Monday, Feb. 09, 2004

Rei Kawabuko

Comme des Garçons' Avatar of the avant-garde

When Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo arrived in Paris in 1981 to show her Comme des Garçons ready-to-wear collection to the Western press for the first time, critics branded her mannish coats, inky palette and distressed fabrics "post-atomic" and "Hiroshima chic." They dismissed her unfinished seams and asymmetrical cuts as absurd.

At that moment in fashion, French couturiers ruled the roost. Black was not a color worn during the day, and clothes were intended to be objects of ornamentation. In fact, Kawakubo's concept that clothes should express something other than sexuality was unthinkable. Instead of taking traditional fashion cues, Kawakubo, who had come to design from textile advertising, looked to masculine dress, street culture and her Japanese heritage for inspiration. While other designers were cutting and draping their silhouettes, Kawakubo was slashing and shredding and twisting and sculpting hers. In everything she created, she challenged the notion that fashion was meant to beautify or to be beautiful.

Of course, black is now the preferred palette for day, and the diminutive designer has become a giant of the avant-garde. Where Kawakubo ventures, other designers will inevitably follow — her influence fueled by her consistent provocation.

In 1997 she outraged observers with a collection that questioned the very shape of women's bodies. Known as the bump collection, it deformed the silhouette with Quasimodo-style padded lumps placed strangely and strategically on models' backs, shoulders and hips. For spring 2004, when every designer was sending cliches of femininity down the runway, Kawakubo left many in the audience perplexed by presenting models in voluminous skirts cut from traditional Japanese fabrics. Instead of blouses, they wore sheer swaths of tulle over bare breasts. Even Kawakubo's perfumes defy convention. Odeur 53, created in 1998, has notes of nail polish and burnt rubber. The idea was to express smells that nobody would recognize.

Today Kawakubo presides over a multimillion-dollar privately held company with both commercial and fashion-forward lines for men and women, a perfume license with Puig and a new joint venture with Fred Perry. She also collaborates with Vivienne Westwood on a collection sold exclusively in Tokyo.