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Anti-fashion and the avant garde: Is Rei Kawakubo fashion’s greatest artist?

Approximate reading time:5 mins.

“I decided to start from zero, from nothing, to do things that have not been done before, things with a strong image” – Rei Kawakubo

Rei Kawakubo is an iconoclast, someone who breaks images, and remakes them. Commes des Garçons, the label that she built, as she puts it, ‘from zero’, is a household name in fashion, and stands for intellect, vision and artistic bravery. At the same time, it has been a solid commercial success: Kawakubo opened her first Commes des Garçons boutique in 1975, just two years after she established the company, and by 1982 the brand was showing in Paris and opening a boutique there. The tension between fashion and art has often been paired down to the age old enemies of high art and what was deemed popular and ‘commercial’.

This struggle never seems to have touched Commes, and the genius of Rei Kawakubo lifts her label clean out of any debate like this. Her vision is so unquestionably artistic, so purely about challenge to conventions and boundaries that it could never be seen as ‘just’ a label. She is an artist, primarily, and her pieces are works of art, but none the less she has had phenomenal commercial success. Kawakubo and her husband, Adrian Joffe, founded Dover Street Market, the go-to shopping spot for London’s well-heeled and trendy.

It’s a balance that I don’t believe any other label could pull off, not quite in the same way. It’s quite a balancing act to be, on the one hand, possibly the most conceptual and uncompromising label in fashion, and, on the other, one of the most recognised logos on the Internet – a small graphic heart, with paper cut-out eyes, worn by teenagers and celebrities alike, many of whom have probably never seen a full Commes look. I think it has something to do with the fact that Rei Kawakubo’s dedication to art and questioning form and beauty is so unwavering, has been so consistent year after year after year, that it is impossible to doubt the strength of its artistic integrity. Even popularity can’t phase it.


Kawakubo was the first designer to have a Met Gala exhibition dedicated solely to them in thirty years – the last time it was dedicated to a single designer, it was Yves Saint Laurent 1983. Rei Kawakubo / Commes des Garçons: Art of the In-between was exhibited at the Met’s Costume Institute from May to September 2017. Dedicating the most important fashion and art exhibit to a single designer and a single label like this must tell us something about Kawakubo’s status as a legend and an artist beyond what many, many designers have ever achieved.

Her aim is to stretch the canvas, to break the notion of ‘clothes’ at the seams, to create something that is constantly challenging. Starting ‘from zero’, to me, means to begin creating with no conception of what fashion ought to be, or already is. Not all designers work this way, not even all artists work this way, but all artists who break ground and change the trajectory of art history worked this way, at least at some point in their careers, creating a different definition of art, or vision, or work, or gaze. They broke images, and remade them. One of Kawakubo’s most famous collections, in 1997, was titled ‘Body meets dress, dress meets body’, and was nicknamed the ‘lumps and bumps’ collection.


To me, its impact was that it deconstructed what ‘fit’, ’form’ and ‘flattery’ mean when clothes and body come together, and by doing this, it questioned what clothes are expected to do for us. It asked, what tricks do we ask clothes to perform, and for whom? The slightly bizarre shapes that resulted suggested movement and dance, which was reinforced by the campaign images of figures mid-movement, but they also invoke freedom. Freedom to move, to bend, to stretch. I think these dresses challenge a patriarchal notion that a body should look a certain way, aiming for sexiness, or beauty defined by slenderness and specific proportions. These ‘lumps and bumps’ dresses call out the fact that clothes are often designed to flatter within those restrictive norms, but they also remind us that they don’t have to.

As a designer, as someone who creates clothes, I find this inspiring. I wanted Arena Martinez to work in this way, too, to say to people: clothes are about so much more than flattering, or achieving a certain look. Clothes can have so much expression and say so much. With the simple shape of the kimono, I wanted the art works they exhibit to speak for themselves, allowing the person wearing them to challenge norms, or to communicate something about their personality. I want people to be able to be freer with their clothes, to consider the many many possibilities. As for designers who inspire me in this, I’m not sure there’s anyone more influential than Rei Kawakubo with Commes des Garçons, a living legend and artist.

With Love,

Arena Martínez.


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