Rei Kawakubo, the founder of the world-renowned label Commes Des Garçons, is difficult to separate from the acclaim and financial success of her brand. However, in the early stages of her career, Kawakubo was a new face in the global fashion industry, who hoped to disrupt and transform the world she now rules.
One of the easiest ways to see the disruptive influence of a Commes Des Garçons design is through Kawakubo’s early approach to the dress. In many ways, Kawakubo’s dress design prefigures the experimentation and innovation that would come to define her later work for the world-famous label. Before Kawakubo arrived in Paris with Yohji Yamamoto, the aesthetics of European dress design were defined by the pursuit of elegance and luxury. Above all, this manifested in the drive for symmetry—perfection—at all levels of construction. The dress would, down to its finest details, exhibit a unanimity and uniformity—each lace, bead, or stitch would have a coherent parallel that maintained the garment’s equilibrium. In other words, the dress was defined by its rational balance of elements.
In one notorious Deborah Turbeville photograph of a Valentino dress from 1977, the haute couture emphasis on symmetry, luxury, and classical femininity is on full display. Voluminous reds build around the body to form a kind of armor that elevates the wearer from her surroundings. The frills that spill evenly from the body of the gown harken back to a tradition of dress-making that is rooted in nobility, monarchy, and the exaltation of class status.
In the 1970s, the ideology of dress design was not far from its 19th century foundation. The dress was a perfectly balanced, harmonious example of symmetry in design. Its rational unity was a mirror of the social order that produced it, the rational hierarchy of status and power that underwrote European aesthetic modernity. The Japanese designers would change this.
The silhouettes of early Kawakubo dresses broke all the rules of European fashion. Most evident were the dramatic asymmetries of her garments, a break with the unified aesthetics of the past. She indulged in black, cutting through the desire for rich, luxuriant, and variegated fabrics to get to the heart of the garment and its construction. While many responded to this move by characterizing Kawakubo’s clothes in austere, pessimistic, or even apocalyptic terms, according to Melissa Marra-Alvarez, assistant curator of research at the Museum at FIT, the use of black was actually a method of producing an asexual garment, one that broke with the gender norms of the past.
Taking European dress design as her starting point, Kawakubo began deconstructing the prevailing sexual aesthetics of clothing. These early pieces advance the dress as post-sexual. Their use of asymmetry, in particular, rendered conventional understandings of the differences between the bodies of men and women fickle and unstable. By purposefully flouting rules of proportion and construction, Kawakubo cast doubt on the assumptions about beauty enclosed in those rules.
Working closely with Yohji Yamamato, Kawakubo took inspiration from the London street fashion of the 70s, working to produce a garment that stood completely at odds with the couture houses. Eschewing the Western concept of elegance that had so deeply informed Parisian fashion, the young Japanese designers sought to make clothes that could be easily worn in daily life. The emphasis on rags, tatters, tears, and other imperfections drove home the message that this was a new approach to the idea of high fashion.
Explaining Kawakubo’s turn to deconstructive aesthetics of dress, Bonnie English compares it to the phenomenon of ‘dressing down to dress up’ at stake in eighteenth century England when the gentry would purposefully imitate the lower-class attire of the peasants. However, English argues the self-critical project at stake in Kawakubo and Yamamoto’s constructions inaugurated a new aesthetic vision, transforming the definition of high fashion and complicating its relationship to social status.
One might add that, unlike the dressing down practiced by early modern nobles, the aesthetic move Kawakubo made was not predicated on a specific outfit-image worn to accentuate, even parody class difference. Instead, Kawakubo’s project was a more abstract engagement with the garment itself—not a return or reference to any specific aesthetic, but a reorientation of design’s relation to its materials.
As Yuniya Kamakura describes it in The Japanese Revolution in Paris Fashion,
In March 1983, Kawakubo presents a collection which included coat dresses, cut big and square with no recognizable line, form or silhouette. Many had misplaced lapels, buttons and sleeves, and mismatched fabrics. More calculated disarray was created by knotting, tearing and slashing fabrics, which were crinkled, creased and woven in unusual textures. Footwear consisted of paddy slippers or square-toed rubber shoes.
We must be careful when we reflect on Kawakubo’s engagement with themes like asymmetry, blackness, minimalism, and imperfection. It is easy, especially in the West, to attach broader social narratives to what were often subtle, materially-informed choices. While some of these insights can provoke creative interpretation, they can also pull us away from the physical realities of the garment.