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Monday’s gala launch of the Metropolitan Museum’s new fashion exhibition, the internet was awash with images of partygoers. Rihanna in latticed thigh-high boots, Madonna in cocktail camo print, Katie Perry veiled in blood red. However, it took a painstaking search to unearth just one photograph taken on the night of the woman for whom the party was held. Eventually, on the third slide of a New York Times party gallery – after Kendall Jenner, before Jourdan Dunn – I found a single image of Rei Kawakubo, the subject of the exhibition and guest of honour at the party. Kawakubo is wearing a white leather biker jacket zipped close over a white shirt buttoned to the throat, and stares unsmiling at the camera through black sunglasses.he morning after
To be the life and soul of a party is not Kawakubo’s style. Intense, deep and serious are her brand values. I had been promised that she would describe the experience of opening night to me, and true to her word, she sent me the following by email. “I WAS VERY CURIOUS TO SEE THE MET GALA AND HAD AN INTERESTING TIME. AND I WAS HAPPY TO SEE SO MANY PEOPLE IN THE SPACE SPENDING THEIR TIME EXPLORING.” The fact that she is the first living designer to be honoured with a monographic show at the Met since the one staged for Yves Saint Laurent 34 years ago is testament to her significance in the industry. Other recent Met shows have paid homage to fashion’s late, lamented greats: Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Alexander McQueen and Gianni Versace. Kawakubo joining that elite list suggests she might be the closest thing fashion has to a living saint.
Kawakubo, who was born in Tokyo in 1942 and founded Comme des Garçons in 1973, is described by Edward Enninful, the new editor of British Vogue, as “in the pantheon of the gods”. Marc Jacobs “worships” her; the musician Björk calls her stores “sacred”. She does not play the fashion designer on the public stage – there are no ostentatious celebrity friendships, no controversy-courting spats – but she has pulled the puppet strings on all of our wardrobes nonetheless. Example: if your style came of age between the late 1970s and late 80s, she is a large part of the reason why you wear a lot of black.
Kawakubo, who rarely gives interviews, corresponded with me via email in the days before and after the show. Her gnomic, caps-locked, pared-down sentences had a telegram-like brevity that evaded my attempts to invite elaboration. This is one of the questions I sent her: “When you design clothes, what is the ultimate end point in your mind’s eye: are you envisaging the catwalk, or the shopfloor, or the wearer, or a museum, or yourself?” And this was her response: “ALL THESE THINGS AND NONE OF THEM. I WORK IN THE VOID, IN THE ABSTRACT AND YET I IMAGINE THE TOTAL EXISTENCE OF THE END PRODUCT.”
She is as opaque as the matte-black Paris fashion scene she presided over in the 1980s, and this aloof detachment now feels antithetical not just to modern fashion, but to popular culture. She does not engage with the mundanity of looking pretty, or the seasonal ephemera of hemlines. She has zero interest in celebrity – her own or anyone else’s – and told me that she does not experience herself as famous. “NOT AT ALL. I HAVE NO SENSE OF THAT, AND AM NOT INTERESTED IN IT.” So it is interesting that figures such as Jacobs and Enninful, who are commercially successful and savvy about social media and brand collaboration, should hero-worship a figure whose take on fashion is in direct contrast to the way the contemporary world operates.
Part of the explanation lies in how Kawakubo represents a steadfast purity of artistic purpose, while around her the business of selling clothes gets increasingly frenetic and complex. But that makes her eminence sound rooted in nostalgia, which it isn’t – the most recent Comme des Garçons collection featured bulbous dresses fashioned from upholstery stuffing, with wire wigs and no armholes. The most extraordinary thing about the brand is not the clothes, but the bottom line. Kawakubo heads a global empire with an annual revenue of $280m. She sees brand-building as being as much a part of the creative process as designing the clothes. When I asked her if she saw Comme des Garçons as a design philosophy or a brand, she said: “IT IS THE SAME. CDG IS FOUNDED ON A DESIGN PHILOSOPHY. THE REST IS SEMANTICS.” Her embrace of branding and business puts her thinking more in line with millennials than with most other designers of her vintage. Ronnie Cooke Newhouse, a creative consultant who works with Kawakubo, pinpoints as her genius not her clothes, but her ability to create a brand with such a strong overarching message that Comme des Garçons polo shirts and wallets are infused with a distinctly urbane, almost anti-fashion glamour. “Her influence is so wide that I would even go so far as to say that, if she hadn’t been there, then Apple wouldn’t exist. Even though it doesn’t touch on her world, [Apple] is a brand that has always spoken to people who saw her as a guru, which catered to the more media-orientated and creatively minded. Rei connected all of those people internationally.”
