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The Originals: Rei Kawakubo

Bridget Foley

What fuels creativity? The kind of broad-stroke, major-statement creativity that manifests in audacious visual wonderment, variously beautiful, fantastical, unsettling, jarring even ugly, often confounding and always compelling?

The romantic inclination assumes that it springs from a place of pure passion; the creator has no choice but to give voice to his or her creativity via passionate expression.

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That premise underlies the conversation that so often swirls around the output of Rei Kawakubo. Its brilliance takes root in a deep-thoughts approach that is head-spinning not only in the work’s overall aesthetic impact, but in the remarkable skill required to translate such fantastical inventions of the mind into material-world, runway-ready reality. For a full half-century — yes, 50 years — Kawakubo has thus awed generations of fashion lovers, the true believers who buy into the ability of fashion at its best to challenge the intellect and touch the heart.

Yet for all of her intellectual-artistic considerations — from an early exploration of blurred genders to punk to camp to marriage and mortality — Kawakubo refuses to romanticize her creative wellspring. She fell into the fashion business when, as a young woman, she gained employment in a textile factory. Eventually she started styling for the factory and, when she couldn’t find the pieces she wanted, started making them. That experience informed her future path of creativity with a purpose, and that purpose was never to merely make clothes that would cause a stir. From Day One, Kawakubo sought independence, and fashion provided the conduit to that independence. The niche she identified to take her there: “clothes that have never been seen before.”

It’s worked out well — though not perfectly, at least not by her lights. Kawakubo may have ascended to the pinnacle of the industry’s Olympus, revered by legions of people in awe of her seemingly endless ability to create the astounding work with which she is primarily associated. Yet, “That’s the image of the business…” she said during a conversation earlier this month. “The core central meaning of doing clothes that have never been seen before, I don’t think I’ve been successful at it because it doesn’t sell that much.…The company would fall down if we relied only on that main Comme des Garçons collection.”

Kawakubo was in New York with Adrian Joffe, her husband and translator, and the company’s president, their trip centered on an honor she received from the Noguchi Museum. During their stay, Kawakubo engaged in some surprising activities, given her notorious penchant for letting her work speak for her. At the museum’s gala, she engaged in a brief question-and-answer session with its director Brett Littman. She also agreed to this interview that came with a forewarning: 45 minutes and a hard finish.

Twenty-five years into covering Paris fashion, there remains an awe to a sit-down with Kawakubo. This was only my third such session. The first, many years ago, for WWD’s then-sister publication W magazine, found her in a charming, chatty mood. The second, not so much; Kawakubo was less forthcoming when in May 2000, she traveled to Cambridge to receive an honor from the Architecture School at Harvard, the event orchestrated by Harold Koda, then on sabbatical from the Costume Institute at the Met.

This time, Kawakubo was utterly gracious and forthcoming, in that no-nonsense way associated with her, even though few people know her well, even in fashion. She answered questions thoughtfully, and, lest she be misunderstood, once or twice advised Joffe to make sure he’d translated correctly. Those moments involved her attitude about business: “It was an accident that I used fashion as a way to make a business. It wasn’t a decision [to become a fashion designer]. It was a material for making a business.” And: “Just to be sure, my business is creating and making and selling. Because it’s no use making these things if you’re not going to sell them.”

That process doesn’t get any easier with time. In fact, the creative side of the equation only becomes more challenging, “because the more you do new things, the less there is left to be new each time.”

To that end, Kawakubo focuses not only on pushing creatively in terms of product, but also in developing strategic innovation at retail. It’s all part of a remarkable, long and ongoing course. Fifty years after the creation of the Comme des Garçons label, Kawakubo joins Ralph Lauren as fashion’s only other founding designer to have achieved that milestone — one she said she hasn’t given much consideration.

But one that, as well as in many other ways, makes her one of WWD’s The Originals.

WWD: Congratulations on your 50th anniversary. That’s quite a milestone!

Rei Kawakubo: Is it 50 years?

WWD: That’s what I understand. You established the Comme des Garçons label in 1969.

R.K.: That’s right, yes. I’m not counting the years.

WWD: You’ve been at the helm a long time, building a global business while always creatively.  Have you thought about what a remarkable accomplishment that is?

R.K.: It’s not a case of reflecting on what I’ve been doing, because the work consists of a daily grind, a daily piling up of everything. Every day is a new day to do the same thing, so I never really have the time, I never really look back in the past and count, I guess. When I’m told that it’s 50 years, I can look back and see how many years it’s been, but it’s not something I take into account because for me it’s the process of daily searching,

WWD: There are now two people who founded major fashion companies and who remain at the helm 50 years later — yourself and Ralph Lauren. Do do you see any parallels in your work, your careers?

