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Words by Justin Lavilla

Six Magazine, 1997Photography Kishin Shinoyama, Art Direction Tsuguya Inoue


Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo has been a household name in the fashion industry since the 1980s, when she entered the international fashion scene, known for her stylistic, subversive and architectural approach to fashion tailoring.  Unencumbered by the limits of classical garment construction, her work, often taking conceptual and sculptural forms, has challenged the traditional notions of fashioning in the Western hemisphere; in particular, the introduction of deconstructivism in fashion, the representation of the fashionable female figure, as well as the definition and redefinition of sartorial norms. By looking at three of Kawakubo’s works that span many decades from her first runway show in Paris– her lumps and bumps collection and to her more recent works describing clothing as objects for the body, her tenure at Comme Des Garcons– reveals Kawakubo’s sartorial philosophy challenging norms and contorting figures.

Comme des Garçons S/S97

Before we examine her works, it is important to give context to how Kawakubo became one of fashion’s biggest disruptors by looking into her past. Born Rei Kawakubo in 1942, she is the oldest daughter of two scholars. Her dad was a university professor at Keio University where Kawakubo studied the History of Aesthetics which included the study of Asian and Western Art. Much of the reading about her early and family life reveals that Kawakubo grew up with divorced parents. Her mom was an English teacher, who left Kawakubo’s father when he wouldn’t allow her to get a job outside of the house. The designer said that “she was unlike other mothers” citing that she’s always had a model of defiance and autonomy. Kawakubo grew up during a transformative time in Japanese history where women were considered to be ‘whores’ or ‘mothers’ –completely hinging on the idea of subordination and sexual dominance that push forward an emphasis on the oppression of women (adapted from Tanaka Mitsu’s 1970 Liberation from the Toilet article). With the heavy influences of American democracy in post war Japan, many fundamental changes were starting to unravel in her home country in terms of culture, society and politics. The designer was heavily involved in the feminist movement while she was studying at Keio University, exploring the changing social landscape of the feminist movement in Japan from the 70s and well into the 80s. Much of the conversations surrounding issue-oriented subjects centered around  gender and education, sexism in the mass media, equal opportunity in employment and the overall advancement of women. Ultimately, Kawakubo's upbringing informs her design work, most notably questioning of notions of beauty and reconstruction of clothing to the point of destruction. Her sartorial philosophy posits an amalgamation of the historical context seen within her childhood, growing up in the ravages of post-war Japan, as well as the influence of her mother’s defiance and her claim to autonomy during a pivotal time in the designer’s life.

As we delve deeper into the life of the famed designer here are three works that encapsulate her design ethos. These three collections were featured in the 2017 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (“MET”) organized by the head curator of the Costume Institute, Andrew Bolton. The exhibition titled Rei Kawakubo/Comme Des Garcons: Art of the In Between, focuses on the nine expressions of ‘in-betweenness'  in Kawakubo’s designs.

Lace Sweater from Pirate Collection 1991

Fall/Winter 1981 Pirates Collection

“The void is important.” 19958

“I like to work with space and emptiness.” 20008


Ms. Kawakubo photographed by Paolo Roversi in 2016.

In 1981, Kawakubo and her label brand Comme Des Garcons entered the international fashion scene when she debuted in Paris fashion week with her collection titled Pirates. During this time in the designer’s career, having been established in the fashion industry in Japan before opening her boutique in Paris, she became dissatisfied with her work. She wanted to do something more directional and more powerful, something that has not been done before. For this collection she started from zero, from nothing. The initial reaction to Kawakubo’s collection was not received well by the international fashion world. Her distortive, deconstructed and subversively minimal take on design negates the maximalist, glamorized and body-hugging silhouettes of the 80’s, popularized by the likes of Thierry Mugler and Gianni Versace6. Polarized from the glitz and glamor of the 80s, Kawakubo’s Paris debut consisted of asymmetrical cuts, oversized silhouettes and a consistent black palette — something that became intrinsic for the label. The voids created in the sweaters that dawned the runway reflects the designer’s dissatisfaction with her previous works. The models were enveloped by the clothing as it was layered, draped and entangled on the body of the wearer completely disregarding the shapes and forms that you would expect from a Paris show in the 80s. Closely looking at her debut collection hints at the history of Japan and the influences she takes up that reflects onto her clothes. Kawakubo was a product of post-war Japan, having grown up during the 30s and 40s as the country grappled with the economic woes of war. The disheveled looks and deconstructivist style aims at the economical problems as Japan was one of the poorest countries during her childhood. The MET exhibition states that this collection introduced the concept of mu (emptiness), prevalent on the absence of color in her collection having used a monochromatic—principally black—color palette and ma (space) manifested through the formless, colossal and loose-fitting garments allowing the clothing to create space between the wearer and the material.

