Rei Kawakubo


The birth of mass society, understood as “a large amount of indistinct people acting in a uniform manner”, was the consequence of an historical process that took shape at the end of the nineteenth century, which involved a plurality of causes. In the mass society a central role was played by advancing technological progress, understood both as a process of standardization of work and as a model of production of objects called “mass” as a result of the rationalization and mechanization of production processes that tended to homologate and make the work of the individual arid.

An example is the classic model of the assembly line which means the worker had to repeat countless times an identical series of gestures that did not involve the intervention of any practical or creative ability and that ended up cancelling any personal contribution in the creation of products. . Therefore the approval of the production processes also determined the approval of the products created and sold.

The mass object, always identical to itself, tended to create equal consumers and to modify collective behaviors in the direction of anonymous equality.

In this social context, it is interesting the analysis carried out by Gustave Le Bon on the concept of the crowd as the result of an evolutionary arrest that has led to the masses’ dominance. This marked a return to barbarism as the crowd in question appears to act on the basis of feelings primitives as instinct and emotionality rather than with logic and reason.

The loss of reason in the mass aggregation for Le Bon was the premise of a much greater loss: the dissolution of an individual identity into a collective identity.

In this way an inauthentic reality is born in which “everyone is the other and nobody is himself”.

This process has increasingly depersonalized the individual and annulled his capacity for initiative, till to reduce it to a negligible wheel of this barbaric and unstoppable gear.

Even in the fashion industry of consumer society, the designer felt depersonalized and had to decide whether to conform or differentiate himself from his colleagues to regain approval.

It is no coincidence that the tendency to imitation prevailed in the fashion of this period; the designers did nothing but reproduce clothes in series with always the same shapes and characteristics that no one would ever criticize because in line with the standards en vogue. It is in this context that Japanese creativity began to illuminate Western fashion with a style that represented a particular fusion between the Far East and the Western canons.

The real “revolution” came with Rei Kawakubo, visionary stylist who made a real structural change in fashion by breaking down the forms of clothes known to us to create new ones, bringing things that no one had ever seen before on the catwalk.

Rei was the first stylist to keep the flag of differentiation high, capable of breaking the vicious circle, so, for a purely commercial fact, the designers were frustrated in imitating what everyone did, a seemingly safe but unsatisfactory method for those who like her have always tried to create something new.

Rei Kawakubo did not want to be yet another fashion house among many, but wanted to produce something that lasted over time: a real paradox in a society devoted to consumption. Her priority was to be independent in her work, it was not her intention to promote herself and that is why she did not put her signature on the garments she created.

Independence was her watchword and driving force: independence from antiquated ideals of beauty, from tyrannical conceptions about the role of women in society and from the threat of the tendency to conform; independence meant freedom for Rei.

According to her thinking, fashion design as well as being a commercial activity is the expression of what one feels about life, the expression of one’s own identity. When Rei Kawakubo made his debut in Paris, the opinion leaders of the time were shocked by the cuts, the gashes, the asymmetries that inflicted on looks that often had oversized garments. The wide sleeves, the deep chokers, exhibited in the show by models without makeup or grotesquely embellished, always with shoes without heels, meant a femininity light years away from the western sex appeal.

With courage and determination she had chosen to pursue a vision of beauty that contrasted the shaky canons of glamour fashion.

Her garments neglected the contours of the erotic body, removing the excesses of sensuality used to give life to the forms that the majority of designers created for the wardrobe of women of the time who wished above all to be beautiful and seductive. Her first collection presented tattered and shapeless garments, the most famous was the one in 1997 called “Lumps and Bumps”, for the pads and deformation that the clothes created on the body of the models.

Her creations are not fashion ones, but sculptures that annihilate the silhouette and all focus on the fabric, used to shape unisex clothes and independent from the body.

Her collections are always inspired by her feelings with a work of reflection on abstract images to disrupt conventions, revolutionize the figures and invent new languages ​​so that the garments could express the personality of the wearer. Given her reluctance to interact with the press, clothes have always been speaking for her.

The most convinced supporter of a perfect analogy between the language of clothes and verbal language is Alison Lurie, as a matter of fact the scholar defines clothing as an ancient and universal language, believing that clothes can provide information on sex, age, social class, personality, tastes and sexual desires of the wearer. For Lurie, the language of clothes, like verbal language, has its own vocabulary and grammar, so every dress or accessory would correspond to a word and dressing would consist in giving life to a clause.

Overcoming the historicist problem of treating the garment as an event to date in the history of costume, Lurie emphasizes the psychological aspect of it and she considers clothing as the visual vocabulary of an individual’s nature. In a superficial society of capitalist exploitation, fashion then functions as a true mythology of dress, with the aim of making meaningful the meaningless so that the dress of consumer society is no longer considered only as a material object. According to this thesis, choosing dresses is the equivalent of defining and describing oneself, a definition in line with the aim of Kawakubo.

