Danielle Whitfield, Curator, Fashion and Textiles, NGV
Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons is one of the most visionary and influential designers working today. For nearly five decades, she has defied convention to redefine fashion. Her designs have subverted garment shape and function, reframed ideas of beauty, and proposed a new relationship between body and dress. In her endeavour to make clothes that ‘did not exist before’,1Eleanor Gibson, ‘Comme des Garçons is nothing about clothes says Rei Kawakubo’, 9 May 2009, dezeen, Dezeen Limited, <www.dezeen.com/2019/05/09/rei-kawakubo-comme-des-garcons-interview>, accessed 6 June 2019. Kawakubo has deconstructed the vocabulary of clothing in order to create it afresh.
Collecting Comme examines the radical concepts and design methods that have informed Kawakubo’s practice since 1981, the year she first presented in Paris. Featuring more than sixty-five examples drawn from the NGV’s significant Comme des Garçons holdings, generously gifted to the Gallery by Takamasa Takahashi, and supported by additional loans from his archive, the exhibition highlights key collections and recurrent themes in Kawakubo’s work. The designs of two of her protégés, Junya Watanabe and Tao Kurihara, also feature. Testament to Takahashi’s profound appreciation of, and emotional connection to, Kawakubo’s work, Collecting Comme foregrounds Kawakubo’s powerfully original contribution to contemporary fashion.
I never intended to start a revolution. I only came to Paris with the intention of showing what I thought was strong and beautiful. It just so happened that my notion was different from everybody else’s.2Andrew Bolton, Rei Kawakubo Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2018, p. 42.
Establishing her label in 1969, and showing in Tokyo since 1975, Rei Kawakubo debuted in Paris in April 1981. Before a small audience at the InterContinental Hotel, Kawakubo presented a collection of oversized and asymmetrical garments alongside fellow Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto. In 1978, Kawakubo had resolved to create something new by focusing on materials. Using contrasting textures, fabrics and cotton quilting insertions, she created a new and more voluminous look, different from her previous work. The collection, for autumn–winter 1978–79, was a turning point, as the first created using original textiles.3Mariko Nishitani, Theory of Relativity in Comme des Garçons, Filmart Co. Ltd, Japan, 2012, pp. 346–7. By the following year, Kawakubo had extended this desire to ‘start from zero’ conceptually to ‘do things that have not been done before’4Bernadine Morris, ‘From Japan, new faces, new shapes’, The New York Times, 14 December 1982, p. 10. and her 1981 collection was evidence of this maturing and rule-breaking new aesthetic.
Kawakubo’s runway collections of the following year – Holes, autumn–winter 1982–83, and Patchworks and X, spring–summer 1983 – were even more revolutionary. Presented on the official ready-to-wear schedule before press and buyers, the two collections featured garments that were purposely distressed and unfinished, and predominantly black. Holes included Kawakubo’s infamous hole- and dropped-stitch Sweater, created by deliberately configuring the knitting machines to produce this effect, while Patchworks and X featured patches dyed with different shades of black ink (made from charcoal normally used for Japanese calligraphy), alongside exposed seams, intentionally frayed edges and incomplete forms. In an era of body-conscious design and glamour, Kawakubo’s clothes were an affront. Critics called the look ‘apocalyptic’ or worse,5Some of the press dubbed the collection ‘Hiroshima’s revenge’. See Judith Thurman, ‘The misfit’, The New Yorker, 4 July 2005, p. 20. while others admired the qualities of ‘newness, strangeness, inventiveness and surprisingly fresh thinking for communicating strength and elegance’.6C. Donovan, ‘Fashion view: much ado about the Japanese’, The New York Times Magazine, 31 July 1983, p. 134.
