A rare interview with Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo

comme des garcons ss2019

comme des garcons Spring ready-to-wear 2019; photo: vogue.com

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “A rare interview with Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo” was written by Jess Cartner-Morley, styling, Helen Seamons, photographs, Jason Heatherington, for The Guardian on Saturday 15th September 2018 09.00 UTC

I am not here to ask Rei Kawakubo about clothes, because she no longer makes them, though this hasn’t stopped her continuing to be probably the most important fashion designer in the world. Five years ago, her Not Making Clothes catwalk show for Comme des Garçons included a model dressed in a cage of black strips of fabric and a lurid pink teddy which half-hid the wearer behind a riot of frills. Nine seasons later, she is still staging a show at every Paris fashion week, helms a business with a turnover estimated at $280m (£215m) a year, but she still insists she is not making clothes. In other words: Rei Kawakubo is as high concept as it gets.

Model in Comme des Garcons
Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo says she is ‘angry with easy fashion’.

“What does it mean, not making clothes?” My question is to Kawakubo but posed, as all must be, via Adrian Joffe, president of Comme des Garçons. Joffe is Kawakubo’s husband of 25 years, business partner of 31, and her Man on Earth, through whom she communicates with the non-Japanese-speaking world. He translates, and she says something back. They have an intense discussion in her native language. She sits sphinx-like, arms folded, eyes flicking from Joffe to me. “She says what she would really like would be to get a new brain each season,” he says eventually. “But she can’t. So she has to find a new method to come at the work. Nine seasons ago she thought: maybe if I don’t try to make clothes, I will be able to make something new.” So, I say, it’s about creating space for original thought? After conferring with Kawakubo, he gives me an encouraging half-smile and says, not unkindly, “It’s not as simple as that.”

The Comme des Garçons HQ sits behind the 17th-century facade of the Place Vendôme in Paris. To the left, Chanel’s jewellery boutique windows are a glittery snowglobe of diamonds under creamy awnings; to the right, at Chaumet, emeralds glint on velvet cushions. The plain black door marked Comme des Garçons leads to a courtyard where the brand’s young staff eat salad lunches and drink coffee. The dress code, for men and women, revolves around black trousers, oversized shirting and chunky flatform sandals; hair is either cut short or twisted into a messy knot. A door leads to a narrow, industrial-chic showroom at the end of which is Kawakubo’s studio, half a storey higher and shielded with a glass wall. At the end of long rails of clothes, a bobbed figure can be seen, raised altar-like halfway to the ceiling, sitting in quiet concentration at her long white desk.

Today the showroom is lined with men’s clothing: trousers in puckered candy stripes, a lurid lilac suit, ripped-out halves of contrasting sweaters melded into one garment. I am examining a necklace made from a toothy anatomical model of a dog’s jaw when Joffe arrives to usher me into Kawakubo’s office. Glossily bald and neatly dressed in black, his low voice and serene demeanour give the impression of a very chic modern monk.

Kawakubo is tiny, with translucent skin and, at 75, a salt and pepper coarseness to her signature black bob that I had not seen in photos. (Photographs of her are famously limited.) She is wearing a paper-fine white trenchcoat over a black shirt and voluminous black skirt, with chunky silver rings on her left hand. She walks around the table to greet me with a flat-footed gait which counterbalances her paper-doll proportions. She shakes my hand, and mutters something to Joffe. I did tell you, he says, sotto voce. It is for the Guardian. (Kawakubo may or may not speak English, but I get the impression she understands it.) As they talk, her body language is that of someone just reminded about an appointment at the dentist.

Kawakubo’s high concept designs are deliberately challenging
Kawakubo’s high concept designs are deliberately challenging.

