Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Rei Kawakubo – A Brief History of Deconstruction

The enigmatic designer has spent the last five decades reconfiguring notions of beauty, sex and gender; in celebration of her upcoming Met exhibition, here’s a brief overview of her radically singular vision.

When Rei Kawakubo first brought her label, Comme des Garçons, to Paris in 1981, the fashion industry was scandalised. Although she had already been working in fashion for over a decade in Tokyo, her Western debut collection – characterised by tattered swathes of black fabric, torn sweaters and deliberately unfinished hemlines – resulted in instant notoriety and elicited a passionate, often vicious reaction. Some called it ‘bag lady chic’, others an ‘invasion’; others were disturbed and enraged in equal measures by this unique collection which seemed to rally against the foundations upon which the fashion industry was built.

Despite the chaos, this would go on to be seen as the opening chapter in a legacy which will next month be celebrated by New York’s prestigious Met Museum in an exhibition entitled ‘Art of the In-Between’. The loose theme is opposition, so the rooms will be ordered according to a series of deliberately vague binary categories including, amongst others: ‘Clothes/Not Clothes’, ‘High/Low’, ‘Self/Other’ and ‘Fashion/Anti-Fashion’.

Like everything Kawakubo does, the exhibition promises to be far from conventional. In fact, this is only the second time in history the museum has staged a tribute to a living designer – the first to be honored was Yves Saint Laurent back in 1983.

SS97, via

So what makes Kawakubo worthy of this accolade? Put simply, she doesn’t design clothing; she designs objects which just happen to be worn. Her earlier collections followed the ‘rules’ of design to an extent – although armholes, legholes and hemlines were sometimes dropped or deconstructed, they were, for the most part, at least present. Now, however, this isn’t the case – her models walk the runways in monstrous, outsized contraptions which often obscure faces, shroud bodies and challenge perceptions of what counts as clothing and what doesn’t.

This is an inadvertent commentary in itself. After all, we live in a world which tells us how we should look, how we should dress and what clothing we should be wearing to flatter our body type and silhouette; by obscuring and distorting the human figure completely, Kawakubo fucks up these conversations in a way which demands respect. Wearing these transformative pieces, her models become a twisted visual hybrid of human and not-quite-human; it’s an effect which completely unravels everything we assume to understand about the body and, at the same time, presents radical new possibilities to keep exploring the unknown.

AW05, via

Other themes have cropped up in Kawakubo’s work over the decades. There was ‘Broken Bride’, a collection characterised by frayed white lace, veiled faces and hands tied delicately together in the symbolic binds of matrimony; there was ‘Dress Meets Body’, famously known as the ‘lumps and bumps’ collection for its gingham dresses stretched over unsettling artificial bulges; there was even the 2D collection, which was later adapted by Lady Gaga to make the statement that a woman’s weight should never be policed by bloodthirsty gossip columnists. These topics have, of course, been explored by other designers, but Kawakubo explores them in a way which is almost impossible to replicate.

Some may argue that her clothes are unwearable – this is, at least in an everyday context, true. It would be ridiculous to strut out to a first date wearing a twisted mass of silver insulation material and a black cotton candy wig, but that’s not the point; these aren’t clothes made to sell, they’re made to stimulate conversation.

This is precisely what makes Kawakubo so worthy of her place in the Met; in a fashion industry increasingly driven by growth, sales and commerce, Comme des Garçons has always remained a beautifully bizarre anomaly. Numerous diffusion lines, fragrances and collaborations make this creative freedom possible, but it’s refreshing to know that this alternative exists. Not only does it provide a welcome antidote to a fashion industry in dire need of a break from relentless schedules and creative compromise, it offers a glimmer of hope that, despite what we’re told, it might still be possible to come up with radical new ideas after all.


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  3. Jake, I read an article you wrote in defense of female drag queens. I'd just like to make a couple points:

    - What do Japanese female actors have to do with drag queens? Japanese cultural is not ancestral to drag - Western theater is. This reference in your article is totally gratuitous.

    - The Stonewall riots were not the beginning of the gay rights movement. Bearded gay male professors had been advocating for gay rights in writing and research since at least the 19th century in continental Europe. Believe me, America and the broader English speaking world are not at the vanguard of all cultural and social struggles. You native Anglophone gays need to come out of your cultural comfort zone sometime.

    - The gender identity of Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera is not clear. They two would sometimes refer to themselves using both male and female pronouns, which is not something trans women usually do. In at least a period of their lives, they identified themselves as gay fairies (who are, by the way, gay men who sometimes refer to themselves with female names and pronouns without embracing an identity as a woman).

    - Sylvia Rivera was likely not at the Stonewall riots, despite what she said. Read what David Carter - today's foremost scholar on Stonewall - said about that:

    - Even if Johnson and Rivera were trans, what does that have to do with your criticism of an article about cis female drags?

    - David Carter also affirmed that the overwhelming majority of Stonewall rioters were not trans women of color, but young, homeless, white gay men. See these two screenshots from Carter's book:

    - It is an extremely douche move from you to say that "trans women created the gay rights movement, so gay men need to sit down and never voice any complaints about women". Cis women do participate in the oppression of gay men, as you can see in many stories detailing female gay bashers, mothers who killed their gay sons or threw them out of home, female activists, politicians, and religious figures who have incited against gay male bodies and fought against state recognition of gay rights. There is no dearth of articles by feminists discussing the particular ways gay men oppress women. So why should gay men not criticize the particular forms that women oppress gay men? And it's not just about violence. Women participate in more subtle forms of discrimination, such copying gay art genres - not just drag, but also music and dance styles such as disco and vogue. Even virulently homophobic female artists, such as Azealia Banks, have taken more than a sip from the fountain of gay culture. If it turns out that it was gay men, not trans women, who started the gay rights movement, including the Stonewall riots, would it be acceptable to say to lesbians and trans women that they should never voice any criticism of us because they owe us everything? It's an absurd argument, right? So is yours. If you don't like that article you were critiquing because it supposedly portrayed women as the problem, try not to paint gay men as the problem yourself. There's enough homophobia around, including vicious stereotyping of gay men as inherently misogynistic, without gay writers contributing to it.

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