R.K.: I don’t think I have that much in common with Ralph Lauren. That’s a very, very big company. I’m not sure how he works, and it seems, looking at the product, that it’s a very different way of working. It’s hard to compare. But well done by him, as well.

WWD: We go to your shows and see this remarkable work, this wellspring of creativity. You used the phrase “daily grind.” It’s interesting that you put your work process in that workmanlike context. Is it a grind to push creatively?

R.K.: It kind of goes without saying that the established value of the company from the beginning has been to always look for new things. Not only does it not have the kind of grandeur of creating something new, it’s a daily grind because it gets more difficult as the years ago on. Because the more you do new things, the less there is left to be new each time. So it gets even harder.

WWD: Have you ever had a creative impasse or a dry spell?

R.K.: Every day I think I have a dry spell. Every day is a dry spell. It’s always hard.

WWD: For spring 2014, you made the decision to go in an even more abstract direction. Then, famously, two seasons ago, you issued that fascinating manifesto in which you changed course again. You said that you had been pushing for something new and found yourself “fumbling around in the dark.” Do you feel that you’re on the road to something new now?

R.K.: The manifesto, a lot of people were very moved, but for me it was not a complete, deep change of direction. It was more like a kind of…the word in Japanese is kirikuchi. It’s like a way into [something]. It’s like an edge.

WWD: An edge?

R.K.: Yes, the way to find something. There have been those kind of deep schisms…a couple of times in my career, maybe three or four times. Ten seasons ago when I did the abstract one, for me it was easier. To go into that abstract [period] when I was stuck in one of my dry spells, the launch into the abstract, I said if I can’t make something new, I won’t even try to make clothes. And that began the 10-season thing of the abstract [collections].

And those abstract ones were in a way easier than how I felt after the 10, when I thought I needed a new direction, a new way, a new edge. [I thought] a new way is now to make something new without even designing it, and that’s when I started looking inside. It was that new way to get into a concept, like an edge. That is probably the most difficult thing I have done because without the abstraction, it’s even more difficult to make something new without designing from the inside. So it’s the hardest one.

WWD: When you feel the need for one of these significant shifts, is it a gradual process, or when you’re readying a collection, does it hit you that you don’t feel you have more to say in that current direction?

R.K.: There is a very big suffering over the course of time where I think that I need to change the direction in order to carry on. That’s a very hard thing. It’s over a very short period of time. It’s suddenly [that] I realize that I need a new edge in order to go to the next step. And then, when I feel that, it’s like there is no going back.

WWD: Tell me about the last collection. Mostly black with some plaid, and an ominous feeling. [Kawakubo’s press notes read, “Especially at the end, when the models all came together in a circle, it felt like a witches’ coven.”] Is that what you were trying to get at, something ceremonial and dark?

R.K.: It only had significance in the sense of the show. There wasn’t anything in the sense of clothes or the concept behind the clothes, it was for the show, the black gathering. I wanted to change the normal presentation of the models walking up and down. So it was just a way of expressing that new way of presenting the clothes.

WWD: Were you thinking about Salem and the idea of a witches’ coven?

R.K.: No. It just looked like that.

 WWD: We often think of you as working so much in black but you have a very strong history with color. Talk about your relationship with color and how you use it?

R.K.: I have never used color as a theme as such. It’s for me just a tool to change something. At the beginning, I used black as a theme because it was not used at all in the fashion world. So it was a theme to express what I wanted to do, something new at the time.…But now, because it’s not new anymore as a color in fashion, I need different kinds of tools. It’s like a tool.

WWD: Let’s talk a little bit about your history. You studied art and literature, and then found your way into a job at a textile factory, right?

R.K.: Yes, yes.

WWD: At what point did you discover that you were a designer? I know you don’t like the term artist.

R.K.: I can’t remember exactly when it was, but I just knew that I wanted to work and make a living for myself, to be independent. I got close to the fashion business by getting a job just by accident at the textile factory, and then I got closer to the fashion because I was doing the styling for the textile factory. And I couldn’t find the things I wanted to style so I started making it. It was almost by chance. There wasn’t a point when I said, “I am a fashion designer.”

WWD: There must have been a point at which you said, “I’m good at this, I have something to say.”

R.K.: For me, I am not a fashion designer. I use fashion as a business. I never thought, “I am a fashion designer.” It’s a material to use in a business. Its an accident that I use fashion.

Adrian Joffe: She said, “Please translate correctly.” So give me time. [Joffe then questioned Kawakubo again and repeated her answer.]

R.K.: It was an accident that I used fashion as a way to make a business. It wasn’t a decision [to become a fashion designer]. It was a material for making a business.

