A History Lesson on…Rei Kawakubo & How She Challenged Western Fashion

Source: Amelia Krales/Racked

At this very moment the MET Gala is celebrating the opening of the ‘Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between’ exhibition. Putting aside my disappointment that I won’t get a chance to view the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I am super excited that the work of the reclusive Japanese designer is being showcased. To celebrate the exhibition, I thought I would kick off a new series ‘A History Lesson On…’ with an essay I wrote for one of my university subjects. It focuses on Rei Kawakubo’s work for Comme des Garçons, specifically how her designs challenged the conventions of Western fashion in the 1980s.

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons 

Seen as a decade of excess, wealth, and greed, the 1980s was an era associated with high-octane glamour and a move towards an emphasis on the body. The body became of an interest in Western fashion where key designers introduced body-conscious clothing that coincided with the rise of physical fitness and an ideal image of the muscular, sexualised feminine physique. Designers such as Azzedine Alaïa, Christian Lacroix and Claude Montana brought forth these concepts into Western fashion. Therefore, when Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto arrived on the Western fashion scene at the beginning of the decade and introduced their avant-garde and conceptual designs, it is not surprising that it was seen as a confrontation towards conventional Western fashion. This essay explores the work of Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons and how it challenged conventional Western fashion in the early 1980s. It argues that Kawakubo’s introduced a new concept of dress that contrasted greatly with the aesthetic of Western fashion as well as introduced a new way of exploring the relationship between the garment and body. Through reference to three garments, this essay will specifically explore the challenges that Kawakubo’s made against Western fashion.

To understand the context of Rei Kawakubo’s work for her label Comme des Garçons in the early 1980s, it is important to understand the conventions of Western fashion that were prevalent during this period of time. The key features of Western fashion in the 1980s paralleled the terms associated with the era. Indeed, Harold Koda compared the 1980s with the 1890s whereby decadence was seen as an “aesthetic ideal” (English 2013, 127). It was a decadence that exhibited power and wealth through the consumption of goods, namely branded and designer fashion (Turney 2015, para. 5). As Steele (1997, 118) adds, the tone of the era seemed “crassly focused on money and power” and there was a distinct trend towards conspicuous consumption. These notions of status, display and sexuality were reflected in Western fashion (English 2013, 125). The distinct trends of Western fashion in the 1980s can be described as ‘ostentatious’ with the use of fabrics such as silk, fur, and taffeta and bold color prevalent. Whilst historically Western clothing has been fitted to accentuate the shape of the female body, the 1980s saw a renewed emphasis on the body that coincided with the rise of physical fitness (Steele 1997, 121). As a result, many Western designers catered to the “aereobics-sculptured bodies of fashion trendsetters” (Steele 1997, 121) and subsequently created body-conscious clothing. It was seen as the first time that the female body in the history of Western fashion played an interactive role in the form of clothing, rather than alter the body by concealing or distorting it (Steele 1997, 121). However Turney (2015, para. 6) concurs that the employment of size in clothing came with it the introduction of a broad-shouldered, masculine silhouette, yet still aimed to embody the wearer’s sexual confidence. A designer that played a key role in disseminating the body-conscious look in the Western fashion scene was Azzedine Alaïa. Considered the most important designer of the 1980s, Alaïa “defined an era of sensational, skin-tight shape” with an emphasis on cut and “seamed-in sex appeal” (Steele 1997, 121). He used stretch Lycra, silk jersey knits, and glove leather and suede to complement the sports- and body-conscious decade (Wilcox 2010, 17). He also incorporated spiral seams, curves, and darts as well as accessories such as belts and corsets to create a silhouette that was feminine and sexualized. As evident in Figure 1 Alaïa typified the aesthetic dominant in Western fashion in the 1980s which was the “slick, sex-appeal”, demonstrated through skin-tight dresses and high-heeled shoes (Mackrell and Hancock 2013, 11). Additionally, fashion designer Christian Lacroix defined the look of the 1980s with the combination of bright, bold colors and extravagant embellishment (Victoria and Albert Museum 2006). Whilst the conventions of Western fashion saw the early 1980s defined by notions of excess, high glamour and an emphasis on the muscular, sexualized female body, it also saw the arrival of distinctive concept of dress from Japanese designers.

Figure 1: Photograph by Arthur Elgort, British Vogue, 1987. (Mackrell and Hancock 2013, 11)

To a large extent, the work of Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo for her label Comme des Garçons challenged the conventions of Western fashion through introducing a new aesthetic and particularly by redefining the relationship between the body and the garment. Rei Kawakubo established her label in 1969 however didn’t introduce her first collection in Paris until 1981. The collections she produced in the early 1980s introduced a new concept of dress that differed aesthetically from Western fashion. This concept of dressed was termed by Harold Koda as the ‘aesthetic of poverty’. The features of this particular aesthetic included a deconstructed sensibility in which rips, holes, and frays, were employed in garments to create a ‘poor look’. A garment from Kawakubo’s 1982 collection Figure 2 pertinently