Kawakubo’s work challenged the conventions of Western fashion. Instead of being symmetrical and fitting perfectly, her garments enveloped and concealed. They also incorporated Japanese aesthetic principles; among them, wabi-sabi (a respect for humble materials, the patina of age, irregularity and imperfection), as well as the concepts of mu (emptiness) and ma (space).7Writers who have eloquently elaborated on these concepts in relation to Kawakubo’s work include Akiko Fukai et al., Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion, Merrell Publishers, London, 2010, pp.13–22, and Bolton, p. 42. Her approach proposed a new way of thinking about clothes and what they might signify. However, to this day, Kawakubo has resisted any fixed explanation of what her collections may mean.
Exploring the nuances of black through texture and dye, the collections Kawakubo designed in the 1980s highlighted her experimental approach to construction and form. Collectively, Gloves, Skirts, Quilted Big Coats, autumn–winter 1983–84; Twist, Silk + Jersey, Knits (Patchworks), autumn–winter 1984–85; Bias Cutting, spring–summer 1986; and Bonding autumn–winter 1986–87, reveal early iterations of approaches to pattern-making that she has revisited throughout her career. Twelve years apart, the Bonding, autumn–winter 1986–87, and Fusion, autumn–winter 1998–99, collections are variables in a career-length exploration of ‘expressions of [the] unfinished, imbalance, fusion and elimination’.8Bolton, p. 50. The unorthodox contours, achieved using innovative fabric treatments and asymmetrical pattern pieces, do not conform to the natural body.
Rather than flattering, Kawakubo’s clothes questioned the idea of dressing for display. Her exaggerated silhouettes and volumes hid, rather than revealed the female figure. Reframing the meaning of clothes, she stated:
They are for modern, working women. Women who do not need to assure their happiness by looking sexy to men, by emphasising their figures, but who attract them with their minds.9Karen Van Godtsenhoven, Miren Arzalluz & Kaat Debo (eds), Fashion Game Changers: Reinventing the 20th Century Silhouette, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, London, 2016, p. 229.
Assertive campaign imagery shot by photographers Kazumi Kurigami, Peter Lindbergh and Deborah Turbeville echoed this declaration.
‘I never intended to start a revolution. I only came to Paris with the intention of showing what I thought was strong and beautiful. It just so happened that my notion was different from everybody else’s.’
Throughout the 1990s, Kawakubo’s work continued to examine existing ideas of fashion. She contested definitions of beauty and taste, experimented with atypical fabrics and deconstructed notions about gender and women’s social roles. In 1994, Kawakubo’s Metamorphosis collection, autumn–winter 1994–95, made use of abject boiled woollens, shrunk after construction into ill-fitting sweaters, military-inspired greatcoats and despoiled work wear.10This fabric innovation has been recognised as a characteristic of Japanese fashion design, as referenced in Bonnie English, Japanese Fashion Designers, The Work and Influence of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo, Bloomsbury, London, 2018, p. 74. The following year, she abandoned grunge to consider its alternative: an ‘extreme sweetness [… so cloying as to be …] almost overpowering’.11Laird Borelli-Persson, ‘Fall 1995 Ready-to-wear, Comme des Garçons’, 16 March 1995, Vogue, Condé Nast, <www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/fall-1995-ready-to-wear/comme-des-garcons>, accessed 9 July 2019. A slightly unsettling collection, Sweeter than Sweet, autumn–winter 1995–96, saw Kawakubo juxtapose Peter Pan collars, feminine frills, flowers, tulle and pastels with silhouettes that prevented any movement of the arms.
Around the same time, Kawakubo also introduced punk elements into her work. Collections such as Chic Punk, autumn–winter 1991–92, Transformed Glamour, autumn–winter 1999–2000, and Hard and Forceful (Energy), autumn–winter 2000–2001, were a bricolage of material provocations. Employing tartan, fishnet and leather, zips and bondage straps, and transparent PVC, Kawakubo refashioned femininity into something far more transgressive. Equally pointed was the Beyond Taboo collection, autumn–winter 2001–02. Subversive in tone, it transformed elements of 1950s-style foundation wear into outerwear. On the runway, the effect was one of dishevelment with dresses that were a fusion of brightly coloured satin corsetry, transparent chiffon and lace. Similar tactics were present in Bad Taste, autumn–winter 2008–09, which appropriated clichéd fetish elements such as satin underwear, black lace, bondage-style straps and garter-belt frills.
