How Rei Kawakubo revolutionised my idea of fashion
Celebrating the inspiration behind this year's Met Gala
Rei Kawakubo started as the princess of redefinition and over a career spanning 43 years, has become the king of a movement. Today, her label Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys) is a cult, an ideology that questions our aesthetics and pushes us to look at beauty through a new view finder. She is the ultimate non-conformist.
As a designer and as well as a pupil of her work, I am constantly moved by her uncanny ability to touch the very pulse of what is brewing in society today. Her SS ’97 collection was rejected and mocked as “Lumps and Bumps”. She titled it ‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body’. I remember being in college and coming across these visuals. They were like tumors growing out of the body. The plaid was stretched to its maximum, almost camouflaging the pain and anxiety, blurring the lines between illness and beauty, what to look at and what to run away from. I was hooked; I had joined the group of followers that admired her radical reworking of couture. I called it the fourth dimension.
Color was the next facet to be dissected in the Kawakubo lab. Hers was a child-like approach, an infant powered by a complex brain. A fluorescent cocoon jacket in hot pink with printed abstract flowers reminded me of when I used to aimlessly crayon my sketch book in Bareilly. The collection was titled “Two dimensional” which compelled me to look at shapes through a flattened perspective, ridiculing the very essence of complex patternmaking. Circular met circular shapes in vivid shades of orange, blue, green with the seam allowance pushing at the sides, almost engulfing the anatomy. Making you blossom in your misery. This was the first time I felt she returned to being little Rei. I always wondered which flower she was referring to, or was it a social commentary on how we are abusing nature. It was fashion questioning itself, almost like having an epiphany.
Her menswear was cooked in the same pot. She made them wear skirts with trousers and butler blazers which were cut a size smaller squeezing the chest, making them uncomfortable in their own skin. They wore headgear like medieval judges and prints reminiscent of vintage English sofas. Coats were overloaded with multiple backs; the trenches made in naked vinyl exposed their vulnerability. According to me, it was a new proposition of dressing. A visual commentary, a melting pot of sub-cultures from punk, street, academic, the start of a neo – subversive revolution where gender was hardly a consideration.
Her inclusive approach towards her craft has made her human to a lot of people who believed that she belonged to a different caste, almost “untouchable” (which she is). Dover Street Market, the retail cocoon where every designer wishes to be stocked (including yours truly) was opened in various cities like London, Ginza (Tokyo), and now New York; pop-up stores in obscure location forced costumers to make that effort and conform to the ultimate seductress. It was that in-between space, where cost of the place or material was redundant, that ideas flourished. Unfinished corridors and room were converted into design museums. Each piece meticulously curated against that deconstructed backdrop was a renaissance in retail therapy. A time capsule which left you in a limbo yet tempted you like a perfect concubine.
Since her spring 2014 collection, “Not Making Clothing,” she has stopped showing conventional looks on the runway; the collections have become more intense, more conceptual than ever, colliding texture with opulent fabrics building multiple shoulders with hardware, creating hips that stretched to the width of the runway, A perfect Grotesque Orgasm. She once said in an interview her collections begin as “nonverbal, abstract images inside of me.” It feels that she has dropped all the baggage and piled it up in these mobile installations, ripping her skin apart to write the new chapter. On May 4, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute will be the mecca of abstraction and reduction — the first show of a living fashion designer since an Yves Saint Laurent exhibit in 1983. Not only has she designed all the garments at the upcoming retrospective but the spaces and displays within. An entry door to whatever lies “IN BETWEEN”….
Through my fading memory and reading various articles on this phenomenon, I unlearned fashion. She stretches time into an exaggerated present, her designs have no past, no future and in collapsing dimensions, she creates her own time warp. Words come hard when describing her body of work. What does one call clothes when they are actually an emotion? In her own words…
“The more people that are afraid when they see new creation, the happier I am,”
“My intention is not to make clothes. My head would be too restricted if I only thought about making clothes.”
“I would have liked to invent the plain white shirt, with a skirt and pants to go with it.”
“People interest me. I am inspired by the people surrounding me. Beautiful or stylish is a personal feeling. I don’t have a definition of beauty.”
“I like people who work with their heart and their soul and who follow their beliefs strongly.”
“I can’t look at anything old or pre-existing.”
This is Rei Kawakubo….
Like Georgia o’ Keefe once said “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.”