Spring/Summer 1997 Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body Collection

“To make a form in which a woman looks pretty in the conventional way is not interesting to me at all.”  19978 


COMME des GARÇONS Spring/Summer 1989 Advertising Source: Tokyo TDC / Graphic Design by Inoue Tsuguya / https://www.somestudies.com/studies/printed-matter-by-comme-des-garons

COMME des GARÇONS Spring/Summer 1989 Advertising Source: Tokyo TDC / Graphic Design by Inoue Tsuguya / https://www.somestudies.com/studies/printed-matter-by-comme-des-garons

Body Meets Dress— Dress Meets Body which has popularly been renamed as the “lumps and bumps” collection in part due to the down-padded garments that graced down the runway. In more ways than one, Kawakubo’s work largely revolves around the feminine, in particular the feminine figure. The MET exhibition relates the famed collection to “object/subject” which presents the idea of the body as almost an amorphous form, defined as lacking a clearly defined shape or structure. The down-padded garments, shown in red, pinkish and blue gingham print, is Kawakubo’s rethinking of the female presence. The paddings are arranged in random asymmetry that creates a bulbous and swelling of the body, while the use of the gingham print made of nylon and polyurethane stretching and expanding caused by the padding creates an illusion subverting the homogeneity of the fashionable female form. Kawakubo’s silhouettes were never meant to package the female body for seduction—the small waist, flat stomach, small and high breasts no longer seem to be of relevance to the work10. The concept of space or ma introduced in her debut collection nullifies the overtly sexual outfitting of the Western hemisphere and instead introduces new forms and shapes for the wearer that can be voluminous and sculptural in its forms according to English5— author of Japanese Fashion Designer: The Work and Influence of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo published in 2011. Through the deformed and contorted female figure, Kawakubo comments on this idea stating “fashion design is not about revealing or accentuating the shape of a woman’s body, its purpose is to allow a person to be what they are.” Kawakubo is able to critique the “perfectness” of the female body through the distortions and subvert that idea which exemplifies the ‘actual’ rather than the ‘natural’ as explained by English in her book. “The body becomes dress becomes body” as Kawakubo described. Furthermore, Kawakubo was able to radically redefine the notions of beauty for women by literally transforming the idea of the dress and its relation to the body.

Look 20 / SS 2005 Ballerina Motorbike / Photo Courtesy Vogue Runway

Ballerina Motorbike from the MET Exhibition / Justin Lane/European Pressphoto Agency https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/01/fashion/rei-kawakubos-commes-de-garcons.html

Spring/Summer 2005 Ballerina Motorbike Collection

“... I thought about the power of the motorbike—the machine itself—and the strength of a ballet dancer’s arms.” 20048

