Today Rei Kawakubo and her cultural juggernaut of a brand, Comme des Garçons (French for “Like the Boys”), are seen as stable fixtures in the fashion establishment. Her shows are attended by all sorts of celebrities and VIPs, and she boasts loyal legions of fans, one of the most notable being John Waters, the “Pope of Trash,” whose passion for the brand is legendary— going as far as stating that “I’m your [Kawakubo’s] biggest fan” on a 1988 PAPER magazine interview.
But Kawakubo and her brand weren’t always the darlings of the international fashion scene. In fact, her then infamous 1981 Paris Fashion Week debut shocked most attendees, as well as the international fashion press. Derisively tagging the collection of masculine coats, dark monochromatic palette, and unconventional distressed fabrics as “Hiroshima’s Revenge” and “post-atomic.” The early devotees of Comme des Garçons now reminisce about when they were unflatteringly nicknamed “black crows” by brand detractors.
The timing for Kawakubo’s debut also couldn’t have been more hostile. While she was already popular and well-known in her native Japan, Europe and America were experiencing the go-go 80s of Jane Fonda and spandex, Gordon Gekko and brash Wall Street power suits, as well as Miami Vice and pastel suits. Even the then fashion establishment was pumping out pieces and styles that glorified the excitable and excessive materialism of the decade, driving the glamour of the already glamorous fashion scene to higher levels than ever before, with designers such as Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren being standouts. In an environment so used to homogeneity in design, as well as in attitude, the austerity of Kawakubo’s collection seemed like some sort of affront to the established order.
Comme des Garçons’s debut collection clashed severely with its contemporaries. Instead of colorful, glamorous, expensive fabrics on long-legged, feminine, equally glamorous models, Kawakubo chose to send her models in ensembles of black synthetic blends, with holes poked through them. The pieces were asymmetrical, oversized, deconstructed, with exposed seams, loose-fitting, and overall a slap in the face to the traditional idea that women needed to be constricted inside of tight, perfectly tailored gowns. Another couture convention she blatantly flaunted that season was the idea that garments had to be parallel alongside the center line of the wearer, usually the spine. Instead, Kawakubo tugged, pulled, warped, and sewed her garments in such a way that the center-line was all over the place. These motifs would keep showing up in her work, even decades later.
Apocrypha about Kawakubo’s Paris debut still circulates to this day, which makes perfect sense considering the seismic impact of the collection. It is said by some, for instance, that to create the loose fabrics used in the “Swiss-cheese sweaters” shown in the runway, Kawakubo intentionally sabotaged the automatic knitting machines responsible for producing the fabric for the sweaters, since her supplier would not concede to providing her with the fabrics she desired. It is also said that a good chunk of the crowd in her debut showing walked out of the show, absolutely appalled that such a spectacle was taking place in “their” Paris Fashion Week.
But her shocking Western debut was just the start for Kawakubo, whose then-romantic relationship with fellow fashion subversive, Yohji Yamamoto, is also legendary. Kawakubo spent most of the 80s playing with the ideas introduced in her 1981 collection, with looser yet flattering shapes in various shades of black and grey, eventually bringing back black from fringe color to definitive fashion hue of the new century (which it still is today).
The 90s saw Kawakubo as a divisive, but established figure, until she provided another shocker in the 1997 season, with the “Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress” collection, featuring body hugging pieces, clothes with bulbous deformities sewn into them, and absurdly warped fabrics. The collection also earned its own derisive nickname: “Quasimodo,” and drew many, many comparisons to Hugo’s character in mainstream media.
The 21st century has seen Kawakubo and her brand “go mainstream,” and while her collections do surprise, the old shock isn’t really there anymore. Comme des Garçons has also gone from being the charming underdog to a fully-fledged brand proper, with a turnover in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and while the creativity is still there (courtesy of not only Kawakubo, but also her three prominent protégés and fellow Comme designers, Junya Watanabe, Tao Kurihara, and Kei Ninomiya), the “edge” from being the outsider to an oppressive fashion regime is mostly gone.
That is not to say that Kawakubo is discredited today as a designer or even as a public intellectual. Her collections are still feverishly followed, still innovate and subvert long-held aesthetic principles in clothing, both for men and women, and Comme des Garçons still causes stirs and aggressively challenges the wider status-quo. It’s arguable due to her current fame and power over the international fashion scene, Kawakubo has even more of a sway on the direction of not only fashion, but also perceptions of both masculinity and femininity, and many other issues explored through her work with clothing.
Fashion, just like any other art, does not exist in a vacuum. It both influences, and is influenced by, the world at large, with important events and ideas making their way in and out of the membrane that separates high fashion from the real world (a membrane that is a bit thicker than say, the membrane between street art and the real world, but still porous).
Kawakubo, along with many other influential designers from the early 80s until today, can probably credit a lot of her ideas on deconstruction to French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Through her exposure of the many bits of the fashion design process in her finished product, such as using pariah fabrics such as polyester blends as dress fabrics, showcasing unfinished seams, using lumps of material to give the impression of growths on models’ bodies, and leaving lining on jackets to come to the outside, Kawakubo both destroys the idea of fashion as a perfect spectacle before the viewer’s eyes, with no physical deformity, no loose threads, no time or imperfection of any sort, a real-life illusion if you will, and builds an idea of fashion as a celebration of the imperfect, of the real, of the passage as well as the ravages of time.
More broadly, Kawakubo and her brand have also managed to deconstruct the idea of the feminine in clothing being what brings out the wearer’s body, and instead advocating empowerment of the female and her form through concealment. Instead of the raw sexual appeal of colorful leggings, or a tight-fitting Chanel-style little black dress, Comme des Garçons pieces have a flow to them, an excess in fabric, and an ease of wear, as well as a day-to-day practicality and wearability that isn’t found in the restrictive pieces of other designers. Even the brand name can be seen as a feminist nod, an acknowledgement of what apparently seems to be Kawakubo’s mission with her women’s line: that women should derive a sort of ease, confidence, and appeal from her clothes (and not just her body), as men do.
But all the feminist interpretation should be taken with a grain of salt. Kawakubo herself has denied being a feminist or that her clothing has any bigger underlying political or social message, or any pretension other than expressing her personal definition of beauty. Regardless of that, Comme des Garçons is still going strong and pumping out collections, lines, and fragrances, and probably will for decades to come. Much like the old European fashion houses such as Lanvin and Balmain, and even newer upstarts such as Maison Martin Margiela, it seems that the legacy of Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons is here to stay.