Bloomsbury Fashion Central - Designer in focus: Rei Kawakubo

Designer in Focus

Rei Kawakubo

by Caitlin Flint
July 2024

Rei Kawakubo had no formal fashion training but studied Japanese and Western art at Keio University, then worked in advertising, before becoming a stylist and founding Comme des Garçons to showcase her own designs. Her collections have sparked controversy, with critics questioning their references; the “Bump” dress from Spring/Summer 1997 was even called “the ugliest dress of the year”. However, she remains a huge influence in the fashion world.

Rei Kawakubo of Comme Des Garçons collaboration with Maison Balenciaga for AW16

Rei Kawakubo, along with Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, is regarded as a leading exponent of deconstructed design. The three are often grouped together by fashion media as the Japanese Avant-garde. However, they assert their individuality and international outlook, while acknowledging their national heritage. They are also all influenced by the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, wabi (without decoration or visible luxury) and sabi (old and atmospheric). Absence therefore gives form to that which is present in these designs, for example her tailcoat without a tail.

“Many designers cater to the idea of what they think men would like to see women as … I think it takes courage to do something [different] …” Kawakubo

Kawakubo is always looking to do something different. Her 1997 and 1998 Spring/Summer collections, like many of her others, subverted the natural shape of a woman’s body using padding and pleats. The inspiration for the ‘Body-Bump’ collection was ‘she couldn’t do new clothes, so she did new bodies’, while for the Autumn/Winter 2012–13 ‘Flat Collection’ it was to ‘ignore the human body’ (Rei Kawakubo’s fashion manifesto).

Over the last forty years Rei Kawakubo and Adrian Joffe have continued to evolve Comme des Garçons bricks-and-mortar retail strategy. Kawakubo is also mentor to Junya Watanabe. Watanabe began working for her at Comme des Garçons and she later offered financial backing for his line, the Junya Watanabe Comme des Garçons women’s collection.

“I think that every designer you ask will be influenced by Rei in one way or another but what makes them a good designer is them moving the Rei concept on for their own label.” Alexander McQueen

We hope the links here will help you discover more about Rei Kawakubo and her work; they will remain free for a month after the post date. Find out more about Bloomsbury Fashion Video Archive and our other collections, including free trials and purchasing options.