Comme des Garçons has gleefully operated on the margins of the fashion industry for 40 years. Since showing her first collection in Paris in 1981, the industry’s press and buyers have become accustomed to Rei Kawakubo – the 71-year-old Japanese mastermind behind Comme des Garçons – and her regular and radical expressions of sheer otherness. Nothing, however, can prepare you for what’s next. That’s the whole point.
From ‘body-bump’ dresses (‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body’, Spring/Summer 1997) to mummified wedding gowns (‘White Drama’, Spring/Summer 2012), it comes as no surprise to discover Kawakubo is driven by a wanton – even stubborn – desire to create something new, something that further pushes the boundaries of what can be accepted as fashion.
Some of her premonitions have since become industry standards (guerrilla stores, artist collaborations…), while others (the tarmac, kerosene and smoke scented anti-fragrance), it’s safe to say, probably never will.
The voice of the designer has never been so important in disseminating brand values. Cynically put, he (or she) who shouts the loudest, gets heard the most. Yet whilst Kawakubo’s refusal to explain herself has often frustrated her public, her silence has given her voice more power and resonance than any fashion designer in the industry today.
The following conversation took place on Sunday, 29th September for System Magazine, between Hans Ulrich Obrist – himself an eminent curator and commentator operating in the art world – and Rei Kawakubo. The designer’s husband and Comme des Garçons CEO Adrian Joffe acted as interpreter.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: Was there an epiphany that caused you to start Comme des Garçons?
Adrian Joffe: She was a stylist at a magazine; she couldn’t find anything that she liked to photograph, so instead she decided to make it herself which is when she created her own company. There was no epiphany. She wishes she had one for you, but she doesn’t.
No. She doesn’t collect anything.
I met Azzedine Alaïa, and he has a whole hanger – it’s giant – full of stuff! It has his own archive but also the archives of other designers, books, art, objects. Do you have an archive?
No, she says she doesn’t like anything like that.
For her, they’re a burden. She says she has no desire for possessions. She doesn’t know why, but she’s never wanted to collect anything for as long as she can remember.
Last month I saw the Met exhibition in New York about punk – punk attitude and aesthetics. I was wondering if you saw it, and how you connect with punk – both now and before? Do you feel comfortable with this notion or label?
She likes the punk spirit. She’s always liked the spirit in the sense that it’s against the run of the mill, the normal way of doing things. That’s why she’s always felt an affinity with the punk spirit. She likes that word. Every collection is that. Punk is against flattery, and that’s what she likes about punk.
There’s an artist who says we can only understand someone if we know what kind of music he or she is listening to. What kind of music do you listen to?
Nothing in particular. All or nothing. What she likes to listen to when she has the choice to listen to something is jazz. She’s never said that to me before.
What about dreams? What is your dream of happiness?
She says she doesn’t need dreams.
Has the internet changed your working practice in anyway?
Something about internet is very different to the human mind. The human element is missing between fashion creation and the internet. That’s why she’s not interested in it. She thinks it can’t be translated. She doesn’t know whether it will take time before it happens, but at the moment she doesn’t think it’s happening or if it will ever happen.
What role do writing and drawing play in your working practice?
She doesn’t draw.
How does a normal day look?
It’s just constant work. She gets there early, stays late and just works. She also runs the company. She helps design the space. She does everything. She checks every single detail about everything for the company. So every day is taken up from morning to night with details, thought and work.
In art, one talks about the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art: the artist does everything. I’m fascinated by that. I have the feeling that with you, it’s similar – every piece of paper, every item of stationery, every advertisement…
Advertising, interiors, decoration – everything.
How did the idea [for the guerrilla stores] come about?
Even in business, we need to find creative ways to do business. This was almost like a no-brainer. We had the stock, and we had these spaces with students who had nothing to do with fashion but wanted to work. So we moved the stock from our warehouse to those spaces. It was just a business idea to do business in a new way.
Rei, you play and confuse gender codes in both your men’s and women’s clothing. But is it true that Comme des Garçons staff can only wear collections associated with their gender?
No, that’s not true at all. People are free to buy and wear what they want. There are no rules. She never tells people how to wear, what to wear, why to wear.
Also your favourite colour is black, right? In an interview you once did, you said that maybe it’s a time for a new black, because everything is black.
That was a long time ago.
But do you think there is a new black?
It’s not exactly her favourite colour. It’s just the colour she feels is the strongest. It has nothing to do with whether she likes it or not, but she just feels that black is the strongest colour.