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Terry Jones reflects on the one and only Rei Kawakubo

In honour of International Women's Day, we look back at i-D founder Terry Jones' words on a woman he greatly admires, Rei Kawakubo.

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"Many designers cater to their idea of what they think men would like to see women as. I think it takes courage to do something that might not be the established way the men would like to see women as. […] You have to break out of that if you want to do something different." Rei Kawakubo

 

It’s hard for me to imagine Rei Kawakubo singing punk karaoke in a bar in downtown Shibuya, Tokyo. Or swapping jokes over a cup of Earl Grey tea. Or making cupcakes for a birthday party. My impressions are superficial daydreams. Ms. Kawakubo is the commander and wild one of Comme des Garçons, the iconic Japanese fashion brand, renowned for its unconventional and forward-thinking approach to dressing.

As founder and creative director of Comme des Garçons, nothing passes without notice from Rei’s hawk-eyed vision. Her energy is contained within her teen-sized ninja frame like the energy of an atomic golf ball that has the power to go past the horizon. Unexpected, inspired and business-like, Rei uses few words, “Yes! No! Enough!” Notoriously private, I have only ever conducted one face-to-face interview with her many years ago at her Paris office, which she abruptly interrupted in Japanese. “This is too violent!” she cried. And she was right. I had mistakenly invited the photographer Annette Aurell to accompany me to take Rei’s portrait. Annette, who is Japanese/American understood immediately after the fifth ‘Klunk! Klunk!’ of her heavy Mamiya 6 x 7 camera and halted the session.

In 1998, I curated over twenty avant-garde designers for the Fashion and Cinema exhibition at the Stazione Leopolda in Florence, for which it was integral to include Comme des Garçons. Typically, I was told that Rei was far too busy but was happy for me to make my own interpretation of her work. The idea that I put to the filmmaker Gideon Koppel and the stylist Kanako Koga was of two lovers exchanging clothes and then walking away from a sand dune into the ocean. The synchronicity of two heartbeats was the only soundtrack – one ailing heart missing a beat. The vibration of the heartbeats was felt more than heard as it reverberated inside the dune, perfectly highlighting Rei’s designs.

My good friend, the DJ Moichi Kuwahara, revealed how Kawakubo would insist they change the music for a show on impulse within 24 hours of a presentation. Comme des Garçons shows are renowned for their post-punk energy mixed with a very Japanese aesthetic, resulting in a theatrical experience that lodges in your brain forever. Sometimes the experience can be tortuous. Rei’s insistence that she is a businesswoman and not an artist may confuse many buyers and speculating journalists. Despite her reluctance for press, each season her fan base increases. She appears never to compromise, testing everyone in the production team, encouraging them to stay on their toes. Following Comme des Garçons March 2012 presentation, the audience gave Rei a standing ovation led by Adrian Joffe clapping the hardest to encourage his wife to take a small bow after her magnificent collection. Shows may start exactly on time or string out in unexpected ways. Frequently they finish mid-soundtrack with an unexpected power cut. Sexuality and sensuality are revisited and reinvented. While life, birth, marriage and death pay a recurrent role. Monster bumps, funky prints, skulls as flowers, black on black, hippy tie-dye, peace and war are other themes. Three-dimensional voluminous lightweight armour followed by two-dimensional flat patterned pop-art paper dolls, in a paintbox palette. Brothel creepers, brogues, two-tone winkle pickers, biker boots and Dr. Martens painted, scuffed, pierced and studded complete Rei’s uncompromising vision. God bless her cotton socks!

Taken from Rei Kawakubo, Designer Monograph, Curated by Terry Jones, published by Taschen.