Red Leather Painted Tabi


Apparent in Kawakubo’s 2005 Spring/Summer collection titled Ballerina Motorbike is the paradoxical world in which the designer finds herself in, or rather the one that she creates for herself. Ballerina Motorbike offers a meditation on the cultural and societal norms that posit our understanding of the world, emphasizing to us that we can foster harmonious relationships with two seemingly dissonant groups, that we can perform identity as “in-between” —a message serving of most importance in today’s world politics. The title suggests the overarching idea of the collection emphasized in the 2017 MET exhibition, which explores the dichotomy between elite culture and popular culture in the “high/low” section of the exhibition. While ballerina speaks of elegance and poise indicated by the multilayered and often flamboyant style of the tutus, motorbike suggests unrefined crudeness pronounced by the heavy leather jackets usually lacking in color. In this collection, Kawakubo focuses on materiality to relate, examine and denote the dichotomy between two cultures—two cultures can, in fact, exist symbiotically with each other. Sarah Mower of Vogue describes the fashioning of the collection as a “rough-hewn biker jacket… with crude saddle stitching, and put it atop a delicate Swan Lake-worthy tutu9.” The entire collection consisted of opposing themes of the  ‘masculine/feminine’ pushing forward the long philosophical study of Kawakubo on the feminine, creating space for her SS '05 collection to breathe new life into her study. Mower added, “perhaps this collection was commenting on the resources a modern woman needs—speed, toughness, and rigorous self-discipline.” Evident in her collection is the honing of Kawakubo’s commentary on the fashioning of the fashionable female figure which interjects the idea of elite culture and popular culture by reconciling the “high” culture of ballet with the “low” subculture of bikers1. To better understand her positioning, a subsequent 2008 collection titled Bad Taste utilizes textiles perceived “to be cheap, kitschy, and vulgar, such as nylon and polyester to upend notions of good taste and exposes inherent prejudices and bourgeois posturings in the precincts of elite culture1.

Rei Kawakubo’s Influence on Designers

“To work in our studio, you need to reflect greatly upon the concept of creation and allow yourself to be taken over by a deep and profound feeling about design” 20068


Lace Sweater from Pirate Collection 1991

As a designer, artist, businesswoman and purveyor of conceptualist work surrounding the construction of garments and notions of the female figure, Kawalubo has catalyzed a new school of designers heavily inspired, moved and influenced by her work. The examination of her most notable works lead up to the discussion of her impact within the fashion industry by the way of the designers that are exemplifying her philosophy. When Rei Kawakubo showed her 1981 Pirate collection in Paris showing all-black clothes and the then unusual deconstructed garments, the editor of American Vogue at the time, Polly Mellen, cited “it is modern and free. It has given my eyes something new and has made this first day incredible. Kawakubo is showing the way to a whole new way of beauty2”. Kawakubo, among many other Japanese designers, according to Anabela Becho a researcher in the field of fashion, has its roots in the “secular legacy of Japanese culture” more specifically the concept of wabi-sabi, the beauty in the decaying, which centers in the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Of the many designers that were influenced by this design approach, looking for new ways of expressing their creativity through fashion was Ann Demeulemeester, who studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, firmly trained in construction and cut. Demeulemeester noted “I was just finishing my studies [when the Japanese designers had their European debut] and it was a brave new step in fashion—the beginning of a new freedom for me as a designer and as a woman2”. Seen in Demeulemeester’s work is her assertion of the “strong and steady female silhouettes” while also showing principally monochromatic colors in black and white. Demeulemeester’s fashioning of the female body, like Kawakubo, questions as it upends the notions of beauty and Western gender. In Becho’s words, her women show attitude and self-esteem, attracting men with their mind rather than their body. Similar to what the Japanese designers did in the early 80’s moving their runway shows from Tokyo to Paris, the Belgian designers still on the edge of the international fashion scene determined to find a stage that would be receptive of their expressive sartorial philosophy, and left Antwerp for London, beginning a new wave that would rock the foundations of Western fashion. One of the most important figures to come out of the fashion world, the unspoken member of the Antwerp 6, a collective of Belgian designers alongside Demeulemeester and inventor of the Tabi boots—Martin Margiela. Far from being a clone to his forerunners, “Margiela produced garments that looked unfinished that seem to follow a different pathology, mutating garments so that they looked like a composite of misshapen fragments with billowing silhouettes7”. Akin to that of Kawakubo’s design, Margiela is also interested in reinventing traditional tailoring and silhouettes, questioning different fashion systems within the tenets of beauty and luxury—“garments that were sewn inside out, were frayed and tattered and contained missing sleeves7”. The abjection, perishability and the deconstructivist approach to fashion intrinsic to Rei Kawakubo’s designs is ever so present in the designs of Martin Margiela shown through the deconstructed nature of his garments—”asymmetries, tears, frayed edges, knots, and uneven hems2”. It is even more fascinating to note that despite the similarities in their designs (especially in the perishable appearance of the garments) the two designers venture into different avenues of how these clothing are presented and perceived by the public. To characterize this difference, “Kawakubo’s practice can be more properly called “deconstructivism”, which designates the adaptation of the philosophical principles of deconstruction in architecture7”. Scholars Adam Geczy and Vicki Karaminas—writer of Time, Cruelty and Destruction in Deconstructivist Fashion: Kawakubo, Margiela and Vetements –examines how these label brands approach their design language that redefines the glamor of fashion. Kawakubo’s destruction is about the aesthetic of ruins and of mourning. On the other hand, Margiela’s garments “suspend in paradox the construction and the decay of clothing. His preference for the abject, epitomized by the old, the used and the one-off, appeared as tropes of poverty and disenfranchisement7”

