Rei Kawakubo, COMME des GARÇONS.
Names that are never easy to illustrate.
If you mix all the colours, you get black. When you add all the lights together, you get white light. Rei Kawakubo is the black and white colour of fashion. To borrow the words from Harvard School of Design in 2000, Rei Kawakubo “invented” black. Even about 20 years later, the designer is still “inventing”, and it seems reasonable to say that he is now inventing fashion. For nearly half a century, this designer is still designing clothes that no one has ever thought of. In 1973, when Comme des Garçons was established, Rei Kawakubo, who presented clothes unfamiliar to the fashion elite at that time, now became the fashion elite’s teacher and a giant tree who even took them under her shadows. We no longer ask why she makes these unique clothes. We want to find more meaning than that.
Is the body part of Rei Kawakubo’s design language? When I think of Rei Kawakubo’s impressive designs, the body’s exposure has never been a part of the design. Instead, her work can be interpreted as an attitude of ignoring the body so much as to wonder if this person is really considering the human body. As if the human body was not there in the first place, it forms a new mass of cloth as if dealing with clay. The body was mostly just a pillar to which clay was attached. (So far, many media outlets have also described Rei Kawakubo’s collection with words such as a new body, rejecting the body.) Next, I want to know if this mass is also clothes, and how to wear them.
“I want to avoid the limitations of the body. It’s a hindrance.”
Source: Rei Kawakubo on hunger and power in fashion, by Olivia Singer, i-D’s The Out Of Body Issue, no. 367, Spring 2022
Rei Kawakubo on hunger and power in fashion
Photography Amy Troost This story originally appeared in i-D's The Out Of Body Issue, no. 367, Spring 2022. Order your…
In an interview, Rei Kawakubo mentioned the “body” as an obstacle to her work. As in the case of the photo below, you look at the clothes that removed the body; it seems that it is not too difficult to accept the sentence as it is. However, if you take the quote as it is, it is questionable whether a designer who wants to ignore the body can be called a model for ‘all’ fashion school students, and at the same time, I am also questioning what to look for in this outfit. Was the reason why we were so passionate about Comme des Garçons that it was merely a “bizarre form” with only the clothes left and the body disappeared? In the end, do you enough to appreciate an extreme silhouette by erasing the body from the battlefield of provocative images?
In the first place, the fashion world erased the body and left only clothes, so Rei Kawakubo showed pioneering ability here. But I can’t stop from this point. To follow her constantly advancing, we need to reconsider the word “body” that Rei Kawakubo refers to in the quote. From the 20th century, when the Comme des Garçons began, to the 21st century, the body has always been an obstacle to fashion, even if Rei Kawakubo doesn’t mention it. It is a subject of correction, an object that does not care much if it is destroyed for the sake of fashion. From the 19th century, the corset was already no longer a medical aid but the destructive underwear as we know it today. “Correction” didn’t happen only through Photoshop. However, in reality, corrections have changed the skeleton of a natural person and distorted the body by applying excessive force to the internal organs. After all, the body of the fashion world is different from that of reality. Should we expose the distorted body that gnaws at ourselves? Can it be said that our fashioned body does not hinder us?
In conclusion, Rei Kawakubo never actually rejected the human body. For her, the only obstacles are fashioned bodies. Instead, it would be best if you said that Comme des Garçons’ clothes always have considered the human body. She rejected all attempts to ‘fashionise’ the female body. Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons have moved away from the female body that exists only in this field and created a complete overturn of the body, encouraging us to reconsider what we should see through fashion and what we have been looking at so far.
Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons are not only erasing the body’s specific shape idolised by the fashion world but also erasing stereotypes by destroying the masculinity of menswear. Comme des Garcons Homme and Comme des Garcons Homme Plus, the label’s menswear brands, exclude symbols such as power, utility, and wealth that men’s fashion traditionally portrays. Instead, the menswear of Comme des Garçons is rather bizarre, even offensive, and it is questionable whether you can wear it in formal-related places. Moreover, in the “Gender-Neutral” and “Uni-sex” era, I wonder if there is a need to separate the menswear line. It seems far from the image of traditional menswear to anyone who sees it. At the same time, it raises questions about the design and marketing strategy that this corporation has clearly described as menswear from the name, with its design roots in classic suits and shirts.
However, on the contrary, that is the reason you can read as a strategy. Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons showed what newness was in the world of menswear, where it was questionable because of the symbols mentioned above of existing menswear. This newness did not create new men’s clothing but appeared by thoroughly inflating, cutting, or twisting the symbolism men had to wear to remain in society. At least in fashion design, the beginning of a great organisation might be “Espionage” that cleverly shakes its roots from within rather than “Avant-garde”, which confronts convention head-on at the forefront.
