Rei Kawakubo: Against Convention

Rei Kawakubo (Japanese, born 1942) for Comme des Garçons (Japanese, founded 1969), Blue Witch, spring/summer 2016; Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photograph by © Paolo Roversi; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; women in red wigs; avant-garde fashion; against time; against convention;
Rei Kawakubo (Japanese, born 1942) for Comme des Garçons (Japanese, founded 1969), Blue Witch, spring/summer 2016; Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photograph by © Paolo Roversi; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I have always pursued a new way of thinking about design, by denying established values, conventions, and what’s generally accepted as the norm. And the modes of expression that have always been most important to me are unfinished, imbalance, fusion, elimination and absence of intent.
—Rei Kawakubo, in an interview, 2016*

For her latest Comme des Garçons runway collection of Autumn / Winter 2018-19, Rei Kawakubo presented bold and outlandishly elaborate forms that focused on the theme of “Camp.” The word “camp” in this instance coincides with the idea presented by Susan Sontag in her essay called “Notes on ‘Camp‘” that was published in 1964.  In which, she stated “camp” as a sensibility that is not normal, one of the hardest things to talk about, and in essence the love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.**

As a designer, Rei Kawakubo translates the verbally inexplicable sensibility through form and texture negating definitive critical interpretations.

Composite thumbnail images of Comme des Garçons A/W 2018 runway collection; image source: Vogue UK; Vogue Paris; Rei Kawakubo; voluminous dresses;
Composite thumbnail images of Comme des Garçons A/W 2018 runway collection; image source: Vogue

Editors from Vogue UK and Paris wrote about Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons show as theatrically over-the-top and a comical spectacle. In my opinion, the collection is a reflection of reality, meaning that we all live in a world of make-believe, it is always more comfortable to live with the idea of self rather than the actual self.

To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.
—From An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde

I extracted this Oscar Wilde quote from Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay. It is seemingly preposterous but in fact a statement of truth, one that everyone is inclined to deny, though for some without being conscious of it. As with living through life, we inevitably give into what the society tells us and the “norms” that we follow are purely subjective, a social construct, it being nothing more. This is what Rei Kawakubo is trying to tell us with her work. To break away from the “norms,” her collection’s apparent outlandishness challenges our “natural” aesthetics.

Rei Kawakubo (Japanese, born 1942) for Comme des Garçons (Japanese, founded 1969), The Infinity of Tailoring, autumn/winter 2013–14; Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photograph by © Collier Schorr; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; women in men's suit; avant-garde fashion; Prince of Wales pattern;
Rei Kawakubo (Japanese, born 1942) for Comme des Garçons (Japanese, founded 1969), The Infinity of Tailoring, autumn/winter 2013–14; Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photograph by © Collier Schorr; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

She founded Comme des Garçons in 1969, ever since Rei Kawakubo and her designers have worked relentlessly against the existing ideas of fashion and experimented with ways to re-define “fashion” by its antithesis.

Although, I agree with her as she denies fashion is art, nonetheless, her attempts in working with ideas against common beliefs is something she has in common with how visual artists make their works.

As she candidly puts it, fashion has a function and Comme des Garçon is a business therefore what she does is not art. Despite this, her Comm des Garçons pieces never appear to conform to the natural body but sculpts it into something unnatural. Each dress uses the human body as means to transgress culture and tradition.

Rei Kawakubo (Japanese, born 1942) for Comme des Garçons (Japanese, founded 1969), 18th Century Punk, autumn/winter 2016–17; Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photograph by © Paolo Roversi; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Rei Kawakubo (Japanese, born 1942) for Comme des Garçons (Japanese, founded 1969), 18th Century Punk, autumn/winter 2016–17; Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photograph by © Paolo Roversi; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rei Kawakubo has never allowed herself to be satisfied in fear of complacency. Within herself she seeks perfection, but not a universal expression of perfection. As she once said, “nothing new can come out of a situation without suffering, and there is very little creation without despair.” The struggle is evident in the designer’s integration of concepts and techniques that appear diametrically opposed to each other, yet are some how paired together. This inclination to tension and struggle, to combine without harmony is unique to Rei Kawakubo.

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Rei Kawakubo (Japanese, born 1942) for Comme des Garçons (Japanese, founded 1969); Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photograph by © Paolo Roversi; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

If you are interested, read my exhibition review of Rei Kawakubo / Comme des Garçons when it came to New York in 2017.
*Rei Kawakubo / Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-between, (50).
**Notes On “Camp” by Susan Sontag, (275).

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