By CATHY HORYN
NY Times, Published: May 30, 2012
TO appreciate the designs of Rei Kawakubo, the woman behind the label Comme des Garçons, it helps to be a specialist in fashion, or something of a kook.
Let’s consider her latest collection, shown in March in Paris. Not only were the brightly colored felt garments of a fun-house scale, but they were also completely flat. A dress had a front and a back, and the two pieces were joined at the sides. The simplicity was such that a clever child, using a cookie cutter, tracing paper and the photocopying services of Kinko’s, could produce the basic pattern. The wool felt was a good technical choice for the floating two-dimensional shapes, but the design, more than being merely simple, seemed to disclaim design.
Reaction during the show was immediate.
Editors smiled and nudged one another as the silly tents came down the bare plywood runway. Gradually, though, their gooey looks of delight turned to serious interest and finally to pleasure, the deep pleasure of seeing something rare and fully resolved and resistant to syllogisms.
Was Ms. Kawakubo commenting on the flattening of the world by the Internet? Was the lady, by fabricating such harmonious volumes without padding or other means, calling out lazy and weak-minded designers who tout couture techniques and don’t create anything new? Even the industry’s craze for bold color combinations and archival prints seemed to land in her cross hairs, and, not surprisingly, her choices were marked by intensity.
If Karl Lagerfeld is the leading talk artist of fashion, Ms. Kawakubo is the Mona Lisa. She makes no effort to reveal her meanings, though at times she explains her methods. That day in Paris, standing backstage, she greeted each guest with a brisk ceremonial nod. Small, nearly 70, she wore a black cotton jacket buttoned to the neck, black dhoti shorts and sunglasses that seemed a mischievous touch of celebrity — and that she has. No living designer with the exception of Azzedine Alaïa is held in higher esteem by her peers, and none has enriched our spirit in so many original and confounding ways.
“Kawakubo has done everything,” Jun Takahashi, the respected creator of Undercover, has said.
Indeed. On Monday, the Council of Fashion Designers of America will honor her with a lifetime achievement award.
Ms. Kawakubo, who lives in Tokyo, does not plan to attend the festivities, said her husband, Adrian Joffe. As much as it would thrill to see her on the Lincoln Center stage, it’s hard to imagine her actually being there. She stopped appearing on her own runway long ago, though she is easily accessible backstage and in her showroom.
In addition to managing Comme des Garçons Parfums and many day-to-day matters, Mr. Joffe serves as his wife’s interpreter (he is fluent in several languages). It is Mr. Joffe who provides journalists with a brief, prepared explanation after every show. In March it was: “the future in two dimensions.”
And, of course, the statement, while not pure nonsense, turned out to be pure quicksand, sucking people in.
The truth is that Ms. Kawakubo is not interested in seeking answers, at least not to the conventional type of questions asked above. She is not an artist, and she doesn’t consider herself to be one, per se, though her work over the last 30 years, since she assaulted people’s consciousness with a collection called Destroy, has impelled serious consideration far beyond fashion. (Ms. Kawakubo, who is the sole owner of Comme des Garçons, a small, $200 million conglomerate with a number of brands, including Junya Watanabe, once said that if she is anything, it’s a businesswoman, and then added, “Well, I’m an artist-businesswoman.”)
In 1996, Ms. Kawakubo presented a collection called Dress Meets Body Meets Dress, which featured disfiguring lumps of cotton wadding covered with cheerful gingham. She was criticized for being “antiwoman,” yet a closer look at her silhouette revealed that she was probably neutral on the subject of gender, and instead had done something of more profound meaning: she had recreated a reality of the late 20th century — that of the individual seemingly joined to her burdens, like a backpack.
Since then, Ms. Kawakubo’s work has grown in clarity and wisdom. Last October, a collection titled White Drama referred to ceremonial occasions, like a wedding, and was assumed by many to relate to her widely admired Broken Bride show, in 2005. For fall 2012, she followed with her two-dimension collection.
Ms. Kawakubo, however, insists that she is not a feminist, and that her work has nothing to do with being a woman. “I was never interested in any movement as such,” she said a few years back. Her position is at best ambiguous; early in her career she embraced such ideas. It may also be true that as her work has matured, she has reached wholly different conclusions about what nourishes the creative process.
No one has ever sufficiently explained how she has been able to retain the spirit of the 1970s and early ’80s, particularly its sense of experimentation, without getting mired in it. In all the years I’ve known Ms. Kawakubo, which is close to 15, I’ve never heard her talk about the past, nor have I thought to ask her. With many designers of her generation, the past is like a giant wading pool on a hot day.
“She’s not greedy,” the art director Ronnie Newhouse said, suggesting that the way Ms. Kawakubo chooses to live relates directly to her design process. Journalists often find it hard to take her at her word: that she lives a relatively normal life, in Tokyo. “Can’t rational people create mad work?” she once asked a writer.
A few years ago, while reporting an article about her, I asked Mr. Joffe if photos could be taken of her work space. He said it wouldn’t serve any purpose. He was right. The Comme des Garçons headquarters, which occupy several floors of a banal office building, look like design studios everywhere, and may even be drabber.
In the end, Ms. Kawakubo’s example may prove that the last thing you need to be in the creative fields is a specialist. In fact, it may be a hindrance, blinding you to new feelings. I recently asked Ms. Kawakubo one or two specifics about her design methods, mainly to be clear about what I already knew. Did she use a so-called “mood board,” for instance?
Here is her reply, by e-mail. I reprint it in total. It says everything, and it could not be said better.
“My design process never starts or finishes. I am always hoping to find something through the mere act of living my daily life. I do not work from a desk, and do not have an exact starting point for any collection. There is never a mood board, I do not go through fabric swatches, I do not sketch, there is no eureka moment, there is no end to the search for something new. As I live my normal life, I hope to find something that click starts a thought, and then something totally unrelated would arise, and then maybe a third unconnected element would come from nowhere. Often in each collection, there are three or so seeds of things that come together accidentally to form what appears to everyone else as a final product, but for me it is never ending. There is never a moment when I think, ‘this is working, this is clear.’ If for one second I think something is finished, the next thing would be impossible to do.
“Often the elements are completely disassociated in time and dimension. One might be an emotion, the next thing a pattern image, the third thing an object or a picture I have seen somewhere. I can never remember when and from where the elements come together in my head. I trust synergy and change. For fall 2012, I was thinking about no design being design, about very ordinary fabric (wool felt) being strong. Somehow, the two-dimension level of thinking became apparent.
“I do not feel happy when a collection is understood too well. For me, White Drama was too easily understood, the concept too clear. I feel better about fall 2012, because it wasn’t too clear, and some people assumed things it had nothing to do with, like the Internet age.
“The struggle to find something new gets more and more difficult with time and experience, so this time, for fall 2012, my feeling was to try to make a collection by doing very little.”