Many of Kawakubo’s collections also interrogated gender. In particular, she rethought the sexual politics of dress by deconstructing tailoring through processes of dissection and collage. In her Transcending Gender collection, spring–summer 1995, Kawakubo fused ‘feminine’ decoration with ‘masculine’ suiting to create new hybrid garment forms. These included lapel scarves, ruffled waistcoat ‘dresses’ and apron-style waistcoat ‘fronts’ with non-functional hanging sleeves. Incongruous garment forms were also a feature of the collections Dark Romance, Witch, autumn–winter 2004–05 and Adult Delinquent, spring–summer 2010. The former combined asymmetrical jackets with misshapen frills, oversized sleeves and explosions of tulle, while the latter comprised garments formed from pinstripe, brocade and sequin shoulder pad segments.
Despite such provocations, Kawakubo’s Body Meets Dress–Dress Meets Body collection, spring–summer 1997, remains one of her most radical statements. Widely referred to as the ‘lumps and bumps’ collection, the runway show featured outfits stuffed with oddly-shaped pillows of polyurethane. Detractors compared these silhouettes to pregnancy or tumours while others read the collection as a feminist parody. Kawakubo herself was typically enigmatic. Yet, implicit in the work was a refusal to see the physical body as a limitation. According to Kawakubo, clothing could be the body and the body could be clothing.
Since then, Kawakubo has continued to redraw the contours of the fashionable body with collections that blur boundaries and amplify proportions. Her Inside Decoration collection, autumn–winter 2010–11, incorporated removable pillows into the linings of garments creating bulges and sculptural form. On the runway, five dresses with giant incisions appeared to have burst apart, oozing protrusions and whorls of dacron wadding – a precursor to further experimentation with abstract form.
Beginning in September 2013 with the Not Making Clothing collection, spring–summer 2014, Kawakubo commenced a ten season–long examination of ‘wearable objects for the body’ that sought to ‘break the idea of clothes’.12‘Rei Kawakubo’s creative manifesto’, 13 October 2013, The Business of Fashion, <www.businessoffashion.com/articles/bof-exclusive/rei-kawakubo-comme-des-garcons>, accessed 27 May 2019. Bypassing or sometimes eliminating function, the clothes in these collections were oversized and unorthodox in shape, and hard to decipher. They included inverse cage crinolines, childish play clothes, and inflated silhouettes conceived of with little regard for the figure.
Even more uncompromising was Kawakubo’s MONSTER collection, autumn–winter 2014–15, which featured knotted, twisted and plaited, and woven tubular appendages in murky shades of woollen knit. Kawakubo described MONSTER as a reaction to the
craziness of humanity, the fear we all have, the feeling of going beyond common sense … expressed by something extremely big … that could be ugly or beautiful. In other words, a desire to question the established standards of beauty.13Borelli-Persson, accessed 9 July 2019.
Symbolism was also at the heart of Blood and Roses, spring–summer 2015, which used rose motifs and an all-red palette to reference violence and struggle.
Throughout her career, Kawakubo’s work has ignored function, played with scale and offered multiple possibilities for use. She has repositioned fastenings and openings, recast tailoring traditions and introduced the unexpected. In 2010, her No Theme (Multiple Personalities, Psychological Fear) collection, spring–summer 2011, featured conjoined jackets, coats with additional sleeves, skirts that became upside-down jackets, and blazers made from multiple blazers, joined at centre back seam. Unsurprisingly, such polymorphous approaches to creation are the product of idiosyncratic working methods. For Kawakubo, a collection might begin with an abstract phrase, a photograph or a crumpled wad of paper.14For a full discussion of Rei Kawakubo’s working methods, see Dejan Sudjic, Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons, Rizzoli, New York, 1990, pp. 16–35. As she does not sketch or sew, it is up to her team of pattern-makers to interpret her concepts as best they can and to work creatively to achieve a solution, even if the idea is to ‘start with something perfect and go backwards’.15Bolton, p. 54.
