Essay #17: on Rei Kawakubo and how she changed our wardrobes

Basho’s famous frog haiku consists only of seven words. However, it has several hundred translations and interpretations. This multitude of possible meanings created by omitted words is a very specific feature of the genre. It is intentional, and the intention is to unleash beholder’s imagination involving him into the creation of the personal meaning.

Rei Kawakubo likes to say that her nationality is just an accident. But, in a way, she is a very Japanese artist. She avoids explanations (which you expect to have when you see a dress with four sleeves) and seems to like to be misunderstood. She expects you will find or invent your own explanation. This is why the founder of Comme des Garcon is the second living designer after Yves Saint Laurent who is honored to have a personal exposition in the Met.

Rei Kawakubo mood board

Some say, that if fashion was a cult, Kawakubo would be its priestess. Others call her style “fashion of madness” and “beggar look”. But everyone agrees that her influence was seismic, and without her modern fashion would be different. Imagine the 80’s: neon colors, tight dresses, spandex leggings, shiny jewelry, and big curly hair. The expressive materialism of Wall Street, Madonna, Ralph Lauren, and Armani. When Kawakubo presented her debut collection — black, shapeless, shredded garments with holes — part of the audience walked out in the middle of the show, shocked that this is happening in “their” Paris Fashion Week. The collection, called “Lace” after sweaters pierced with holes and dubbed “Hiroshima revenge” by critics, was perceived as a slap in the face. Prevailing fashion aesthetics was stuck in Renaissance and conceived beauty as symmetry and perfection, and Kawakubo, with her wabi-sabi concept embodied in garments, was seen as “anti-aesthetics” hailing from a nuclear disaster. She added the taste for subtle and elusive, transforming radical thinking into radical attire, putting ideas before appearance — and that was a disruption. Kawakubo had a taste for that too.

Today, three decades later you can see her influence everywhere. “Deconstruction” style was followed by notorious designers, including Antwerp Six and Martin Margiela, and spread everywhere, shaping the way we dress today. Her credits: the reign of black; unisex; oversize; ragged hems; distressed fabrics; asymmetric silhouettes. Kawakubo introduced the idea that dresses should shroud rather than reveal one might seduce not with a body but with a mind. The necessity of seduction is questioned itself.

Her early stores — back in the days when she gained the nickname “karasu”, “a crow”, in Japan — her stores didn’t have mirrors. “One should buy clothes because how they make you feel, not look”. Kawakubo introduced the possibility that attire can be not a shining armor of glamour intended for seduction and disguise but a mirror of your soul. Through garments, you can embrace your inner strangeness and be who you really are. She forced the fashion world to recognize not only our inherent imperfection but the poignant beauty of humanity. The beauty of being yourself.