The encounter is less like an interview than it is like being summoned to the office of a severe but rather marvellous headmistress and tasked with completing a cryptic crossword, clues jumbled in translation, against the ticking clock of her evident boredom. She rarely gives interviews, and those few journalists who have been granted an audience all emerge with a war story: the time she answered an opening question by drawing a circle in black pen, pushing the piece of paper across the table, then leaving the room; the time she fielded the question, “What makes you laugh?” with the one-word answer, “You.” Joffe’s role is part translator, part hostage-negotiator, coaxing her back into the conversation when she threatens to check out. The vinegary note of well-worn marital bickering is unmistakable. While she sits very still, he makes constant, careful hand gestures, as if conducting an imaginary tea ceremony.

An early question-and-answer goes like this. Many fashion designers, I say, would say their work is self-expression. What does Comme des Garçons tell us about you? Joffe translates, she replies, then talks over him in Japanese. She asked if you can clarify the question, he says, but as I fumble for new words, she starts talking again. “She says this is not relevant,” Joffe says. Oh, I say, OK. “She says the way you live and the way you get energy is different from what you have to do to make a collection; there is no connection between the way she lives and the way she makes clothes.”

The challenging-performance-art experience of conversing with Kawakubo feels very close to the challenging-performance-art experience of watching one of her catwalk shows, where models wrapped in skeins of wool like butterflies emerging from chrysalises walk with the exaggerated slowness of children playing grandmother’s footsteps. In fact, the synergy between the two feels so clear, I think I have misheard her answer, so I check. “That’s what she said,” Joffe repeats, raising his eyebrows minutely as if to convey sympathy with my plight. “She wonders why we are perplexed by her answer. I told her I am as perplexed as you.” Now she talks in Japanese, for a long time, until he says to her in English, “I do understand, but I am surprised” after which the conversation returns to Japanese. Eventually he turns to me and says, “She thinks it is a misconception – by me, you, everyone – that what she feels and what she has said about believing in freedom, about the energy that comes from emotional freedom, has anything to do with her work. She says it is not directly connected with the work, the torture, of making a collection. In a sense, this is the total expression of who she is, because she has been doing it so long and because there is no team. Rei equals Comme des Garçons. But she says the way she happens to be and the way she makes a living are still different. I get it now,” he concludes, nodding and smiling. Oh, yes, I say, hoping I sound convincing. Me, too.

Kawakubo once described her work as similar to Zen ‘koans’
Kawakubo once described her work as similar to Zen ‘koans’, unsolvable puzzles set by Buddhist teachers.

It is difficult to recount an encounter with Kawakubo without sounding either as if you are sending her up, or as if you are po-faced and tone deaf to absurdity. I am absolutely not sending her up. She is a visionary, a radical and – whether she likes it or not, more of which later – a feminist heroine. She invented black as the colour of the urban creative, she liberated high fashion from vanity, and she did all of this in laceratingly original catwalk shows. She once described her work as similar to Zen koans, unsolvable puzzles set by Buddhist teachers which, by being unsolvable, teach you the limits of your intellect and so set your mind free. Kawakubo changed not just the way we think about fashion but the way fashion and thought can coexist in culture and commerce, inspiring a new generation of fashion-designers-cum-thought-leaders such as Alessandro Michele, whose Gucci muses are Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, and Louis Vuitton’s Virgil Abloh, who staged an early show in collaboration with artist Jenny Holzer to raise awareness of the refugee crisis.

Still, you would have to have a tin ear for comedy not to be just slightly tickled during an hour with Kawakubo. I ask a question about colour, seeking her thoughts on why, after declaring red the new black, her more recent collections have become rainbow-bright. The translation escalates into a heated exchange between husband and wife. I am wondering what is so contentious when Joffe turns to me. “I’m sorry,” he says, and for a moment I suspect he may have forgotten I was present. “What was your question again?”

Designed by Rei Kawakubo
A ‘koan-like’ design by Rei Kawakubo.

