How Rei Kawakubo Thinks About a Dress

A ReFUSING Fashion book report

“How to express the whole of Rei Kawakubo’s vision?” asks Marsha Miro, founding director of Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art, in her introduction to this collection on the formidable designer. Published as a complement to MOCAD’s 2008 exhibit of Kawakubo’s work, ReFUSING Fashion includes reflections on her immense contribution to the fashion industry, as well as edicts on the idea of “fashionable.”

So, how does one express the vision of Kawakubo, the woman behind the elusive, innovative, and occasionally—okay, often—mind-boggling Comme des Garçons label? To express it is to, at least to some extent, understand it, and understanding doesn’t come easy, least of all to me. I opened this book with limited exposure to Kawakubo’s work. After finishing ReFUSING, I still consider her one of the most esoteric designers today. Her conceptual, avant-garde pieces deconstruct and destroy the conventional standards of beauty and fashion, giving the most qualified of editors an intellectual workout and leaving fashion philistines utterly confounded. Miro continues, “She has re-formed and re-thought [fashion] from the widest of perspectives, combining ideas from the fashion and cultural histories of Asia, Africa, and the West in assembled garments, or by tearing things apart to transform inherited ideas and make something very new.”

Throughout are photos from selected CDG fashion shows and, at the back, a chronology of Kawakubo’s life and work. It is the essays, though, that comprise the bulk of it. Written by the MET’s Costume Institute curator Harold Koda, architect Sylvia Lavin, New Yorker contributor Judith Thurman, and art historian Michael Stone-Richards, the essays attempt to delve into the consciousness of the notoriously guarded designer. They discuss her work, the history of CDG, and the ways in which she posits “alternatives to received notions of good taste, conventional ideas of beauty and the defining characteristics of the status quo.” I say “attempt” because, aside from the fact that Kawakubo is intensely private about her process, the clothing themselves are challenging, down to every fold, drape, and seam.

By creating garments that are ripped, crooked, ill-fitting, wrinkled, and stained, Kawakubo bucks trends and confronts the tenets of the fashion industry. Inside-out sweaters, broken zippers, coats that look like skirts, pants with loose threads or extra legs, jackets with the collars torn off—all of this and more is sent down the runway. Pictures of her “Lumps and Bumps” SS ’97 collection are particularly head-scratching, but a great example of her aesthetic and practice. Through these dresses (with their built-in pads that deform and inflate the stomach, hips, and shoulders—parts of the body that most women spend their lives trying to form and deflate) Kawakubo challenges how we think about dress and asks us to consider an alternative.

I am now a Kawakubo convert. While I may not be rushing out to buy three-legged pants anytime soon (I also don’t have $2,000), what I love about her clothing is that it gets you thinking about the concepts she puts forth and the questions she raises. Though it’s certainly no light read, ReFUSING Fashion is a critical look at Kawakubo’s significance (for which she was recently honoured with the CFDA International Designer Award) and a thoughtful, penetrative analysis of a designer that consistently eludes analysis (she didn’t even show up to accept it). While the book may not express the entirety of her vision—it’s likely nothing ever will—it does come very close.

further reading // ReFUSING Fashion: Rei Kawakubo by Marsha Miro, Harold Koda, Sylvia Lavin, Judith Thurman, Michael Stone-Richards // Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit // 2008

report // Lindsay Tapscott
images // Allison Staton