There are designers who revolve in a giddy, glamorous whirl, whose work tends to be overwhelmed by the weight of column inches. This is the modern way: if there is angst and adversity in creation, they do not bear witness to it. Karl and Marc and Tom: they have bodyguards and trainers and diet doctors, private jets, Facebook profiles, famous muses. They make creation seem like a smart career choice, rather than an all-consuming impulse. They are photographed at their homes, they make documentaries about their lives. They reveal newly toned bodies, they confess their surgeries. We see them remade every season. We dress up in their celebrity. We buy into them.
But Rei Kawakubo has taken a lonely road. Other designers may lay bare their flesh; she exposes her very soul. She has been doing so for almost 40 years, always under the label Comme des Garçons. Let’s be clear: Comme des Garçons is a company that operates within a market with a clearly defined schedule and a specific pace of renewal. Kawakubo accepts this. But her motivation is at odds with the rest of the fashion industry. Her mantra is, and always has been, as follows: question everything; force people to see things your way, then move on; challenge constantly.
While many fashion designers are interpreters or merchandisers, Kawakubo is a provocateur. She operates in splendid self-imposed isolation, based in Tokyo but with a showroom in Paris, independent, in total control of her own business, single-minded. She works only to satisfy herself. She works to still a restless spirit.
Born in Tokyo in 1942, and with a background in textile advertising, Kawakubo is a small, dark-haired woman, fierce beneath the closed exterior, intense, unreadable. Silence is part of her language. ‘It is impossible to overstate her influence on modern fashion,’ says Marc Jacobs, who has paid close and acknowledged homage to her work in his own recent collections.
Yet Kawakubo confounds critics: The New York Times wrote that one especially challenging presentation by Kawakubo had ‘invented whole new deformities for women’, while it was once said that she designed for ‘the woman unwilling to dress herself up so that other people have something pleasing to look at’. She confuses. She refuses to make things easy, for herself or her audience. ‘I haven’t yet experienced a highlight,’ she says bluntly of her career so far, which could best be described as an experiment lasting almost four decades.
Yet Rei Kawakubo presides over a company that reported sales of $180m in 2007. The Comme des Garçons stable now includes labels by Junya Watanabe; Tao by Tao Kurihara; and Ganryu by Fumito Ganryu. There is Dover Street Market in London, the maverick multibrand store that mixes Kawakubo’s own designs for men and women with those by designers and artists who share her singular vision (among them are Raf Simons, Hedi Slimane, Undercover and Azzedine Alaia). There is a fragrance portfolio. There are boutiques in the world’s major capital cities and, of course, ‘guerrilla units’ in unpromising locations on the frontiers of cool – Brooklyn, Berlin, Beirut. There are collaborations. Comme des Garçons has made currency from Kawakubo’s bloody mindedness, despite her apparent unease with the financial logic of the industry. ‘Unfortunately, the business of fashion is mostly controlled by the need to make money,’ she says. ‘Things that do not give birth to money are not the main thing, and not a lot of value is given to them. I want to oppose such tendencies.’
Comme des Garçons does not operate in the way that we have come to expect large luxury brands to behave. There are stores in the right cities, of course, but they could scarcely be called flagships, hidden away, as they tend to be, down inconvenient alleys, often with concealed doors to deter the casual browser. There is perfume, granted, but it tends to be uncompromising in its odour: ‘anti-perfume’, Kawakubo has called it, smelling of petrol and church incense and burnt rubber. There are beautifully art-directed advertising campaigns, sure, but with Cindy Sherman images and Pet Shop Boys lyrics, rather than a supermodel and the season’s must-have handbag.
In fact, Kawakubo doesn’t do must-haves. Nor does she do cocktail parties, nor product launches with champagne, nor shows jostling with celebrity, nor any of the other flirtations with which commercially successful designers are wont to charm their press and public.
So what is Kawakubo’s philosophy? ‘To make an image of something that has not been made before, or thought about in the past, and then to design it, in my way,’ she says. This oblique impetus has been a constant ever since Comme des Garçons first showed ready-to-wear in Paris back in 1981, an event that was not so much a presentation as a full-frontal confrontation. Rei Kawakubo’s assertion that clothes should be about something other than sexuality was an outrage; her black palette an affront to the overt ostentation of the day, as shocking as Coco Chanel’s was in the 1920s. This was the Paris of Karl Lagerfeld and Thierry Mugler, remember, of gilt buttons and broad shoulders and abbreviated hemlines. The raw beauty of Kawakubo’s clothes went almost unnoticed, but her seriousness of purpose seeped into the consciousness. Comme des Garçons became a uniform for those who shared this seriousness, the intellectual and artistic and anyone who believed they understood design that functioned on a deeper level. Gradually, Kawakubo effected a more significant, fundamental change in fashion. As Marc Jacobs admits: ‘She inspired so many others.’
Precisely because she is Rei Kawakubo – unflinching, uncompromising, regarding no one’s work bar her own (she only sees the collections of her three protegées collections when they make it onto the catwalk) – it’s always surprising to discover what she will do next. Creative collaborations are one way in which she likes to provoke – often, it seems, herself and the collaborating partner as much as any potential customer. ‘Because of the refusal of most people to accept things they have never seen before, and the time it usually takes for them to understand, it is always a challenge to make good new design,’ she says. She has worked with Speedo, Fred Perry, Azzedine Alaia and Vivienne Westwood. Her Speedo swimsuits sell in Topshop, the champ of the British high street.
Two new collaborators represent extremes from either side of the fashion spectrum: Louis Vuitton and H&M. For the former, there is a temporary store housed within the Comme des Garçons store in Omotesando, Tokyo, designed by Kawakubo, plus an exclusive collection of six bags, also worked over by her. ‘To create a shop for Louis Vuitton, where the two aesthetics of CDG and LV can meet and clash, is an interesting prospect,’ she reasons, with some understatement. ‘To design and customise bags for this impermanent space is a good challenge.’
Similarly, fast, disposable fashion is just another challenge. No more, no less. That’s how Kawakubo sees her role as guest designer for H&M for a season – following, uncharacteristically, in the footsteps of Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney and Viktor & Rolf – with an eagerly anticipated collection due in stores around the world this November. ‘The balancing of the creative and the commercial has always been important to me. This is part of that balancing act,’ she says. And what to expect? ‘You can expect a collection of pure Comme des Garçons style, without compromise in terms of taste.’ This means 30 pieces, stripped back to basics, not quite her greatest hits, but certainly a ‘best of’ compilation. There is even a perfume.
And so to Kawakubo’s first-ever collaboration with Wallpaper*, for this issue, an unexpected and complex photographic montage. ‘The making of clothes is not the only way to express the essence and values of Comme des Garçons,’ she reasons, with unusual candour for someone whose epitaph might as well read: ‘Never explain, never apologise’.
‘In fact,’ she continues, ‘it is difficult to say everything I want to say with 20 pages of people wearing clothes. By choosing the work of various artists according to the spirit of Comme des Garçons, and reworking and mixing them, literally or figuratively, with different kinds of creation of Comme des Garçons, a new departure is arrived at and all the 20 pages become one mode of expression. Twenty pages become one.’