In a statement released by Rei Kawakubo after the S/S19 Comme des Garçons show, the designer asserted “the conviction to make clothes that are new and strong and stimulate the heart and push ahead in order to live”. Over this collections story, that spirit is upheld, celebrated in the work of fashion’s foremost visionaries and culminating in a rare conversation with Kawakubo herself.
That fashion is a barometer of culture more broadly needs no explaining. Read what you will into the simple fact that the amplification – the noise – around the clothing itself has never appeared more extreme. Now, though, the mood of change is in the air and, with that, a move towards a more intensely personal approach, towards clothes for the sake of clothes, fashion for the sake of fashion and the very real beauty that may entail.
These were ideas explored by the designers shaping global fashion: figures as diverse as Miuccia Prada and Marine Serre, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele and John Galliano for Maison Margiela. Individually, they produced work that felt somehow unified. Though diverse in look, they voiced similar concerns, exploring notions of confusion, duality, dichotomy. These concepts were arguably illustrated most explicitly by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons through the extraordinary clothes she designed but also through her own words. In a missive issued after her show, the designer was unusually expansive. “Comme des Garçons from now on is not about outwardly evident design and expression but about the design of content, about what’s deep inside,” she said. “The collection will be quiet, serenely internal, free of design on the surface. Continuing in a state of perplexity is a risk. Advancing ahead while fumbling around in the dark is also a risk. I believe that Comme des Garçons should choose the latter.”
It seems significant that such an open admission of uncertainty – not to mention a certain vulnerability – should come from a designer whose output and outlook are among the most influential in fashion history. And, paradoxically, there is an undeniable authority to Kawakubo’s openness, to her honesty regarding any lack of certainty that might well be seen as a manifesto for the season at large, and for a wider shift in culture to boot.
Today, truth and fragility have new value, a preciousness. In this conversation, Kawakubo does something even rarer than speaking: she expands on the propositions of her Spring show. They perhaps mark a new creative chapter, for the industry as a whole.
Another Magazine: Do you feel your work at Comme des Garçons has always reflected an internal approach – a focus on the heart and emotion of clothes as well as their physicality?
Rei Kawakubo: It’s the only way I know how to work.
AM: At what point did you realise that your most recent creative approach was no longer fulfilling and why?
RK: Before the last collection. I felt it was time to change my way of doing things. Every so often I want to change completely. It’s a way, I hope, that allows me space to find something new.
AM: This collection was a huge shift from the past ten collections – your collections of ‘clothes/not clothes’ and ‘objects for the body’. What motivated that?
RK: There was some reward in giving form to abstract images and making clothes that were not clothes. But I felt the approach was no longer new. I have always aimed to push forwards, finding something that is new, strong, and that stimulates hearts and minds. When I looked for what was next under the old approach, I couldn’t find it. Eventually, I realised ‘not design’ was still a form of design. I decided the only approach is to take what I found deep inside my mind and produce it straightforwardly, in simple form.
AM: In your statement, you spoke about “advancing ahead while fumbling around in the dark”. Fashion tends to be less modest, more hubristic. In light of that, your words appear to be an open expression of vulnerability. Are you aware of a certain strength in that and of the relationship between vulnerability and power more generally?
RK: There was no conscious aim or calculation to the statement. I was just hoping that an honest explanation of how I was feeling might help to explain the shift people would notice. Even though I feel I am always groping in the dark for a new idea, this time felt like such a big change. I felt the only way to change was to look inside me and try to do something simple and internal. Then I thought it was necessary to try to explain that inner process, which might help people understand. I knew some people would understand and others not, but I felt it was worth risking being open and honest so that at least some people would understand.
AM: Could you expand upon what you mean by an “internal” approach?
RK: It would have been very simple to produce clothes in all sorts of shapes, without ornamentation, worn in direct contact with the wearer’s skin, but for the show, I emphasised the skin by having the models wear printed bodysuits. The clothes worn over them were monotone.
