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Rei Kawakubo may be better known to many under the name of the label she established in Tokyo in 1973, and for which she showed her first collection two years later: Comme des Garçons, a moniker chosen, the designer has said, simply because she liked the sound of it (French for “like boys”). A designer who has dispensed with the rule book, who cuts and constructs in such a way that her clothes have skirted art, Rei has always challenged convention, producing uniform-like clothes that are neither obviously for men nor women, that distort rather than enhance the female form, that use atypical fabrics and deconstruct them sometimes to the point of destruction. She launched Comme to the West in 1981, when she showed her first collection in Paris and was among the avant-garde Japanese to introduce black as an everyday fashion staple – unthinkingly dubbed ‘Hiroshima Chic’ by some critics. Then as now, it bewildered as much as it excited. The self-taught, multiple award-winning designer (born in Tokyo in 1942) did not, however, follow the standard route into the fashion industry. Rei began her career by reading literature at Tokyo’s Keio University and, on graduation in 1964, joined the Ashai Kasei chemical and textiles company, working in its advertising department. Unable to find the garments she wanted for herself, she started to design them. She launched menswear in 1978, and a furniture line in 1982. Comme remains progressive: the label’s fragrances, for instance, have played with tar, rubber and nail polish odours. Recent retail projects have included short-term ‘guerrilla’ stores in the backwater areas of, for the fashion world, unexpected cities, through to London’s monolithic Dover Street Market, in which the company, which she co-runs with British husband Adrian Joffe, also rents space to other like-minded designers. Recent collaborations include a capsule collection for H&M and a bag collaboration with Louis Vuitton to celebrate 30 years of Louis Vuitton in Japan.


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