With the end of Fashion Week (at least here in New York), we thought it would be an opportune time to highlight a notable Japanese designer whose works have become ubiquitous among young people in practically every major city. Rei Kawakubo is the pioneer of the pop-up shop and the creator of Dover Street Market, a museum-like consumer experience, which operates in five locations including Ginza, a district in Tokyo known for its lofty department stores. Unlike those high-end recognizable retailers, however, Dover Street Market appeals to a more creative audience whose tastes tend to embrace the weirder, more fun side of fashion. Although many Westerners consider Japan as homogenous, Kawakubo breaks from the Eurocentric stereotype of the submissive Japanese woman through her creations which oftentimes pushes the boundaries of the human body altogether.
In 1973, Kawakubo founded Comme des Garcons. Her avant-garde line translates to “like a boy,” and originated during the global De-Constructionist movement in the 1970’s. During her first Parisian show, she garnered mixed reviews in the West for her lack of adherence to traditional silhouettes. Because these shows which occurred at the beginning of her career trajectory failed to gain much press, there is not much multimedia evidence of her collections. Here is a 1983 runway video that Vogue has deemed “rare footage,” which gives us a sense of how she uses the illusion of shapes to challenge what many saw at the time as the feminine figure. Of course, it is not difficult to imagine such looks on the streets of contemporary fashion-forward cities, but its lack of traditional femininity came under scrutiny during a time period when a stark divide between the masculine and feminine was unquestioningly and globally recognized.
Now, Comme des Garcons has become a name associated with the likes of high fashion, with mainstream department stores selling its coveted pieces. The progression from femininity to the acceptance of androgyny is not a linear one that can be attributed to only one designer, but we have chosen to highlight Kawakubo as a pioneer in the deconstruction of traditional gender roles to illuminate a movement that is oftentimes strictly associated with the West. In fact, Kawakubo, along with her Japanese counterparts such as Yohji Yamamoto, challenged the identity of the wearer by artistically manipulating sartorial pieces to give the illusion of a darker, more commanding presence of the woman. The contradiction between her public persona—or lack thereof—and her creations supports the notion of a more complex feminine representation. Although she tends to be demure and private about her personal life affairs, her personal sartorial choices (rumor has it that she has never worn color) as well as creations evoke a strength that is not often associated with the woman, and the Japanese woman in particular. Kawakubo’s global presence proves the versatility of the feminine regardless of cultural background. The importance of recognizing Japanese global influences--besides the obvious images of the Oriental such as the kimono or the schoolgirl uniform—lies in providing a more holistic and progressive account of what constitutes as Japanese beauty.