Now to switch up the language a bit… Rei Kawakubo’s design is an influential one and after writing this I could even say it’s new. It’s a design language that is intrinsically her own. A design language that has been translated many times and most definitely copied by ten folds. Still, it belongs to her. Kawakubo has redefined and reinvigorated the fashion industry not by emphasizing what’s already being told but by actively being in pursuit of something new. She has offered us the search for newness through her design thinking. And arguably gave us Ann Demeulemeester and Martin Margiela— what would these designers be if the precedent wasn’t Rei Kawakubo herself? Would we have Tabi boots from Margiela? Or elegant tailoring and dark yet glamorous women draped in Demeulemeester? I’m sure both of these Belgian designers would have been great with or without Kawakubo but just imagine the magnitude of this woman’s influence to have been cited by some of the best designers this world has seen. She has in many ways, subtle and obvious, has captained the fashion world at large. Her Pirate collection screams Balenciaga mud runway collection, her 2005 collection is every gay bushwick twink’s dream closet and her SS ‘97 seminal work “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body” is the paradigm of representational media especially in runways of today. Rei Kawakubo is an artist—and a good one at that. She is as progressive as time is, who is true to herself and deeply entwined with her work. Her label brand Comme Des Garcons, which has now grown into an empire of many branches incubating small emerging brands and designers, continues to inspire and question the industry we know and love.

Photo Courtesy Dazed / Ann Demeulemeester / ss03 

References 12017. Rei Kawakubo / Comme Des Garcons | Art of the
In-Between. New York City, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art

2Becho , A. (2016, April 21). How radical Japanese fashion inspired Belgium's avant garde. Dazed. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/30853/1/how-radical-japanese-fashion-inspired-belgiums-avant-garde

3Bolton, A., & Kawakubo, R. (2017). Rei Kawakubo: Comme des garçons: Art of the in-between. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

4Degerli, N. (2021, July 27). #TBT Rei Kawakubo and her influence on the society. Title Mag. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from


5English, B. (2011). Rei Kawakubo and Comme Des Garcons . In Japanese fashion designers: The work and influence of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo (pp. 67–90). essay, Berg Publishers.

6Foley, G. (n.d.). The genre-defying magic of Rei Kawakubo's Comme des Garçons. GOAT. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://www.goat.com/editorial/comme-des-garcons-history

7Geczy, A., & Karaminas, V. (2020). Time, Cruelty and Destruction in Deconstructivist Fashion: Kawakubo, Margiela and Vetements. ZoneModa Journal, 10(1), 65–77. https://doi.org/10.6092/issn.2611-0563/11088

8Jones, T., & Kawakubo, R. (2012). Rei Kawakubo. Taschen.

9Mower, S. (2004, October 5). Comme des Garçons Spring 2005 ready-to-wear collection. Vogue. Retrieved November 21, 2022, from https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2005-ready-to-wear/comme-des-garcons

10Thurman, J. (2014, July 21). The unsettling vision of Rei Kawakubo. The New Yorker. Retrieved November 8, 2022, from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/07/04/the-misfit
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