WWD: I think I understand that. At the same time, you could have been really bad at it, you could have had nothing to say. How did you find and develop your aesthetic?

R.K.: I have never [lost] that feeling that I use clothes to make a business; I design the company. So part of that is making the clothes. Do you mean that the clothes started selling? Is that what you mean?

WWD: I want to get to the business aspect, too. But I mean, creatively…

R.K.: I understand what you’re trying to say. I came to the point that I could make a business, a successful business using clothes as a material. And as the business got more successful, I realized that by sticking to my values of making the clothes that didn’t exist before, [I would succeed] in having a business [and that] has continued ever since then.

WWD: Making clothes that didn’t exist before. Is that the baseline when you speak of house “values”?

R.K.: Basically that is it, that’s the main [thing], basically.

WWD: Not to beat a dead horse, I understand using the clothes to create a business. But there are clothes and there are clothes. No one ever sits at a Comme des Garçons show and thinks, “I’m bored,” or “this could be someone else; this is mundane.” So how did you find that voice?

R.K.: I want to point out, I’ve never thought that I’m making it a successful business in the primary purpose of making a business with clothes that have never been seen before. That’s the image of the business, but the real way of succeeding has been with all the other things that I’ve been through. So in that sense, the core central meaning of doing clothes that have never been seen before, I don’t think I’ve been successful at it because it doesn’t sell that much. I haven’t achieved my aim of making the business just about that. The company would fall down if we relied only on that main Comme des Garçons collection.

WWD: Was the original goal to make a business purely on that most artistic level of the clothes?

R.K.: It was an ideal, but I never thought it was going to be possible and slowly, slowly I realized that it wasn’t. But without that, there wouldn’t be all of this. It would have been impossible to succeed at that from the beginning.

WWD: So did you develop this unique model of wild creativity as the umbrella for more commercial product clinically or organically?

R.K.: It was, naturally, an organic process. Slowly, slowly, I needed to grow the business, I realized that a good way to grow was, from that kernel of the value, to make the other brands each with their own concept. So it was an organic, slow process.

 WWD: What was the first quote-unquote commercial brand that you added?

R.K.: Maybe the first ones were Homme and Tricot. And then there was Comme des Garçons Shirt, there was Robe de Chambre, something that was easy to wear. But each one had its specific concept.

WWD: How did you develop the marketing and branding for each of those lines? What made you launch each one?

R.K.: While looking for a brand to be able to expand the company, I first thought of an area that I didn’t cover with the main collection. And then, each branding would be a completely different thing. It would be like [filling] a gap in the offer that we had. A lot of it is a company secret that I’m not allowed to talk about, but it was each brand had its own concept, as you can see.

WWD: There are 18 brands?

R.K.: Eighteen.

WWD: Comme des Garçons Play is maybe the most famous with the heart-with-eyes logo. Where did that come from?

R.K.: I remember very well. The theme of that collection is something that wasn’t “designed.” I had to find an image that could symbolize the character of the brand, like the crocodile with Lacoste. I said, “I want to make my own crocodile.”

WWD: How did you come up with the seeing heart?

R.K.: We were working with a Polish artist named Filip Pagowski. He was doing some graphic design for some collections. For one of the punk collections, we gave him the concept of punk for ladies and he did some things with razor blades. Once, when he sent me his designs for the theme that we gave him for graphic design, he kind of put this heart as a kind of, “Dear, Rei, here is my work. Here is the theme.”  And then he put the heart.

WWD: It was like a signature?

R.K.: It was a signature. It was an accident. We didn’t ask for it. And I just noticed and said, “Oh this is sweet, and this maybe is the thing.”

WWD: It has become a celebrity favorite. Are there certain celebrities you want to wear your clothes?

R.K.: I don’t mind when they do but I don’t go out searching.

WWD: Let’s go back to the early business. When did you know it was the right time to go to Paris?

R.K.: For expanding the business, I thought it was a good idea to do an exhibition in Paris. The first one was just an exhibition with the hotel presentation. Don’t you know that?

WWD: Yes, but I’d like to know your thoughts. What was your reaction to the reaction?

R.K.: The first one which came was just for an exhibition, it wasn’t a show. You mean the first show?

WWD: I mean when you first showed in Paris, before which there had been no real exposure of high Japanese fashion there.

R.K.: It wasn’t a complete starting from zero. I had done shows in Tokyo before. There was a rumor going around that there were people in Japan doing good things, and there were a couple of specialty stores that were going to Japan and through them, through the people I got to know at that time, they said, “Why don’t you come to Paris?” So it wasn’t a sudden thing. Over a couple of years they said to come and do it in Paris.