What does “Espionage”, which perturbs the foundations of men’s wear and suits, have other meanings other than design performance? Even after dismantling the suits, they maintained the suit’s price. (Perhaps even more expensive than that.) This price justifies the cost of the design. That is, it is meaningful in that it mentions the value of design beyond the quality of the clothes themselves. Continuing the question, what does it mean to explain a price for a design? How can a designer who has just taken their first step to establishing their territory with their independent brand? In other terms, how can you explain the price attached to your clothes without history and heritage like luxury goods? How can you convince me of this price tag? If you exclude original designs from the price tag of clothes, your clothes are just one of many, and similar products will soon come out at a much lower price from ZARA.
The design price is like answering these questions yourself. And we can find answers by following in the footsteps of Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons. That is why she is a designer of designers. In their footsteps, they faithfully show their answers to the questions of all who love fashion and dream of becoming a designer and the questions they need to find solutions for themselves.
The above questions are inevitable because clothes are never the end of things when they are hung on the wall or stored in a warehouse after purchase. These pieces of fabric are constantly roaming the streets. Therefore, fashion is an area that has been at the forefront of bringing art to the streets, and it is an area where you can interact with people in real-time and cause their agitation. Although it is up to each individual to decide whether the nursery rhyme is fun or confusing, fashion designers must not only explore clothes but also think about how to remain among people, that is, how to make a ‘deal’. Therefore, fashion has meaning for people and society, and Comme des Garçons has meaning for fashion.
Paradoxically, Rei Kawakubo would define herself in one word as a “businesswoman”. Even if she wanted to reject the word business woman, Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons is already a massive business with annual sales of $300 million (and Rei Kawakubo wholly owns it). The adventure she had been watching was not an artistic journey but a continuation of business approval.
Kawakubo admits that her venture into men’s wear was a practical decision, not an artistic one.
Source: T MAGAZINE, Rei Kawakubo Revealed (Sort Of)
Nevertheless, these ‘business models’ of Rei Kawakubo were regarded and traded similar to works of art. If we encounter Comme des Garçons on the road, we may feel as if we have met someone carrying artwork on the street. And although it depends on the outfit, there are no sleeve holes and restricting the movement of muscles is not a big deal in Comme des Garçons. It may be as difficult as holding a picture. Thinking a little more, it raises the question of whether fashion is a more general, less-fenced area than art.
Regarding production and sales, it does not seem easy to expect anything from such clothes as efficiency. Perhaps all the experimental archives are merely the cornerstone to business success; Comme des Garçons Play, collaboration with Nike and settling Dover Street Market. Then, from a strictly business point of view, Rei Kawakubo just wanted to bring the price of art to the fashion world, and were these works clothes for that price?
But, as we all know, you can easily ignore the above thought by reading a few of her works and interviews. Unlike her stake in the business, her work is not her own. The original intention of the work, the purpose for which it started that she must know, may not have any meaning. Because we have already learned so much and escaped, her works have implications beyond her intentions. In conclusion, even if the archives of Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons are purely capitalist aspirations, we are already in too much debt.
The above paragraph is also supported by the fact that “The Art of In-Between”, the title of the 2017 Rei Kawakubo retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, can explain fashion itself. Fashion is a vast industry and, at the same time, the realm of art. Furthermore, fashion breaks barriers between numerous domains and classes, liberates all clothes to the street, and establishes itself between the boundaries. Rei Kawakubo’s path alone can help us understand fashion and explain what fashion design we love.
Of course, you can’t follow in the footsteps of every fashion design history through Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons because there are other designers we admire. And there is indeed a leap forward to say that Rei Kawakubo is still at the forefront of the battle line. Even so, it is undeniable that she existed before the countless designers now at the forefront and challenging the realm of clothing. Even if Rei Kawakubo isn’t on the front lines, there’s no denying the fact that she’s on active duty. She is a fellow designer who is still working on it. She will completely retire, be gradually forgotten by people, and eventually disappear altogether, but not today as you are reading this article.
Does she, famously unenthralled by fashion history, ever think about what her legacy will be? They chat for several minutes, then Joffe turns to me and says,
“She’s never thought about it. She doesn’t care about or believe in posterity.”
In the end, Rei Kawakubo, who has no interest in future generations, is ironically becoming the most significant legacy that will influence future designers.
Muyo Park, 朴無要