With her taste for the exasperation of volumes, for the asymmetries, for the desired inaccuracies, she wants to ensure that the collections in the succession of years, become more and more an interesting and ambiguous language, so the insertions sewn here and there often fill the silhouette making it indecipherable.

Thanks to its nonconformist practice, Comme des Garçons has become a very successful fashion brand over the years; in an age where perfection is pursued and there is the tendency to homologation, the maison has made of the irregularity, the asymmetry, the deformity its battle cry with clothes that go against the dictates of fashion and in which the imperfection becomes synonymous with beauty. Rei Kawakubo escapes the regularity of a garment; a front, a back, a right and left side, are assembled to escape the logic of size, rationality, to which we are accustomed. She herself states that her idea of ​​what is beautiful changes constantly and one thing to be beautiful does not have to be beautiful because the mutation can go till deformity; beauty or elegance are matters of personal taste.

Her performances are also famous because they result in theatrical experiences able to amaze the viewer, also ambiguous experiences as already mentioned. The parades can start in perfect time or prolong in completely unexpected ways, often ending in the middle of a soundtrack with an unexpected cutting effect. Sensuality and sexuality are two fields revisited and reinvented because according to her vision there are no differences between man and woman but what matters is the human being inside and what he wants to communicate. The 2012 collection entitled “White drama”, for example, was imbued with intense symbolism and was one of the most memorable of her career with 33 looks of only white dresses, typical of the most important moments in a person’s life.

Traditionally in these key moments ceremonial garments are used, so many garments incorporated the satin duchess of the wedding dresses or the lace of the baptism dress. It is a habit of the house not to provide any official indication except for a brief summary of the key ideas of the collection and in this case it was “everything that makes happiness and sadness in people’s lives”.

In Japan the white color represents death, in the West the purity, the marriage and the new life, therefore the ambiguities of the meaning are strong. Gary Card, hair-stylist of the collection, suggested that white is not always completely white, since the light and colors surrounding an object can radically change the whole. Nothing was done by chance.

The first bride instead of the bouquet had a big satin bow tied to her wrists … perhaps to indicate the character of servitude inherent in the sacred union? The echo and the cold of the location made the atmosphere restless and austere. The hands were absent throughout the collection, hidden or trapped in cloaks and clothes made to immobilize the arms of every woman on the hips: it disturbing detail gives emphasizes to the idea of being trapped and to the immobility of these solemn brides. It what strikes is not only affect reflection on marriage or the loss of personal freedom, but the audacity of a given expressive choice.

The Fall Winter 2007 collection was characterized by a more playful and surreal context but also full of hidden meanings. Adding three-dimensional hands massively to the torsos and hips of the models gripping the jackets together, Rei refers to the Schiaparelli whose surrealism transformed women into itinerant works of art, deflecting the vision from the female body beneath the clothes.

The strong fascination that surrealism and the games of meaning have had on Rei is also evident in the 2016 autumn-winter collection, full of sectioned dresses and constructions assembled to be containers. It brings directly to the Surrealist images of Venus de Milo with drawers of Salvador Dalì where the movable drawers, positioned on each part of the body, represent the secret enclosures where, according to Sigmund Freud, we lock up the secret frustrations that are above all sexual ones. The same drawers that Dali invited to open to free the fantasies, ghosts and inhibitions produced by society.

Her collections, rather than providing answers, ask questions because the designer is well aware that it is in asking the place where art lives and the reason for such bold creative choices.

The need to break the frames of mind survives in his approach to fashion shows that become more and more silent events, in which, instead of human being genetically privileged, normal people are chosen, who according to the designer have extraordinary faces.

Rei Kawakubo is therefore a very peculiar character, his personality has ensured that the brand acquired a further patina of mystery and extravagance. She has always been shy and reserved, rarely shows up at events of any kind and rarely releases interviews or explains the ideas behind her collections, claiming that the clothes must speak for her. Having declared her inability to express herself through word or writing, fashion is her main means of communication.

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Today her nonconformist brand is globally recognized for the epochal turning point it has given to the fashion world, and is one of the greatest examples of the minimalist aesthetics of the 90s.

Rei bravely challenged Western ideas on body shapes and clothing, on sexual discrimination in society and on the use of color; he painted the 21st century of black, a color that until his debut was used only for mourning. Her games of overlaps and padding seem to tell us that we need to dissect, dig and investigate the thought we produce to understand if at the end of these years there will remain a content or only the form. The designer was the first supporter of the importance of putting individual qualities at the center of attention, enhancing creativity and spontaneity as qualifying elements of freedom of expression.

Rei Kawkakubo, against the depersonalizing mechanisms of society, has always and only pursued his personal, powerful vision without ever being homologated and courageously distinguishing herself with a style that at first glance appears cold and austere but which actually hides a magical and poetic world.

The greatness of his work is contained in his own words: if I thought only of clothes, my mind would be too narrow; more than creating many clothes, I would like people to value creativity so that the world is not full of clothes of any value … “


Writer: Raffaella Ungaro

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