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March 19, 2021

Women in Design: Rei Kawakubo’s Radical Fashion

Our series on the women who have challenged the way we think about design continues as we highlight Rei Kawakubo and her disruptive approach to fashion.

With a background in art history, Rei Kawakubo started working in fashion as a stylist, but quickly moved onto designing clothes herself when she realised that Tokyo’s fashion scene couldn’t produce the looks she envisioned. She founded her own label, Comme des Garçons, in 1969 at the age of 27, and slowly amassed a strong following in Japan. The brand’s French name was inspired by the fashion capital of the world at the time, Paris, where Kawakubo would also make her international debut eleven years after the label’s founding. While her Western peers presented flashy outfits that were form-fitting and symmetrical, Kawakubo’s distressed and oversized Destroy collection challenged the mould. Full of holes and entirely black, this premiere collection received a controversial reception, but Kawakubo has since only continued to create clothes that defy expectations and question the meaning of fashion.

Drawing from Japanese aesthetic principles such as wabi-sabi (respect for humble materials and imperfection) as well as her personal drive to always create something new, Kawakubo’s designs have evolved from unconventional fashion to artworks where the body is simply a canvas. Over the years, her designs have distorted the silhouette, emphasised exposed seams and intentional fraying, and featured unexpected materials such as transparent PVC. One of her most famous collections, Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body (1997), consisted of gingham check dresses stretched around bulging pillows that gave the appearance of tumours, while Comme des Garçons’ Spring 2021 collection was full of whimsical, voluminous gowns. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York showed some of Kawakubo’s designs in 2017, the exhibit highlighted how the designer ‘has constantly defined and redefined the aesthetics of our time … disrupt[ing] accepted characteristics of the fashionable body’.

By refusing to define fashion as functional or glamorous, Kawakubo’s high concept works have set the standard for radical changes in the industry. She continues to experiment with form and push the limits of textiles, creating stunningly original works blurring the line between art and fashion.

Casper Magazine is featuring innovators like Kawakubo all month long in our Women in Design March Issue. If you liked this article, check out the first in the series on graphic designer and educator Muriel Cooper, and subscribe to keep up to date with the newest profiles.

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