AM: The prints on those bodysuits – the roses, the tattoos, the newsprint, the Comme des Garçons logo… were there more? Do they reflect this personal, internal approach?
RK: These are only details, they have no deep meaning. Using fabric that feels good on the skin, I produced beautifully tailored clothes and then cut them with scissors to break the spell. Those cuts were the only element of design.
AM: What were the meanings of those cuts?
RK: I realised afterwards that cutting into something with scissors is what you do when you cut up something old in order to move on to whatever is next. That made sense to me. And although the cuts look as though they are just straight, it actually took a lot of skill and technique to make them look that way. The person doing the cutting had to keep trying again and again before eventually finding the lines that worked.
AM: You have always been passionate and uncompromising about moving forward, about moving on to the next, the new. Why is that so important to you?
RK: Those are the values I based the company on. I believe there is no progress without creation.
AM: Going back to those cuts, do you feel that the human hand – and a sense of the human being behind the clothing – is essential when creating?
RK: Yes. you can’t create something real without getting into it directly and with feeling. The wearer can sense it somehow when she puts the clothing on. Someone who doesn’t give a thought about that would be fine with inexpensive clothes or with wearing the same clothes every day, but I believe that someone who gives thought to her life needs to have real clothes.
AM: How important is craft to you, the physical act of making clothes?
RK: I want to try to make things that have never existed, no matter how that may be achieved. That is all I ever try to do.
AM: You are interested in newness – how do you define the new in clothing? What is new for you?
RK: Something not seen before.
AM: Is there a difference between fashion and clothes?
RK: Clothes are one part of fashion, but a very important one.
AM: You have divided your work into ‘chapters’, to use our term, not yours. The work you did before you began to show in Paris, your work in Paris until the Spring/Summer 2014 season, your period of designing objects for the body for the past ten collections and now this new period. It is rare for a designer to do, or even recognise, that. How would you describe your creative approach in each of these periods?
RK: It’s an evolutionary, organic process. Nothing planned, just constant searching.
AM: Do you feel connected to contemporary fashion? Do you want to be? Are you aware of how it is developing, or do you try to stay separate from its vagaries? What do you feel about fashion today?
RK: I have neither the time nor the motivation to think about what’s being done elsewhere. I intend to keep on following my own principles as always. Nevertheless, I do feel that fashion should start by putting a little more effort into making things. It’s the resulting clothes that should be evaluated – wrapping them in all sorts of other stuff is kind of pointless. Regardless of what’s going on around us, I have no intention of dropping my stance, of being anything but true to my own ideas, even if it means I have a tough time.
AM: Do you like being a fashion designer? Do you find it inspiring, or frustrating, or perhaps both?
RK: It is my job.
From an email conversation between Rei Kawakubo and Susannah Frankel.
Hair: Esther Langham at Art and Commerce. Make-up: Francelle at Art and Commerce. Models: Sora Choi at Wilhelmina New York, Ansley Gulielmi, Hannah Motler and Bente Oort at Ford Models NYC, Birgit Kos and Kaila Wyatt at The Society Management, Lineisy Montero and Anok Yai at Next Models NYC and Kiki Willems at DNA Models. Casting: Noah Shelley at Streeters. Set design: Piers Hanmer. Manicure: Megumi Yamamoto at Susan Price NYC. Digital tech: Jeronimo De Moraes. Photographic assistants: Nick Brinley, Nico Krazsnai, Kris Shacochis and Maru Teppei. Styling assistants: Molly Shillingford, Abby Adler, Nicole Chan and Shakirra Mae. Hair assistants: Sergio Estrada and Gabe Jenkins. Make-up assistants: Olivia Barad, Andrew D’angelo and Tomoyo. Art co-ordinator: Morgan Zvanut. Set-design assistants: Tony Cecilia and Brian Brown. Manicure assistant: Kana Kishita. Production: Prodn. Post-production: Dtouch NYC. Special thanks to The 1896.
This story originally featured in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of AnOther Magazine which will be on sale internationally from 14 February, 2019.