus of creation, progress is not possible."

R is for Revolution. With the opening of its first boutique in Tokyo in 1975, Rei defined an aesthetic that made her very popular. Even his followers called themselves "the crows". When she arrived in Paris, he began a revolution he never sought to create, "The idea was not to make a huge business, because the bigger you get, the more restraints I thought I might get."


S is for Sherman. What happens when you bring together a conceptual artist like Cindy Sherman, with one of the most talented designers in the fashion industry? You have as a result the emblematic and unconventional fall campaign of 1993 of Comme des Garçons.

T is for Tokyo. It's the place where it all started. Now four times a year, Rei flies her closest team from Tokyo to Paris to present her ideas for both men's and women's collections. Whether the focus of this collection is skirts or giant dresses, the team returns to the atelier in Tokyo to realise the ideas of the designer.

U is for Unique. There is surely no one in the industry who does not value the work and ideology of Rei Kawakubo. In a world where everything is progressing faster, where there are more than 4 seasons a year and fast fashion has conquered the market, Kawakubo has remained true to her own idea. It's unique and it is about making complicated things visually beautiful.


V is for her Vision. Her narrative that creates the garments has the purpose of questioning what we are as a society. The color, texture, shape and presentation adds up to create something totally visionary. A Comme des Garçons show has been described as coming to the church to receive the blessing.


W is for Westwood. Commes des Garçons, was born partly through the influence of punk. The collection she introduced in 1982 was called "Destroy" and was inspired by the movement. The aesthetics share a connection with Vivienne Westwood's. She actually had pieces sold in Sex, the boutique by Vivienne Westwood and  Malcolm Mclaren.

X is for X Years. For the tenth anniversary of Dover Street Market in 2014, Kawakubo wanted to think about the future instead of celebrating the past. Different designers created a limited edition of products and a special window display focused on the first delivery of Nicolas Ghesquière for Louis Vuitton. There was a special edition of the magazine Werk that contained images of the vision of the future by different collaborators. Adrian Joffe, Rei's husband, mentioned in an interview for Dazed: "We are focused on what is coming, that is our DNA and it is what we are trying to discover. What is the future? What do people want? What can we give them that they do not know they still need?"


Y is for Yohji Yamamoto. "When Rei and Yohji showed up in Paris, they had a new vision that surprised everyone. It was a mixture of Japanese minimalism, nihilism and Walt Disney, something strange but fascinating," said photographer Nick Knight. Kawakubo met Yohji when she was 30 and there was something special and fascinating between the two, especially since they represented a new generation of Japanese designers. Both graduated from Keio University and were also children of single mothers and businesswomen.


Z is for Zen Kōan. Kōan is the statement that Zen teachers use to evaluate the progress of their disciples. One of that zen koans is the "mu" or "emptiness," which can be interpreted as "denial, coldness, and inconsistency." Kawakubo always refers to that concept during her creative process. Accepting a design award, she explained that she liked to work with space and simplicity.



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