Figure 2: Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons 1982. (Victoria and Albert Museum 2016)

highlights this aesthetic. The black ensemble consists of a black hand-knitted jumper pierced with holes and a black skirt made of padded cotton jersey (Victoria and Albert Museum 2016). This garment is a part of the ‘Lace’ collection whereby black pullovers are strewn arbitrarily with holes as it “eaten by an army of moths” (Fukai 2010, 34). This ‘aesthetic of poverty’ also saw Kawakubo avoid tailoring in favor of voluminous layers, loose-fitting fabrics, and asymmetric hemlines (Marra-Alvarez 2010, 1) as evident in Figure 3. This garment sees a “complex assemblage of irregularly braided wide-knit panels” that wrap the torso (Victoria and Albert Museum 2016). The form of the garment exaggerates the sweater’s voluminous appearance (Victoria and Albert Museum 2016). It further exemplifies the deconstruction of the principles of Western tailoring that Kawakubo employs in her work whereby the designer breaks down the traditional methods and garment construction techniques (Quinn 2002, 141). The use of volume in this garment according to Armah (2015, under ‘Volume on the Catwalk’) was an

Figure 3: Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons Autumn/Winter 1983-94. (Fukai 2010, 46)

“important prism for exploring changing attitudes to femininity and the changing needs of women”. Both Figure 2 and Figure 3 additionally highlight the limited, monochrome color palette employed in Kawakubo’s designs. The use of the color black was in stark contrast to a period of color and buoyancy (Jones 2012, 16). Although Kawakubo’s ‘aesthetic of poverty’ implemented in her designs incited controversy due to its disregard of traditional Western concepts of design, Koda (1985, 7) also mentions that the look wasn’t originated by the designer. Kawakubo’s layered and ripped clothing was an expansion on the ripped, oversized ‘poor look’ that was used by London designers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren (Koda 1985, 7). On the contrary, this look by Westwood was worn by British youths was as a result of “suggested self-satire and the nihilistic hedonism of economic frustration” (Koda 1985, 8). This is supported by Steele (1997, 128) who adds that the aesthetic and conceptual meaning behind the rips in Kawakubo’s designs differ from the political and satiric meaning of the ‘poor look’ by Westwood. In stark contrast, Kawakubo presented the look within the context of conspicuous consumption in the West of which there was optimism about money and wealth (Koda 1985, 8). Her ‘aesthetic of poverty’ contrasted greatly from the ‘ostentatious’ display of Western values through wealth and was void of expensive-looking fabrics.

By introducing a new aesthetic and concept of design Kawakubo’s work for Comme des Garçons is termed ‘avant-garde’. The term applies when a “cohesive group of artists who have a strong commitment to iconoclastic aesthetic values and who reject popular culture and middle-class lifestyle” (Kawamura 2004, under ‘Challenge to the Western Clothing System’). The designs of Comme des Garçons can be regarded as avant-garde as it opposed “dominant social values or established artistic conventions” (Kawamura 2004, under ‘Challenge to the Western Clothing System’), particularly through introducing the ‘aesthetic of poverty’. By knotting, tearing, and slashing fabrics Kawakubo “redefined artistic conventions” (Kawamura 2004, under ‘Challenge to the Western Clothing System’) and rejected Western fashion’s use of the conventional, the precise and uniformity in design (English 2011, 75). Thus, Kawakubo challenged Western fashion through use of fabrication, function, color and silhouette.

Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons challenged the conventions of Western fashion, namely through the exploring the relationship between the body and garment. As seen in the work of Western fashion designers such as Azzedine Alaïa, the 1980s saw an emphasis on the muscular, sexualised feminine physique. To promote this Western ideal of the body, designers created body-conscious clothing. On the contrary, Kawakubo challenged this notion by seeking to conceal not reveal the body. According to Fukai (2010, 34) Kawakubo aimed to challenge the ‘Western woman’ as this ideal of beauty, sex appeal, and grace. The early collections in the 1980s showcased garments that rarely fitted the body (English 2011, 76). However Kawakubo further

Figure 4: Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons Spring/Summer 1997. (Fukai 2010, 165)

explored blurring the boundaries between dress and body in her Spring/Summer 1997 collection ‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body’. This collection confronted the Western fashion industry with a different way of interpreting the body (Vinken 2005). The collection featured a range of figure-hugging stretch garments where padded foam inserts distorted the models’ figures to extreme degrees (Quinn 2012, 143). Kawakubo highlighted the female form, yet moved away from the areas of attention favoured in Western fashion such as the legs, chest, or derriere (Armah 2015, para. 13) and avoided cutting the designs in a flattering silhouette (Quinn 2002, 144). Instead, she placed bumps on the sides Figure 4 and humps on the backs Figure 5 to the extent that their necks disappeared (Quinn 2002, 144). These designs from the collection, also often referred to as ‘Lumps and Bumps’, demonstrated Kawakubo’s interest in challenging “various social, sexual, and economic stereotypes with her garments” and furthermore, sought to confront the shapes of the feminine ideal (Met Museum 2016, para. 1). Through the exploration of the relationship between body and garment, Kawakubo also defied the use of body shape to attract the opposite sex (English 2011, 69).

