the work of reticent fashion designer rei kawakubo speaks volumes

How the famously silent Comme des Garçons creative director communicates through her work and personal style.

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May 1 2017, 3:54pm

Rei Kawakubo (Japanese, born 1942) for Comme des Garçons (Japanese, founded 1969); Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photograph by © Paolo Roversi

Since 1969, when she founded the fashion house Comme des Garçons in Tokyo, Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo has rarely spoken about her work. Even when she does talk about it, her answers are flinty, brief, or obscure. When she launched Six, her biannual print magazine, in 1988, most issues had no words at all. For more than a decade, she has refused to be photographed and, several years ago, stopped appearing on the runway for a post-show bow. "She simply has always preferred that her work does the talking," her husband, Adrian Joffe, told the South China Morning Post in 2008.

The work of Kawakubo first spoke directly to Western audiences in 1982, when the visionary designer presented "Destroy" in Paris. The austere all-black collection paired slashed oversized sweaters with droopy maxi skirts that cloaked the models' bodies. Critics thoughtlessly described it as "Hiroshima chic" and "post atomic." "These critics had it all wrong," Kawakubo said, decades later, in a rare interview with The Guardian. "Being born in Japan was an accident. There is no direct correlation to my work. Growing up in postwar Japan has made me the person I am, but it is not why I do the work I do. It is a very personal thing—everything comes from inside."

Her collection would have been better characterized as anti-establishment or, more specifically, anti-fashion. Her purposefully destroyed clothes were the perfect antithesis to Yves Saint Laurent's rose-printed organza and gold lamé dresses, and Thierry Mugler's sculptured vinyl garments. Kawakubo didn't need to give an explanation—the collection was her line in the sand.

Kawakubo's 1997 spring collection, "Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body," was further misunderstood. On the runway, models wore snug gingham dresses over padded humps, which distorted the shape of their bodies, and led press to nickname it the "Lumps and Bumps" or "Quasimodo" collection. But Kawakubo was content with their reaction: "You can tell if it's a good collection if people are afraid of it," she once said. "In 10 years, everyone will love it."

Nearly 10 years later, when she presented "Broken Bride" in the fall of 2005, everyone did. Vogue praised it as an"invitation to an extraordinary wedding of high concept and beautiful clothes—romantic, Victorian-flavored creations of lace and ruffle." This sort of acclaim irritated Kawakubo, who told The New York Times, "I do not feel happy when a collection is understood too well." It also acted as a catalyst for her reticence: It was around this time that Kawakubo stopped posing for photographs or walking the runway.

She employed Joffe, who is also the president and CEO of CDG, to provide the title of a collection and a one-sentence statement to press following the runway shows. But even this is too much for Kawakubo: "I'd rather [the collection] have no title," she said in an Elle interview published in 2016. "Journalists like titles. That's why I give them to you."

Now 74, Kawakubo dresses much as she did decades ago. She wears her signature bob and blunt bangs with dark sunglasses, black leather jackets and black skirts or pants. These days she wears black Nike sneakers more often than not. She makes much of her own wardrobe herself and, as she once famously said, only shops "at airports." Her personal style is as severe as her personality, but makes more of a statement: It recalls her interest in London's punk scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and in the absence of traditional explanations or interviews, it reiterates her anti-everything attitude. Her personal style is the truest reflection of who she is, especially since the septuagenarian still eludes explanations and resists being defined.

She once said, as an example, that her clothes were made for a "woman who is not swayed by what her husband thinks," but whenever she is asked if she is a feminist, she answers no. "I never felt my work had anything to do with being a woman," she told the Times in 2009. "I am not a feminist. I was never interested in any movement as such. I just decided to make a company built around creation, and with creation as my sword, I could fight the battles I wanted to fight."

But we have to take everything Kawakubo says with a grain of salt. She has made it clear that she wants to be an enigma, and she confounds press with defiant answers. With no formal training in fashion, she created a $220-million-per-year company, of which she is still the sole owner (not even her husband owns a single percent of it). Whether or not she says it, Kawakubo is a de-facto feminist.

She also does not need to explain herself, or her collections, just as artists should not be required to interpret their own work. "Art and journalism occupy different universes," Independent columnist David Lister wrote. "Ambiguity is often at the core of great art; ambiguity is anathema to journalism." Explanations, Lister argues, limit the work of the artist as well as the experience for viewers. "How can one disagree with the person who made the work?" he asks. "Once they have spoken, that's the end of the story."

It is, however, the job of a curator to explain an artist's work, or at least put it into context, which Andrew Bolton has done for "Art of the In-Between", the Kawakubo retrospective that opens at the Met on May 4. "Rei does not like her clothes to be defined or explained; she likes her work to be experienced and interpreted," the curator in charge of the Costume Institute said at a press conference in March. "It was a huge learning curve for me as a curator, because we love explaining, but I had to hold back and just let the clothes exist in a space and be interpreted on a subjective level."

Rei was at that press conference, but she did not speak. She stood there as straight-backed and tight-lipped as ever. She hasn't much explained her work since 1969, so why should she start now? Hasn't her work already said enough?

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Text Zio Baritaux