Rei Kawakubo is, without a doubt, the high priestess of the avant-garde, and Comme des Garçons is the cult she has created. Not only does she possess a religious following and a body of work that spans four decades of uncompromising radicalism, but her cryptic silences, black-clad persona and commanding bob make even her most absurd style declarations – men in skirts being a favorite – sound serious rather than ridiculous.
Since Kawakubo arrived in Paris in 1981 with monochrome designs that radically challenged common perceptions of beauty and completely rewrote the staid relationship between clothing and body, nothing has ever been the same again. Hiroshima chic was the not entirely complimentary descriptor bestowed on those early, allblack, hole-y, asymmetric efforts. In hindsight, though, it is apt; Kawakubo’s debut was akin to a creative atomic bomb. And she accomplished all of it without sacrificing commerce on the altar of creativity. Forty years on, she is still the president and owner of her own independent, profitable company. Notoriously a woman of few words, Kawakubo knows how to deliver a resonant sentence. She never draws, preferring words to brief her team. Her latest men’s collection, which features tutus and skeletons, bears the jolly riddle of a title Skull of Life.
Flaccavento: The new Comme des Garçons Homme Plus collection literally drips with skulls, from the clothing to the hair. Why?
Kawakubo: There is never any particular reason. Collection after collection, for 40 years, all I have been doing is searching and looking and trying to find an idea that expresses something new.
Flaccavento: What do you like about a man in a skirt?
Kawakubo: I just want to create something strong and new: to find new ways to express beauty.
Flaccavento: Do you like to provoke extreme reactions?
Kawakubo: Obviously, any reaction is better than no reaction, but shock is not my main aim. Moving, questioning, creating a feeling never felt before is good.
Flaccavento: Is radicalism a relevant concept to you?
Kawakubo: Comme des Garçons is about creation, about always looking for something new. This is the pillar around which I founded and built the company. There can be no wavering from this primordial value.
Kawakubo: I kept doing what I decided to do when I started the company.
Flaccavento: What motivates you after so many years?
Kawakubo: Responsibility for my staff and the welfare of my company.
Flaccavento: How can you change the world through the medium of fashion? Is this your aim?
Kawakubo: My aim was to be independent; to have a working life in order to be free. This is my only aim.
Flaccavento: Is an aesthetic revolution still
Kawakubo: Everything is always possible.
Flaccavento: Is it necessary?
Kawakubo: Without creation there can be no progress. No freedom.
Flaccavento: What do you think of the “conceptual” label that people apply to your clothes?
Kawakubo: Although I don’t take any notice of the labels anyone wants to give me, the starting point of every collection is a theme or a concept, then a sub-theme and a sub-concept…
Flaccavento: How do you marry business and creation?
Kawakubo: It is a very fine balance. Comme des Garçons consists of many different collections.
Flaccavento: What’s the essence of the Comme universe?
Kawakubo: See above.
Flaccavento: What is the creative process like for you?
Kawakubo: More and more difficult. The weight of experience is heavy. It is harder and harder to create something new. More often than not, it is hell.
Flaccavento: Which do you like best: the process or the product?
Kawakubo: Everything or nothing: I can’t separate.
Flaccavento: Finally: is fashion serious or frivolous?
Kawakubo: Fashion is simply a great way to express one’s individuality and feelings.