Figure 5: Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons Spring/Summer 1997. (Fukai 2010, 164)

Kawakubo essentially challenged the gender-specific characteristic of Western fashion (Kawamura 2004, under ‘Redefining Sartorial Conventions’). Thus, the work of Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons challenged Western concepts of body shape, body image, gender and sexuality through redefining the relationship between the body and the garment.

The 1980s saw Western fashion defined by excess, high glamour and wealth whereby fashion designers such as Azzedine Alaia and Christian Lacroix used expensive fabrics and sought to exemplify the muscular, sexualized feminine physique. However, as we have established in this essay these conventions of Western fashion were challenged by the arrival of a group of Japanese designers. In particular, a number of garments have shown how fashion designer Rei Kawakubo challenged Western fashion by introducing a new concept of dress that can be described as ‘aesthetic of poverty’ and also pushed the boundaries of the relationship between the body and the garment through her label Comme des Garcons.

Reference List

Armah, Lucy Adjoa. 2015. “Shape/Volume.” In Fashion Photography Archive. London: Bloomsbury. Accessed October 10, 2016. doi: 10.5040/9781474260428-FPA135

English, Bonnie. 2011. Japanese Fashion Designers: The Work and Influence of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and Rei Kawakubo. Oxford and New York: Berg.

English, Bonnie. 2013. A Cultural History of Fashion in the 20th and 21st Centuries: From Catwalk to Sidewalk. 2nd ed. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Fukai, Akiko. 2010. Future beauty: 30 years of Japanese fashion. London: Merrell.

Jones, Terry. 2012. Rei Kawakubo: designer monographs. Koln: Taschen.

Kawamura, Yuniya. 2004. The Japanese Revolution in Paris Fashion: Dress, Body, Culture. 91-112. Oxford: Berg Publishers. Accessed October 10, 2016. doi: 10.2752/9781847888907/JREVPARFASH0012

Koda, Harold. 1985. “Rei Kawakubo and the aesthetic of poverty.” Dress: Annual Journal of the Costume Society of America 11 (-): 5-10. Accessed October 10, 2016. https://qut.rl.talis.com/items/2D8E0FBA-76F8-D497-15FE-2EDDE844A609.html?referrer=%2Flists%2F02ABF28E-2DE9-B20B-267D-EFDF7F1146E3.html%3Fembed%3Dtrue%23item-2D8E0FBA-76F8-D497-15FE-2EDDE844A609

Loschek, Ingrid. 2009. When Clothes Become Fashion: Design and Innovation Systems. Oxford: Berg. Accessed October 13, 2016. doi: 10.2752/9781847883681/WHNCLOTHBECOMFASH0009

Mackrell, Alice and Beth Hancock. 2013. The Fashion Book. 2nd ed. London and New York: Phaidon Press Limited.

Marra-Alvarez, Melissa. 2010. “When the West Wore East: Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and The Rise of the Japanese Avant-Garde in Fashion.” Dressstudy 57 (-). Accessed October 22, 2016. http://www.kci.or.jp/research/dresstudy/pdf/D57_Marra_Alvarez_e_When_the_West_Wore_East.pdf

Met Museum. 2016. “Dress.” Accessed October 20, 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1998.516.1a,b/

Quinn, Bradley. 2002. Techno Fashion. Oxford: Berg Publishers. Accessed October 13, 2016. doi: 10.2752/9781847888877/TECFASH0010

Steele, Valerie. 1997. Fifty years of fashion: new look to now. New Haven: Yale University Press. Accessed October 14, 2016. https://qut.rl.talis.com/items/930F4A22-5524-8C5B-D7A9-F3EDCB80B7DC.html?referrer=%2Flists%2F02ABF28E-2DE9-B20B-267D-EFDF7F1146E3.html%3Fembed%3Dtrue%23item-930F4A22-5524-8C5B-D7A9-F3EDCB80B7DC

Turney, Jo. 2015. “1980s Style: Key Themes and Trends.” In Fashion Photography Archive. London: Bloomsbury. http://dx.doi.org.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/10.5040/9781474260428-FPA199

Victoria and Albert Museum. 2006. “Fashion in Motion: Christian Lacroix.” Accessed October 21, 2016. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/f/fashion-in-motion-christian-lacroix/

Victoria and Albert Museum. 2016. “Jumper.” Accessed October 13, 2016. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O73390/jumper-kawakubo-rei/

Vinken, Barbara. 2005. Fashion Zeitgeist: Trends and Cycles in the Fashion System. Oxford: Berg. Accessed October 13, 2016. doi: 10.2752/9780857854094.

Wilcox, Claire. 2010. “Alaïa, Azzedine.” In The Berg Companion to Fashion, edited by Valerie Steele, 17-18. Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic. Accessed October 20, 2016. https://www-bloomsburyfashioncentral-com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/products/berg-fashion-library/encyclopedia/the-berg-companion-to-fashion/alaia-azzedine


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  1. Rei Kawakubo is a genius of our time! No one does clothes quite like her, apart from her friend and associate Junya Watanabe, of course.

    If you want to see some fabulous outfit pairings and fashion show reviews, you should click this link to my blog, view and come and follow me:


    Eccentricity and uniqueness abound!

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