Me and Rei

In second grade, I dressed in my best khaki and safari hat ensemble to channel Jane Goodall for my report on “who I admire.” No offense to my girl Jane Goodall, Goddess of the Gombe Stream National Park, but today, I feel like dressing up in Comme des Garçons.

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Maddie Kropa wears an ensemble by Comme des Garçons she bought on E-bay with her bag by Nuno, available in the PEM Shop. Photo by Whitney Van Dyke

Described by critics and her fashion world contemporaries as the most innovative fashion designer living today, Rei Kawakubo designs for her international fashion label, Comme des Garçons  — French for “like the boys.” While doing so, she elicits this sort of wholehearted admiration, which I think style-blogging prodigy Tavi Gevinson best expressed when she wrote that she “scatters black petals on Rei Kawakubo’s doorsteps and serenades her in rap.” Damn, that’s good. For the past year as I’ve been preparing for PEM’s most recent exhibition, Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Fashion, I’ve come to understand my admiration for Rei Kawakubo, a total badass.

The first time I saw her now iconic, “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body” collection (Spring/Summer 1997), I was assaulted by the awesomeness of these other-worldly bodies that Kawakubo had created. I would love to have just a couple hours walking around the city (or better yet, in small-town suburbia) in one of these “lumps and bumps” outfits just to know what it feels like — how my body moves under that padded exterior — and to revel in people’s shocked reactions to my distorted silhouette. “The more people that are afraid when they see new creation, the happier I am,” the designer has said. I’m right there with you, Rei.

Below: Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons. “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body,” Spring/Summer 1997 Collection. Film stills from catwalk show. Courtesy of Kyoto Costume Institute.

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While some might think that Kawakubo’s avant-garde fashions are best left to professionals like Lady Gaga, it’s her fierce desire to add a punch to our lives through clothes that don’t just look like everyone else (what we at PEM love about Iris Apfel’s spirit) that is so exhilarating. Kawakubo has been described as a “militant” who “wages war” on conventionality bred by the corporate fashion industry. It is almost no wonder that when New York Times style spotter Bill Cunningham saw CDG’s Autumn/Winter 2012 line that he saw coats of armor. (Others have said the line resembles paper dolls.) One thing’s for sure—she’s certainly not designing for the person who is influenced by what others think.

Kawakubo has been shaking up the system since 1983 when she and Yohji Yamamoto debuted their collections in Paris. Their monochromatic, deconstructed and often androgynous designs diverged from the brightly-colored, body-accentuating clothing of Western designers of the time, and forever changed the face of global fashion. Since then, Kawakubo has continued to deliver sculptural collections that shatter our conceptions of what clothing should be, and indeed, what beauty — in particular the “feminine ideal” — can look like. Coupled with her confrontational entrée to the male-dominated fashion world, Kawakubo has come to be recognized as a feminist.

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Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons, 1982. © Peter Lindbergh

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Fuchsia dress and gloves by Claude Montana for The House of Montana, 1980s.

In a cutthroat industry, Kawakubo has risen to the top as a formidable designer and businesswoman — roles which she finds inseparable. In 1973, when Kawakubo launched CDG, she indicated that her only goal was to try to make a business with creation and newness at its core. Business is booming.

I’ve been known to save clothes from middle school, certain that the style will come around again (lucky for me, I was a pretty big kid). After months and months of working on Future Beauty and studying each outfit and label in the show, it’s somewhat disorienting to walk through the gallery and not be able to definitively identify if a piece is from the 80s, 90s or two years ago. This is just to say that Kawakubo’s designs feel timeless and singular — they are not cyclical even if components are made from recycled clothing. In light of this, the speculation that Edna “E” Mode from the Disney movie, The Incredibles was based in-part on Kawakubo seems pretty reasonable:

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“I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now.” – Edna Mode, from http://movies.disney.com/the-incredibles/character

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Rei Kawakubo, Photo: CFDA via nitrolicious.com

Each season, Rei Kawakubo defies our very understanding of fashion — taking no notice of current trends — in her quest to create something no one has ever seen before. Are those sleeves? Are you looking at dress or a skirt? Maybe, but perhaps that’s only because our vocabularies are limited to narrow descriptions. Famously, Kawakubo declines from discussing each season’s inspiration, preferring for people to experience the clothing. When, presumably she was asked how she came up with CDG’s Autumn/Winter 2014 collection, she cryptically replied that “the only way of doing something new is not to set out to design clothes.”

Kawakubo pushes at the world of fashion, and indeed, her ideas cannot be encapsulated by clothing alone. Her creative pursuits are holistic in nature, and collaborations with photographers, visual artists, other designers and choreographers breed new ideas while extending the CDG brand.

For example, between 1988 and 1991, Kawakubo published the semiannual magazine Six (now available as an iPad app) as a purely visual representation of CDG’s latest collection. Her explorations of design appear alongside images created by a wide range of contemporary artists such as Ai Wei Wei and Cindy Sherman. A later collaboration with famed choreographer, Merce Cunningham resulted in the performance, Scenario which was inspired by her “lumps and bumps” collection.

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Merce Cunningham, Scenario, 1997. Outfits by Rei Kawakubo. Photo by Jacque Maotti.

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Images from Six magazine, published by Comme des Garçons. Courtesy Kyoto Costume Institute

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Rei experiments with different ways of bringing her designs to the multitudes through various boutiques, shopping experiences and joint ventures with companies like H&M. Beyond that, her creative reach is incalculable. She has inspired countless designers, many of whom can be seen in Future Beauty — including Junya Watanabe and Tao Kurihara, who design autonomously under the CDG label — as well as Western designers Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester and Marc Jacobs, just to name a few.

You don’t always need to “get” what Kawakubo is producing each season to appreciate just what, and how much, she is accomplishing (at 71, no less). I can’t help but wonder, does she ever just sit down and take a break? Maybe from now on, when I’m feeling like all my creative energy is gone and the dun-dun-dun death knell of Law and Order SVU is signaling the start of yet another episode, I’ll get my butt off the couch, put on a CDG top and go out and change the world.

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