Kawakubo’s challenge is often technical, arising from self-imposed design constraints: Extreme Embellishment (Adornment), spring–summer 2003, sought to create garments without the use of applied embellishments. Pattern pieces were extended into lengths that were then knotted, plaited or bunched into rosettes to create texture and movement.16Borelli-Persson, accessed 9 July 2019. Kawakubo’s Square collection, autumn–winter 2003–04, featured works created from single pieces of square fabric, while the Abstract Excellence collection, spring–summer 2004, focused on a single skirt reconfigured in thirty-four different ways through varying seam placements. In 2 Dimensions, autumn–winter 2012–13, Kawakubo’s pattern-makers worked only with flat planes of fabric, irrespective of shaping techniques such as darts, to realise a series of cartoonish dresses.
‘They are for modern, working women. Women who do not need to assure their happiness by looking sexy to men, by emphasising their figures, but who attract them with their minds.’
Despite this, some of Kawakubo’s most poetic collections have arisen from intuitive processes. For Crush, spring–summer 2013, Kawakubo ‘built up’ garments by laying a panel of stiff bonded cotton flat on a table and then folding it back on itself in every possible direction before oversewing. Presented on the runway in black and white versions, the collection belied a purity of expression that celebrated the individual over the mass produced. Perhaps also a metaphor for process, the final garments appeared to mimic dressmakers’ toiles, used by dressmakers to test designs.
Ideas of legacy and lineage present in the work of two of Kawakubo’s protégés, Junya Watanabe and Tao Kurihara.17Other designers to be given their own labels include Fumito Ganyon (in 2007) and Kei Ninomiya (in 2012). Encouraged by Kawakubo to establish their own labels under the umbrella of Comme des Garçons, both show an inherited conceptual sensibility that plays out in the technical execution of their collections.
Junya Watanabe joined Comme des Garçons as a skilful pattern-cutter after graduating from Bunka Fashion College, Tokyo, in 1984. In 1992, he launched his own label and the following year made his runway debut in Paris. Today Watanabe’s designs are celebrated for their exceptional cutting and innovative fabric treatments, and draw inspiration from futuristic fabrics, streetwear, denim, sportswear, uniforms and fashion history.
While Watanabe is more ‘pragmatic’ than Kawakubo, his designs still push the boundaries of conventional design. Watanabe has previously stated that he looks for ‘strings of ideas’18Alexander Fury, ‘Junya Wantanabe, one of fashion’s foremost thinkers’, 17 October 2016, The New York Times Style Magazine, The New York Times Company, <www.nytimes.com/2016/10/17/t-magazine/junya-watanabe-interview.html>, accessed 1 May 2017. before working with his pattern-makers to create garments for each collection.
Typical of Watanabe’s work is the interrogation of a single material across an entire collection. In Elegant Down, autumn–winter 2009–10, he played with the volume and lightness of quilted nylon, presenting a series of black puffer dresses, jackets and skirts with gold chain link fastenings. For Anti, Anarchy and Army, autumn–winter 2006–07, Watanabe pieced and patched together army fatigues and green lace into dresses and ensembles that made features of zips, rivets, snap fastenings and illogical openings.
Tao Kurihara joined Comme des Garçons in 1998 after studying fashion design at Central Saint Martins, London. Under the mentorship of Kawakubo she launched her own label in 2005, debuting in Paris in March that year and presenting annually until 2010. Similar to Kawakubo’s, Kurihara’s process often relies on intuition. As Kurihara stated in 2009:
I start with a new technique, something which manipulates fabric in a way that I’ve never done before which begs me to explore what kind of clothing I can make.19Akiko Fukai et al., p. 138.
For her second-last runway show in spring–summer 2010, Kurihara presented a condensed collection of dresses that were created by knotting and twisting only. Handcrafted but with a punk aesthetic, dresses were constructed from woven strips of diaphanous floral fabric and showed the potential of self-imposed design limitations.