I remember three of them very well. I want to say that now these people don’t exist. At that time there were these wonderful people, like Tommy [Perse] from Maxfield, like Joan Burstein from London, like Marisa [Lombardi] from Italy. Those people had really good eyes, and they could see and understand creation and they had shops with that kind of creation. Unlike most of the shops these days, at that time there were these people who could really find good things and creative things. They had really good eyes.

They were a minority but there were those kind of people that encouraged me to come [to Europe]. I really remember how impressed I was that these people were doing the same thing that I was, trying to make a new structure and to offer to their customers something that hadn’t been seen before. I was very comforted and impressed by these people who inspired me to come to Paris.

WWD: Why do you think that kind of person doesn’t exist anymore? If I’m understanding correctly.

R.K.: Maybe because of the social media expansion and that people are more afraid of taking risks, and the speed of business [now]. We don’t have any more of the time and the energy to invest in something that is new and hasn’t been seen before. Maybe that’s the reason why these people no longer exist. It’s become a money world, a bottom-line world.

WWD: I spoke with Miuccia Prada when she was in New York, and she said the same thing. She said it’s all about money now. Do you think it’s not a good moment for fashion?

R.K.: We just have to do our best. I do feel that there are people, a few of them, who now will come through and find something new. It’s a whole cycle. So I want to keep hope that there will be more. Because without that kind of search for creation, there can be no progress in humanity. This is very necessary, and always has been. And when there has been that downturn there has always been something that comes out of it. So you have to keep hope in order to carry on.

WWD: Will you name some of the people you’re hopeful about, whom you find to be doing interesting things?

R.K.: I have seen things; I’m not good at names. I wouldn’t say anything because if I said one, then I would have forgotten another one.

WWD: Let’s talk about the structure of the subbrands. Are there areas you would like to add brands? Do you see holes for the Comme des Garçons business?

R.K.: I have to find one; I can’t think of one now. Maybe the next concept of expanding and growing the brand might not be necessarily in the product, it might not necessarily be in making something and selling it. Maybe it’s the way of selling it. Maybe it’s a different way of getting into it and expanding. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a new brand, it can be a new way of retail.

Just to be sure, my business is creating and making and selling. Because it’s no use making these things if you’re not going to sell them. So what is next could be not something that you make; it could be something new in the way of selling.

Adrian Joffe: She just wants to make sure you understand. It’s a very big thing. Do you understand my translation? [After an exchange with Kawakubo, he repeats her point.]

R.K.: Yes, not only about what’s new in terms of product. It’s also about how you sell it. All the other [elements] in the process can be a new thing as well.…Maybe the new thing is not selling on the ‘net, maybe it’s making a different, new atmosphere or environment in which to meet the person…instead of [traditional] selling, maybe it’s a different process, a different action. I want to keep my head open to any kind of new possibility. At each stage of the process, from the beginning of thinking of making a new thing to the actual selling of it, there’s lots of different levels and at each one of those levels, maybe I have to think about a new way of doing it.

WWD: We have certainly seen traditional methods of selling rocked to the core. You have taken a very creative approach to physical retail, both at Comme des Garçons stores and at Dover Street Market. Do you still believe in the validity of physical retail?

R.K.: I see that you understand that there are new ways of doing retail, so maybe that would be the next thing.

WWD: Dover Street is such a forward-thinking concept. Where did the idea come from?

R.K.: I found a new way. I’d done many, many Comme des Garçons shops with special environments and at that time, I wanted to find a new way of doing retail and just to do another Comme des Garçons shop wasn’t exciting. I wanted to do something different from the department stores and other specialty shops. I found the idea of Dover Street.

WWD: The idea of a marketplace, bringing in multiple brands, What is the baseline for letting a brand into DSM?

R.K.: I thought that only one criteria would be the same way of thinking: people who had something to say, people who had a story to tell, people who had a vision. Not necessarily the same vision, but something, like I have a vision. We wanted to work with people who had their own vision, had something to say.

The main point of this, also, was that even if somebody was selling at a different place, the point of mixing it up with different kinds of people, with different visions, would necessarily make something new that was more synergetic, one and one would become three. My plan was in order to make that beautiful chaos…we had our stuff in Comme des Garçons shops, everybody had their own way of selling. But by putting it in a jumbled, kind of mixed up way, there would be something new that would come out of that in that mixing of it.

WWD: What is your approach to collaborations? You’ve done a number of them.

R.K.: In that sense it’s a bit the same as Dover Street. Dover Street is more like sharing, collaborating in a space. The only collaboration that makes sense to me is when we ask people who do things that we can’t do and we do things that they can’t do, and then the mixing of those together is a synergetic result, one plus one is three.

Launch Gallery: The Originals Rei Kawakubo The Genius Grind

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