“I was trying not to make clothes” is a somewhat surprising statement given that it was made by a fashion designer. But then again, perhaps not so unusual given that the designer in question was Rei Kawakubo, who was describing the thought process behind one of her own collections.
Known for her often abstract, typically sculptural designs, the founder of Comme des Garçons has built her career and reputation by continually challenging traditional perceptions of fashion and notions of beauty, at odds with the more conventional outlooks shared by the majority of her contemporaries. However, it is this “bravery”, according to head curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Andrew Bolton, which makes the Japanese designer more than a worthy subject for the museum’s celebrated annual exhibition.
Born in Tokyo in 1942, Rei Kawakubo studied fine art at Keio University, graduating in 1964 when she went to work for one of Japan’s largest producers of acrylic fibres. As part of a team responsible for promoting the company’s fabrics, unusually for the time by showcasing them using fashionable clothing, she had the opportunity to meet people involved in the fashion industry, including Atsuko Kozasu. Then a budding fashion journalist, who would later become the editor of Comme des Garçons’ Six magazine, Kozasu was working on the company’s shoots, and suggested Kawakubo try her hand at some freelance styling. Becoming increasingly frustrated at how difficult it was to source the sort of clothes she wanted for her clients, and undaunted by her lack of any formal fashion training, she started designing and making them herself.
By 1969 Kawakubo was branding her designs 'Comme des Garçons' (French for 'like the boys'), selling them commercially before formally establishing her company in 1973. She showed her first women’s collection in Tokyo in the mid-70s, when she also opened her first shop in the city’s Aoyama district, and went on to launch her first menswear line in 1978.
Having established a devoted local following, the designer decided to introduce her brand to a wider audience and showed her womenswear in Paris in 1981. Her then all-black designs, defined by asymmetry, deconstruction, draping and plays on proportion, provoked an extreme reaction from critics and the public alike. But with her innate ability to blend creativity with commerciality, she has subsequently established Comme des Garçons as an extremely successful global business, balancing more wearable lines such as Comme des Garçons Play with her more experimental mainline that’s shown on the runway. She is also co-founder of the cult concept store Dover Street Market, which she set up first in London in 2004 with her husband Adrian Joffe. South African-born Joffe serves as president for both Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market, and is responsible for overseeing the foreign interests of both companies.
Rei Kawakubo is the first living designer since Yves Saint Laurent in 1983 to be the sole subject of the Metropolitan Museum's annual Costume Institute exhibition. Commenting on this choice, Andrew Bolton explained, “We are in a period where fashion, and designers, are increasingly disposable. I wanted to focus on someone who has been singularly dedicated to a creative vision, to remind everyone of how valuable that is.”
That creative vision, one of ‘fashion as exploration’, is indeed rare, but her conceptual designs have inspired and continue to inspire the work of other creatives, from Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester and Helmut Lang, to Karl Lagerfeld and even Kanye West. Comme des Garçons clothing, despite its often questionable wearability, also attracts a legion of loyal fans, including Marc Jacobs who has said of the brand, "It’s not about buying clothes to attract or seduce. It feels like a gift you’re giving yourself”, and the company is known for nurturing some of the industry’s most promising talent, perhaps most notably Junya Watanabe.
The subject of the Costume Institute’s exhibition provides the theme for the annual Met Gala, so being faced with the prospect of paying homage to Rei Kawakubo’s outré designs must have undoubtedly daunted stylists and A-list attendees alike. But they needn’t have worried. "I want everybody to wear what they want," she is quoted as saying before the event. "I like people not to feel obliged. I like people to be free." As a designer who has spent her life breaking rules and challenging conventions, one would expect nothing else.