Rei Kawakubo is the creative director of Comme des Garçons, which she has grown into a business turning over $220 million a year. She never trained to be a fashion designer; instead she studied art and literature at Keio University. Perhaps as a result of this, Kawakubo has always followed the beat of her own drum, both commercially and creatively. Dubbed “anti-fashion” and “Hiroshima Chic” by easily shocked and insensitive journalists, Kawakubo’s first show made ripples across the fashion industry.
The Japanese designer entered the industry when she took a job at a textiles factory; in 1967 the designer became freelance stylist. Two years later she began making clothes under the label Comme Des Garçons. The designer incorporated the label in 1973, a direct result of its popularity with Japanese consumers. For the remainder of the decade Kawakubo would refine her aesthetic and build her company, opening a Tokyo boutique in 1975 and adding a menswear line, Homme Comme des Garçons, in 1978.
By the time of her Paris debut in 1981 Kawakubo was so famous that her followers and fans were dubbed ‘the crows’ in the Japanese press. The designer told The New Yorker in 2005 that she “never intended to start a revolution” She intended only to show “what I thought was strong and beautiful. It just so happened that my notion was different from everybody else’s.”
She continued to innovate and in doing so inspired numerous designers, making fashion a richer palette than before. Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester and Helmut Lang have all name checked Kawakubo as an inspiration. She has launched the careers of Junya Watanabe and Tao Kurihara and recently added Kei Ninomiya’s Noir line to the Comme des Garçons umbrella.
Comme des Garçons presentations are arresting experiences, both visually and cerebrally. Kawakubo told Interview magazine “I am not conscious of any intellectual approach as such. My approach is simple. It is nothing other than what I am thinking at the time I make each piece of clothing, whether I think it is strong and beautiful. The result is something that other people decide.”
“In terms of creation, I have never thought of suiting any system or abiding by any rules—either a long time ago or right now. In this respect I have remained free. The necessity has grown, as we have gotten bigger, to think about commercial aspects of the business more and more, because of the responsibility we have toward our staff and our factories.” Getting bigger has led to over 20 distinct lines in the Comme des Garçons’ ecosystem.
Kawakubo told Interview, “Comme des Garçons has always traveled at its own pace and will continue to do so. In good times and bad times the company is more or less the same,” it has, and fashion is the better for it.