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TGS Classic #4: Rei Kawakubo, Avant Garde Anti-Fashion

It can be difficult to say something new about Rei Kawakubo - her iconic brand, Comme des Garcons, is a household name all over the world. Tokyo-born and stubbornly unconventional, Kawakubo's design philosophy is in many ways at the heart of Tortoise. Her attention to detail, commitment to the value of beautiful design, and focus on each part of product production have inspired Tortoise since before we opened our doors in 2003. 

Black and white image of Rei Kawakubo

More often than any other object, Tortoise customers often come to the store to show us their Comme des Garcon wallet, practically falling apart after many, many years of affectionate use. Always excitedly looking for a replacement, we admire the loyalty of CDG customers. 

Rei Kawakubo is notoriously private. Instead of answering questions about her personal life, she always directs the press back to her work.

“The best way to know me is to look at my clothing."
Born in 1942, Kawakubo's childhood was tinged with the scars of the second world war. She remembers wearing a school uniform, and rolling down her socks - a bold statement for a child. Her father worked as an administrator at Keio University, where Kawakubo studied aesthetics and fine arts. After graduating, she worked in the advertising department of a textile manufacturer, and then as a freelance stylist. She has no formal fashion training. In 1973, she launched CDG in Tokyo. 
"I chose Comme des Garcons as a name because I liked the sound. It doesn't mean much to me, I didn't intend to promote myself, that's why I didn't put my name on it." 

CDG debuted in Paris in 1981, and the reaction was not entirely positive. Kawakubo was known for designing asymmetrical, deconstructed, shapeless clothing. Kawakubo was unique in the fashion world as a woman designing for other women. Rather than fixate on sexuality and the body, Kawakubo was interested in exploring deeper, more complex desires in her clientele. The divided reaction to her work was a sign to Kawakubo that she was on the right path. As she has said many times, CDG should not to be liked by everyone. 
“I am nothing more than a professional who happens to work in fashion.”

 

Kawakubo is known today for making sculpture like, outlandish runway shows. Her work has even been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, Kawakubo does not identify as an artist. She is adamant that her work is tied to the market - each piece is an act of business tied to the goal of creating a long lasting relationship with the wearers of her clothes.

“Fashion is not art. You sell art to one person. Fashion also comes in a series and it is a more social phenomenon. It is also something more personal and individual, because you express your personality. It is an active participation; art is passive.”

Kawakubo works with her pattern-makers very closely - she sends them drawings and ideas and then visits regularly to monitor the production and hands-on design. She has described her pattern-makers as a guild that she leads, directs, and inspires. This goes beyond the physical aesthetics of each piece - Kawakubo is a highly conceptual thinker, and operates perhaps more closely as a Zen master deeply engaged in leading a koan curriculum. 

“I like to work with space and emptiness.”

Kawakubo's fashion shows are often abstract and experimental. In many ways her aesthetic embodies wabi sabi, full of appreciation for asymmetry, irregularity, imperfection, and decay.

These high-fashion cerebral concepts are often married to incredible practicality and simplicity in Kawakubo's ready-to-wear objects, including our series of clutches, wallets, and leather pouches. Their simple statements are powerful on their own. 

“I want something that can be crumpled and squeezed into one’s bag by day, unrumpled and worn at night. Without make-up.”

Kawakubo's constant gender-play and rejection of traditional or male-oriented femininity is on full display in her fragrance ollection, launched in 1994. "CDG eau de parfum" was the first fragrance launched. 

Since then CDG has been famous for unisex, unconventional scents. The same way Kawakubo wrestles with abstract concepts in her clothing, she is also at play with her fragrances, trying to capture the essence of an early morning walk, the energy of construction, or the scent of a particular color. 

“My objective is to create new ways of looking at beauty, new paths to strength.”

 


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