Rei Kawakubo is an architect whose medium consists of fabrics and the human body, instead of building materials and space. Her creations are not merely “fashion” but are reinterpretations of the relationship between clothing and the body, choosing to use fashion as an extension to the human form, or vice versa.
Despite the fact that she owns a clothing company and still showcases her work regularly during Paris Fashion Week, she regards her work as Gesamtkunstwerk, or a “total work of art,” since the boundaries of the word “fashion” is too constrictive of Kawakubo’s creations.
Spring/Summer 1997 Collection: “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body”
Kawakubo has evolved throughout her career that spans more than 30 years. Although she began with deconstruction, her Spring/Summer 1997 collection heralded a new era for Comme des Garçons, as the succeeding collections were louder and held narratives regarding femininity, sexuality, and the female form.
The video below is a performance titled Scenario, choreographed by Merce Cunningham, who was struck upon seeing the way the clothing altered the mobility of the dancers.
Her Spring/Summer 1997 collection, “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body,” was grotesque with padded lumps that exaggerated and deformed the wearer’s silhouette. Was Kawakubo being critical of the beauty standards that society pushed onto women?
Padding is often used to attain a certain body type but Kawakubo reworked it into something that distorted the body instead. “After extensive searching and thinking out for new ideas, just before time ran out, I realised that the clothes could be the body and the body could be the clothes,” Kawakubo said when asked about the collection.
Some critics likened the lumps to tumors, and others remarked on how some pieces made the wearer look pregnant while some pieces exaggerated the breasts and bottom of the wearer. Kawakubo confronted the conventional notions of beauty and sexuality by creating clothes that deliberately changed the wearer’s silhouette in an “unflattering” form, challenging the gaze of the onlooker.
Throughout her succeeding collections, Kawakubo has gone against the notion of fashion as something that encourages vanity, choosing to let the clothes shape the body rather than the other way around.
Fall/Winter 2017-18 Collection, “The Future of Silhouette”
Perhaps one of her most perplexing collections in recent years has been her Fall/Winter 2017-18 collection which looked like an overblown version of her Spring ’97 collection. This collection was entitled “The Future of Silhouette.”
Again, she highlights the human body, but some pieces are now armless and much more bulbous. Furthermore, she has pieces that seem to be created out of lint, paper, tin foil, and recycled fabrics. Some critics have interpreted this collection to be a commentary on our society’s obsession with excess. Excess in the sense of vanity, leading to absurd plastic surgery and drastic methods of body manipulation, and excessive consumerist culture, leading to the environmental damages that are plaguing this planet.
Metabolist Architectural Movement
Kawakubo’s experimentation on clothing and the human body sometimes reminds me of the metabolist architectural movement during 20th Century Japan. The metabolist movement aimed to create buildings that imitated a living thing. These buildings adapt to the environment and “grow” constantly depending on the needs of the community, therefore the buildings become a part of the environment and of the society altogether. A common example would be Kisho Kurakawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo which consists of a spine-like support with individually attached habitable capsules; this allows more capsules to be added, depending on the demand for space, which consequently makes the building “grow” and adapt like a living being. Although the original plans of this movements did not flourish profoundly, it has influenced the way contemporary architects think when relating buildings in conjunction to the environment and human beings. I find it very similar to Kawakubo’s holistic outlook of clothing, believing it to be a part of the body rather than a separate entity altogether.
Blobism (also known as “blobitecture”) is another architectural movement that reminds me of Kawakubo’s work since buildings are designed with a rounded and fluid form instead of an angular structure. The rounded form of the building is not an addition to the exterior, but is in fact the frame in itself. This of course reminds me of the “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body” and “The Future of Silhouette” collections. Interestingly enough, the architectural firm Future Systems, known for their blobist designs which include the iconic Selfridges building in Birmingham (above), has collaborated with Kawakubo to design the Comme des Garçons flagship store in Aoyama, Tokyo.
Rei Kawakubo’s work is very architectural and defies the limitations of what clothing “should” be and dares to challenge notions of fashion’s role in our society. In each collection, she allows her creativity to flow freely and continues to present something new every season. Every collection is provocative and forces viewers to think, which is why I consider her such a great artist.