Since she launched her Comme des Garçons (French for "like the boys") fashion brand 41 years ago, Rei Kawakubo has always played by her own rules. Fascinated by challenging conventional standards of beauty, she's reconstructed "hybrid" clothes, sewn the left half of a jacket onto the right half of a different jacket and designed asymmetrical dresses made from her own vintage scarves—and that was all just in her last women's presentation. It's never just about creating something to wear, but rather expressing an idea.
The 68-year-old, whose conceptual outlook has inspired everyone from Azzedine Alaïa to John Galliano and who still often clocks 12-hour days, seven days a week, is famous for saying she became a designer "to make a living." While that may be true, Kawakubo has also immeasurably changed the greater fashion landscape. In the early '90s, when collaborations were about as likely as getting Linda Evangelista out of bed for less than $10,000, she asked Junya Watanabe to design his own line under the Comme des Garçons label. In 2004, she opened London's still wildly innovative Dover Street Market. Since then, Tokyo-based Kawakubo has opened 17 stand-alone boutiques, tested mass retail with an H&M collection that caused near riot in Japan and currently has 120 shops-within-shops around the world. Next March, a seven-story Dover Street Market will open in Tokyo's Ginza shopping district. Naturally, she's the architect and interior decorator. A woman of puritanical conviction, as evident in her strictly black uniform and severe bob, Kawakubo thinks it's important for designers to ditch the attitude and just get on with the dog and pony show.
All kinds of business models are necessary to suit all kinds of tastes and needs. We need strong creations and we need fast fashion and everything else in between. However, if all of fashion were thoroughly democratized, I would feel hopeless. The danger of continued and deepening democratization is the fear of lowest-common-denominator syndrome.
What I want to express is a feeling—various emotions that I am experiencing at the time—whether it is anger or hope or anything else, and from different angles. I construct a collection and it takes concrete form. That's probably what appears conceptual to people because it never starts out with any specific historical or geographical reference. My point of departure is always abstract and multileveled.
My work has never been as an artist. I have only continued all these years to try to "make a business with creation." This has been my first and one and only decision of any importance. The decision to first of all think of creating something that didn't exist before, and then after that to give the creation form and expression in a way that can be made into a business. I cannot separate being a designer from being a businesswoman. It's one and the same thing for me.
In order to expand Comme des Garçons' business, we need all kinds of strategies. One of the most important strategies is to find sources of new creation. With H&M, I was tempted to try to see how Comme des Garçons could appeal to the mass market. I wouldn't do it again, but it was a great success and very popular with our younger clientele. Junya Watanabe [whose label operates under the CDG umbrella] is a part of such a necessary company-expansion policy. With any collaboration or meeting of minds, I expect and hope for a kind of synergetic accident that may happen when somebody else's work meets with my work, my designs. Collaborations have no meaning if 1 + 1 does not equal much more than 2. I give total freedom to Junya and Tao [Kurihara, who also designs for CDG] to create their own collections. I see their work only on the day of the show. They have the values of CDG embedded within them. If there was no trust, it wouldn't work.
CDG is about finding new ways to do things, so not only with the collections of clothes, but also with our retail strategies, such as Dover Street Market, Trading Museum [a museum–retail store hybrid in Tokyo], Good Design Shop [CDG's latest Tokyo venture, a collaboration with Japanese housewares designer Kenmei Nagaoka] and the guerrilla stores. The basic idea behind Dover Street Market was believing that by gathering various kinds of creation together, and giving free reign, the "fashion of now" would become chaotic, and within that chaos, through synergy and accident, each brand would shine more brightly and with a different power than when all alone.
We plan to open up different Dover Street Markets in a few places around the world. They're already in London and Beijing, and Dover Street Market Ginza will open in Tokyo in March 2012. And we hope to have one in America. The idea would be to bring DSM's particular order of chaos to the chaos already existing in each market we enter.
In five years we have opened 37 different guerrilla shops with nonfashion partners in unheard-of places or in parts of cities hitherto untrammeled. By partnering with nonfashion people, and requiring that we open only for one year, and limiting the amount of money spent on each shop, we brought a breath of fresh air to retail. And it generated enormous sales! We were selling only the stock we already had locked up in the warehouse anyway.
I don't feel too excited about fashion today, more fearful that people don't necessarily want or need strong new clothes, that there are not enough of us believing in the same thing, that there is a kind of burnout, that people just want cheap fast clothes and are happy to look like everyone else, that the flame of creation has gone a bit cold, that enthusiasm and passionate anger for change and rattling the status quo is weakening. But what I still love about it is that playing the fool, acting silly, showing off, being a celebrity designer are all integral and necessary parts of the fashion business. And creation excites me, because without creation there can be no progress.
The process of working with the aim of finding something new is really tough. It has always been tough. It's extremely difficult to create in order to cause people to feel something, in order that people feel they are given something. It's natural that the pressure is intense if this is your aim.
Fashion is something you attach to yourself, put on, and through that interaction the meaning of it is born. Without the wearing of it, it has no meaning, unlike a piece of art. It is fashion because people want to buy it now, because they want to wear it now, today. Fashion is only the right now.
—Edited from WSJ.'s email interview with Kawakubo. Translated by Adrian Joffe.
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