Rei Kawakubo is one of the people in the industry who’s edged fashion forward from behind the scenes. The Japanese designer, who has a modest life away from the spotlight, is rarely photographed or interviewed, but is known for her attention-grabbing playfulness with shapes and textiles.
She started off with no formal training as a fashion designer, but found herself studying Fine Arts and Aesthetics at Keio University – with her Major focusing on Asian and Western Art. After her graduation in 1964, Kawakubo left home and took a position in the advertising department at the Asahi Kasei textile company, where she was given creative freedom by her superior and, more modestly, collected props and costumes for photoshoots. A product of necessity than design, Kawakubo made her own garments when she couldn’t find an appropriate costume for a shoot, which led her to become a freelance stylist.
By 1969 she’d founded Comme des Garçons, selling her garments to shops in Tokyo. Eventually she opened her own boutique with the ethos of the brand name that translates as ‘like boys’ – her clothes were a new take for the independent woman, who did not dress to seduce or gain someone’s approval. The concept was a hit in Japan and soon spread beyond the country’s shores, challenging notions of the roles of women in a staunchly patriarchal culture.
Kawakubo had her Paris debut and her international breakthrough in 1981, when she showcased on the Paris catwalk. It surprised the critics: the garments were primarily black, oversized, asymmetrical and didn’t follow the aesthetics of the human silhouette. It was clear that Rei Kawakubo didn’t respond to trends, and started her early career volumizing the wearer’s body, which stabled her brand as anti-fashion. Although this wasn’t likely her intention, it’s safe to say that creating something entirely new was at the heart of the momentum, rather than reinventing past influences.
Fast forward to today and Rei Kawakubo has racked up a sheet of accolades – recently becoming awarded the prestigious Isamu Noguchi Award for her “consistently defied notions not only of beauty, but also of what fashion can be, at once confounding our expectations for clothing and—like Noguchi—challenging the idea that design and art are inherently different endeavours.”
Fitting, that Isamu Noguchi a forward-facing architect and sculptor, recognises on of his own in Kawakubo, with the Noguchi Museum citing that she “celebrates not only forms, but also the spaces between them.
It’s within these ideas that we find our inspiration. The path Kawakubo has trodden can hardly be described as traditional, or a noisy ascent up the career ladder. She, like her designs exist quietly but prominently between the norms of the establishment – at once falling through the gaps and flourishing within them.