A ‘Rei’ of Light: Kawakubo In Her Own Words

This is a time in fashion when a particularly high premium is being put on individuality, diversity, inclusion on runways (races, ethnicities, body types, ages, genders), and the empowering of women (2017 is undisputedly the “Year of the Woman”). There’s no designer whose entire career has been as consistently dedicated to breaking the rules, challenging mores and existing notions of what constitutes fashion, beauty, good taste, femininity, and freeing women from social constraints, as Rei Kawakubo. 

Blood and Roses Spring/Summer 2015
Photograph by Paolo Roversi

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s upcoming exhibition, “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art of the In-Between”, May 4 – September 4, marking the first time since Yves Saint Laurent in 1983 they will be focusing on a living designer, could not have ‘Comme’ at a better time.

Body Meets Dress-Dress Meets Body Spring/Summer 1997
Photograph by Paolo Roversi

Ms. Kawakubo, the original feminist and freethinker, admitted she chose the name of her company because she liked the sound of the words in addition to the idea that “like boys” fit in well with the women’s lib movement of the 60’s and 70’s. 

Infinity of Tailoring Autumn/Winter 2013-14
Photograph by Collier Schorr

Her innovative, art to wear, sculptural, oft times strange and body altering designs routinely run the gamut from ladylike to punkish, romantic to hard edged, simplistic and minimalist to maximalist, monotone to colorful, masculine to feminine, tailored to free form, streetwise to couture like. They are forever changing and evolving but the one constant is that they are always grounded with pragmatic, flat footwear, such as the ones she always wears, along with her uniform of black leather moto jackets.

Rei Kawakubo courtesy Vogue

The famously private and enigmatic designer never wants her or her work to be analyzed; hence no written plaques will accompany any of the clothes on display. She is a woman of few words and rarely grants interviews but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t given any in the past. On the eve of the opening of the exhibition, I thought I’d let her own words, compiled from some of her most significant quotes, speak for themselves.

“Comme des Garcons is a gift to oneself, not something to appeal or to attract the opposite sex.”

“I work in three shades of black”.

“Beauty is whatever anyone thinks is beautiful”.

“For something to be beautiful it doesn’t have to be pretty.”

“My energy comes from freedom and a rebellious spirit.”

“Creation takes things forward. Without anything new there is no progress. Creation equals new”.

“I don’t feel too excited about fashion today. People just want cheap fast clothes and are happy to look like everyone else”.

“What you wear can largely govern your feelings and your emotions, and how you look influences the way people regard you. So fashion plays an important role on both the practical level and the aesthetic level of activity”.

Rei: “The theme of the collection this time is MONSTER. It’s not about the typical Monster you find in sci-fi and video games. The expression of the Monsters I have made has a much deeper meaning. The craziness of humanity, the fear we all have, the feeling of going beyond common sense, the absence of ordinariness, expressed by something extremely big, by something that could be ugly or beautiful. In other words, I wanted to question the established standards of beauty”.

Blue Witch Spring/Summer 2016
Photograph by Paolo Roversi

Rei: “I started with wanting to think about witches, about strong women who have special powers – who are often misunderstood. Then I found some beautiful blue fabric, so I made Blue Witches. My creative process is always like that. Organic, text, theme, subtext, each day evolving and trying to make strong, beautiful clothes. It’s that simple”.

“Fashion is not art. The aims of fashion and art are different and there is no need to compare them”.

“You can tell if it’s a good collection if people are afraid of it. In ten years, everyone will love it”.

18th Century Punk Autumn/Winter 2016-2017
Photograph by Paolo Roversi

Rei: “I identified very much with punk, not only in the fashion sector, but in every other sector. The very nature of doing something new and free meant something that was against authority”. “There are no limits. I endeavor to make clothes that didn’t exist before”.

Cubisme Spring/Summer 2007 Photograph by Craig McDean

Rei: “The more people that are afraid when they see new creation, the happier I am. I think the media has some responsibility to bear for people becoming more conservative. Many parts of the media have created the situation where uninteresting fashion can thrive.”

“Every time before a collection, I say, “I don’t want it to come out. I want to cancel it. It’s not good. I haven’t achieved anything.” “For me, I haven’t succeeded in any way whatsoever”. “Beauty is in the unfinished”. “It’s our job to question convention. If we don’t take risks, then who will?”

As someone who has seen her share of Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Exhibitions, I can honestly say I’m looking forward to seeing this one more than any others and I am sure I’m not alone given the controversial, unconventional subject. I predict it will be a blockbuster.

– Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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