What makes all of this even more extraordinary is that as well as being the most rarefied, high-concept designer at Paris fashion week, Kawakubo is an extremely successful businesswoman. Born in Tokyo in 1942, she launched Comme des Garçons aged 27 and within a decade had more than 100 stores in Japan selling her distinctive avant garde aesthetic (black, asymmetry, ragged edges). But it was in 1981, when she brought Comme des Garçons to Paris fashion week, that Kawakubo truly set the industry alight. Something about the interplay of her Japanese themes (the space between things, mirror images, beginning from zero) with the Parisian alchemy of perfumed chic and cobblestone-throwing rebellion made her shows the most compelling thing Paris had seen in years. On their heels came the launch of a series of in-house brands (the largest being Play, with its distinctive drawn-heart logo), plus lucrative collaborations with Nike and a successful perfume business. The 2004 launch of Dover Street Market, a kind of arthouse department store, showed her to be a true business visionary. With its poured concrete floors, pop-up artist collaborations and guerrilla events, DSM was a decade ahead of the rest of the industry. The stores continue to be the hippest square feet in the hippest cities in the world, and are redesigned each season by Kawakubo herself. In the past, when asked to define herself, she has at times chosen the one-word answer “businesswoman”.

Kawakubo’s fashion, all savage unprettiness and felted, bulbous lumps and bumps, feels like a gauntlet laid down to the narrow guardrails of vanity that trammel womenswear. Many of her pieces are unsized; she experimented, for a while, with not having mirrors in dressing rooms, so that clients could focus on how they felt. On a visceral level, there is something wonderful about a 75-year-old female artist (my word, not hers) who has no qualms about taking herself so absolutely and completely seriously. But as much as feminists try to claim her as their own, she refuses to call herself one (“She says the woman’s body is no relation to what she tries to do. There is no challenge to vanity or to beauty, she is just not interested”), though she does identify as a punk: “As a spirit, as a way of living.” And as a punk, Joffe translates, she is “angry with easy fashion. Sportswear and streetwear is taking over, especially in men’s fashion. It is not truly iconoclastic… People seem to be taken in by it, but it’s not rebellious, really. There is no point of view.” And fashion shouldn’t be easy? This gets a vehement head shake, on translation. “When things are too easy, you don’t think and you don’t make progress. Not just in fashion. In everything.

Many of Kawakubo’s pieces are unsized
Many of Kawakubo’s pieces are unsized. She experimented with not having mirrors in her dressing rooms, so clients could focus on the feeling of the clothes.

“Is there much more? She’s getting tired.” Kawakubo’s patience for explaining herself is famously limited. Art of the In-Between, the exhibition of her work staged at the Met in New York last year, featured no explanatory texts, at her insistence. As only the second monographic show to be awarded to a living designer by the Met (after Yves Saint Laurent in 1983), it was a huge honour (“She says it was a difficult experience, but it was satisfying to do”). In this year’s afterglow, Kawakubo has plenty on her plate: a new Dover Street Market, in Los Angeles, and the launch of new brand CDG, selling T-shirts and sneakers to today’s logo-obsessed fashion consumers.

“She said I should explain to you the amount of work she has to do, the shops she has to design as well as the collections. It never stops,” Joffe says. What elements of the job do you enjoy? She shakes her head on translation. “There is no pleasure in the work,” Joffe tells me. (She always calls it “the work”.) “She says people who say they enjoy the work, she thinks they don’t take it seriously. The only way to hope to make something new is not to be satisfied.” Does she, famously unenthralled by fashion history, ever think about what her legacy will be? They chat for several minutes, then Joffe turns to me and says, “She’s never thought about it. She doesn’t care about or believe in posterity.” She says something in Japanese – the tone is dismissive – and he turns to her and says, in English, “Everybody else thinks about it! You are the only one who doesn’t think about it. That’s why designers make foundations, because they care about history, about what will be their legacy. You are the only one who thinks like this.” She says something else, quieter this time. “She says when she’s not here any more, she doesn’t care if nothing is here any more,” Joffe says with the hint of a sigh. “She is highly unusual.” She looks at me, and smiles.

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