The Met show, which runs until 4 September, is titled The Art of the In-Between. It is staged thematically under dualistic headlines (Absence/Presence, Fashion/Antifashion, and so on) that echo her famous 1997 collection, Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body. Kawakubo likes to play with the juxtaposition of ideas, to experiment beyond our black-and-white sensibility. (Pretty/Not Pretty, which is arguably the lens through which most female clothing is viewed, dissolves into insignificance in the Comme des Garçons mindset.) She is comfortable with complications, and doesn’t feel the need to oversimplify everything. “I THINK CONTEMPORARY CULTURE DOES NOT ALLOW ENOUGH SPACE FOR NUANCE,” she told me. “WE ARE NOT REALLY IN AN AGE OF NUANCE.”
At a press briefing held for fashion editors during Paris fashion week in March, the Met show’s curator, Andrew Bolton, described Kawakubo as “a disrupter long before that become fashionable”, and her work as “repudiating the canons of western fashion”. He went on to explain that the exhibition would be staged inside a maze, and influenced by zen concepts of mu (emptiness) and ma (space). After Monday’s press view, one reviewer reported that “the design of the exhibition feels as abstract as the indecipherable qualities of Kawakubo’s work. Clothes are hidden between cracks and crevices or set back away from the viewer, inviting you to discover them like a game of hide-and-seek.”
Most fashion designers would kill to be taken as seriously as Kawakubo is, but her most punchy replies are those rebuffing my interpretation of the maze as a metaphor for her work being a riddle, or a puzzle, or having a hidden meaning. “THERE IS NO MEANING. I AM JUST TRYING TO MAKE A BUSINESS OUT OF CREATING THINGS THAT DIDN’T EXIST BEFORE. IT’S A VERY SIMPLE IDEA,” she said when asked about the creative process. As for the catwalk shows, with their sage titles, “THERE IS NO MEANING PER SE. IT IS ALWAYS JUST HOW I AM FEELING. IT IS THE AUDIENCE THAT ALWAYS REQUIRES A TITLE AND A THEME.” (When I prodded her to comment on the emotional reactions sometimes seen at her shows – tears in the front row are not uncommon – she said only, “I LIKE ANY REACTION. NO REACTION IS NO GOOD.”) And on the subject of the maze, “THERE IS NO SECRET AND NO CODE. I LIKE TO CREATE A SPACE WHERE THE VIEWER CAN FEEL A SENSE OF DISCOVERY. I TRY TO CREATE STRONG BEAUTIFUL SPACES IN WHICH PEOPLE CAN HAVE THEIR SPIRITS LIFTED AND CAN FEEL ENERGY.”
Similarly, she is uninterested in placing her work in a context broader than fashion. I asked her if she considers herself an artist, and she said: “IF FOUNDING MY COMPANY ON THE VALUES OF CREATION MEANS I AM AN ARTIST, THEN SO BE IT.” Are there any other fashion designers who you would consider to be artists? “I NEVER PRONOUNCE JUDGMENT ON OTHERS.” Because her clothes subvert conventional notions of beauty and the idealised female body, she is often claimed by feminists as one of their own, so I asked her if feminism is relevant to her work, now or in the past. “IT IS NOT RELEVANT,” came the reply. And are you political, as a person or as a designer? “MAN IS POLITICAL. I DO NOT LIKE TOTALITARIANISM. I LIKE FREEDOM.” The softest questions I asked – about the last time she went shopping and what she bought, and her favourite museums – she ignored entirely.
In 2008, Comme des Garçons produced a capsule collection for the high-street fashion chain H&M. It included drop-crotch trousers priced at £29.99 and asymmetric shirting for £39.99. This, along with the exposure brought by the Met exhibition and its star-studded opening gala, would seem to suggest a desire by Kawakubo, and her husband and business partner, Adrian Joffe, to bring the Comme des Garçons name to a wider audience. I asked if it matters to her how big an audience she is talking to. “NO NOT REALLY. I AM NOT SURE ANYONE WHO DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT CDG WILL COME TO THE EXHIBITION,” she replied. As for her impact and influence on the designers who revere her, she told me that “I ONLY DO WHAT I DO SINCE THAT IS MY JOB, AND HOPE THAT SOME PEOPLE LIKE IT AND FEEL ENERGY OR SOMETHING POSITIVE FROM THEM, AND THAT CDG CAN SURVIVE AS A BUSINESS WTHOUT COMPROMISE.”
Kawakubo corrected me swiftly when I referred to the exhibition as a retrospective. “IT IS NOT A RETROSPECTIVE. IT IS A THEMATIC REPRESENTATION OF THE BODY OF MY WORK,” she wrote. “I DON’T LIKE TO LOOK BACK AND SEEING SO MANY THINGS I DID SO LONG AGO WAS NOT SO EASY, BUT IT SEEMED TO ALL WORK IN THE CONTEXT OF THE CURATION. I FELT LIKE THE COLLABORATION WAS A SUCCESS.” Kawakubo is not one to gush. “I WAS HAPPY THE SPACE AND THE CLOTHES ENHANCED EACH OTHER,” is perhaps about as close to a ringing endorsement of the show as the curators could have hoped for.