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Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons


The convention-defying ideas of Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo have revolutionised the fashion world and made her an inspiration to many, says Josh Sims

Josh Sims,

Dover Street Market may be a confusing name for a store in Tokyo. But that is likely to only add to its appeal among seekers of a more intellectual kind of fashion. Indeed, the fact that the first Dover Street Market – more a collective of various mini stores from radical designers under one roof – was opened on London’s Dover Street by Rei Kawakubo and her husband and business partner Adrian Joffe is likely to seal the deal: Kawakubo is also the founder of the cutting-edge Comme des Garçons label.

A moment in the spotlight

The Dover Street Market store in Ginza carries fashion not only from Comme des Garçons, but also from names such as Thom Browne and Balenciaga, as well as more low-profile Japanese brands A Bathing Ape and Undercover. But Comme des Garçons has, since it was founded more than 40 years ago, also launched lines with the likes of Lacoste, Nike, Levi’s, Converse and H&M, one of its latest being this spring/summer’s collection of boldly graphic canvas pumps with Los Angeles men’s footwear company The Generic Man. 

To collaborate with Comme des Garçons is not only a major seal of approval, but often something of a dream come true for younger designers; Kawakubo is probably the designer most frequently cited as an inspiration to those working their way to the top in fashion. Some have found themselves given more than a moment in the spotlight: Junya Watanabe, now one of the most respected menswear designers, started his own label under Comme des Garçons’ wing.

Defying convention

In part that admiration comes from Kawakubo’s obsession with fine detail: ‘One instant of satisfaction [with a project] and I worry that I won’t be able to come up with the next creation,’ she has said. ‘I always have to have that hunger. As long as I continue to do what I’m doing, I feel that I have to keep pushing on.’ But it is equally about her ability to challenge convention in clothing design – to distort rather than enhance the female form, to deconstruct almost to the point of destruction, to create uniform-like clothes that are ambiguously unisex – while also building a multi-million-dollar business, with the label stocked by prestigious retailers including Japan’s iconic Isetan department store group. 

It was Kawakubo who, on showing her designs in the West for the first time in 1981, was in part responsible for re-imagining minimalistic black as the definitive fashion colour. Until then it was considered rather funereal. Indeed, given her readiness to defy convention it is perhaps no surprise that Kawakubo is self-taught; she was working in the advertising department of a chemicals company when, unable to find anything she wanted to wear, she started making her own clothes. ‘It was important that I started out doing what I wanted to do and on my own,’ she has noted. 

Breaking the rules

The same independent spirit has since been applied to everything from shops – Comme des Garçons pioneered the idea of the ‘pop-up’ – to fragrance, where she has chosen not to devise safe sellers but to play with the odours of tar, burnt rubber, nail polish and (a nod to her old job, maybe) dry-cleaning agents. Bucking industry convention again, all of the brand’s fragrances are unisex.

Indeed, it is this determination to break the rules that has made the Comme des Garçons name internationally respected in fashion circles, but the designer behind it largely unknown even after four decades. Kawakubo has kept out of the limelight; even the choice of company name – a French phrase she just liked the sound of – was in part an effort to avoid making herself the star of her own show.

‘I’ve always said I’m not an artist,’ she has said. ‘For me fashion design is a business. It’s just one of the ways of doing business. It’s my job. It’s what I do. But it also stems perhaps from wanting people to be free and independent. It’s a good way of encouraging people to be like that, through fashion design. It’s a convenient and simple way of giving that independence, because everybody has to wear clothes. Fashion design is a good way of expressing values that are important to me: work hard, get strong, work together.’

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