Kurihara’s ultra-feminine and delicate aesthetic is evident in many of her collections, which have variously reworked lingerie, overdyed bedcovers and handkerchiefs, and employed materials such as lace, tulle, paper and ribbon. Similar to Kawakubo, her collections recalibrate the familiar tropes of femininity in experimental ways. Outfits from the Decoration Accident collection, autumn–winter 2009–10, for example, highlight Kurihara’s interest in overblown embellishment by using intricate smocked ribbon work, billowing flounces, oversized bows, ruffles and folkloric prints.
In 1987, Vogue predicted that Rei Kawakubo would be recognised ‘as the woman who will lead fashion into the twenty-first century’.20Elsa Klensch, ‘Another world of style: Rei Kawakubo’, Vogue, Aug. 1987, p. 307. Today her work remains some of the most profound on the runway, as she continues to redefine the possibilities of dress. Kawakubo’s radical and uncompromising approach has changed what we expect of fashion. In giving precedence to conceptual ideas as well as processes, she has achieved creative and commercial success and has influenced younger generations of designers internationally.
Eleanor Gibson, ‘Comme des Garçons is nothing about clothes says Rei Kawakubo’, 9 May 2009, Dezeen, Dezeen Limited, <www.dezeen.com/2019/05/09/rei-kawakubo-comme-des-garcons-interview>, accessed 6 June 2019.
Andrew Bolton, Rei Kawakubo Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2018, p. 42.
Mariko Nishitani, Theory of Relativity in Comme des Garçons, Filmart Co. Ltd, Japan, 2012, pp. 346–7.
Bernadine Morris, ‘From Japan, new faces, new shapes’, The New York Times, 14 December 1982, p. 10.
Some of the press dubbed the collection ‘Hiroshima’s revenge’. See Judith Thurman, ‘The misfit’, The New Yorker, 4 July 2005, p. 20.
C. Donovan, ‘Fashion view: much ado about the Japanese’, The New York Times Magazine, 31 July 1983, p. 134.
Writers who have eloquently elaborated on these concepts in relation to Kawakubo’s work include Akiko Fukai et al., Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion, Merrell Publishers, London, 2010, pp.13–22, and Bolton, p. 42.
Bolton, p. 50.
Karen Van Godtsenhoven, Miren Arzalluz & Kaat Debo (eds), Fashion Game Changers: Reinventing the 20th Century Silhouette, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, London, 2016, p. 229.
This fabric innovation has been recognised as a characteristic of Japanese fashion design, as referenced in Bonnie English, Japanese Fashion Designers, The Work and Influence of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo, Bloomsbury, London, 2018, p. 74.
Laird Borelli-Persson, ‘Fall 1995 Ready-to-wear, Comme des Garçons’, 16 March 1995, Vogue, Condé Nast, <www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/fall-1995-ready-to-wear/comme-des-garcons>, accessed 9 July 2019.
‘Rei Kawakubo’s creative manifesto’, 13 October 2013, The Business of Fashion, <www.businessoffashion.com/articles/bof-exclusive/rei-kawakubo-comme-des-garcons>, accessed 27 May 2019.
Borelli-Persson, accessed 9 July 2019.
For a full discussion of Rei Kawakubo’s working methods, see Dejan Sudjic, Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons, Rizzoli, New York, 1990, pp. 16–35.
Bolton, p. 54.
Borelli-Persson, accessed 9 July 2019.
Other designers to be given their own labels include Fumito Ganyon (in 2007) and Kei Ninomiya (in 2012).
Alexander Fury, ‘Junya Wantanabe, one of fashion’s foremost thinkers’, 17 October 2016, The New York Times Style Magazine, The New York Times Company, <www.nytimes.com/2016/10/17/t-magazine/junya-watanabe-interview.html>, accessed 1 May 2017.
Akiko Fukai et al., p. 138.
Elsa Klensch, ‘Another world of style: Rei Kawakubo’, Vogue, Aug. 1987, p. 307.