December 4, 2023, 0:03

The Unsettling Vision of Rei Kawakubo

The Unsettling Vision of Rei Kawakubo

Does it really matter what one wears? I sometimes think my life might have been different if I had chosen the other wedding dress. I was getting married for the second time, and until the overcast morning of the ceremony I dithered between a bland écru frock appropriate to my age and station, which I wore that once and never again, and a spooky neo-Gothic masterpiece with a swagged bustle and unravelling seams in inky crêpe de laine, which I still possess: hope and experience.

The black dress—and other strange clothes in which I feel most like myself—was designed by Rei Kawakubo. In 1981, when she brought her first collection to Paris, Kawakubo was nearly forty and preëminent in Japan but largely unknown in the West. Mugler and Versace were the harbingers of a new moment: of a giddy, truculent materialism embodied, in different guises, by Margaret Thatcher, Madonna, Princess Di, Alexis Carrington, and Jane Fonda, and by legions of newly minted executives who wore block-and-tackle power suits to the office and spandex stirrup pants to the gym. These women were tough and glitzy and on the make without apologies, and so was fashion. Then, the following year, a collection that Kawakubo called “Destroy” hit the runway. It was modelled by a cadre of dishevelled vestals in livid war paint who stomped down the catwalk to the beating of a drum, wearing the bleak and ragged uniforms of a new order. Few if any spectators were left blasé, and some went home dumbstruck with rapture, while others lobbed back at the invader what they perceived as a blast of barbarity, tagging the look “Hiroshima’s revenge.” Kawakubo has never quite lived down (she has at times played up) that show of audacity, whose fallout is still being absorbed by fashion’s young, yet which was much more Parisian than it seemed—a piece of shock theatre in the venerable tradition of “Ubu Roi” and “The Rite of Spring.”

Kawakubo works under the label Comme des Garçons (“like some boys”), though she has never wanted to be like anyone. There are few women who have exerted more influence on the history of modern fashion, and the most obvious, Chanel, is in some respects her perfect foil: the racy courtesan who invented a uniform of irreproachable chic and the gnomic shaman whose anarchic chic is a reproach to uniformity. They both started from an egalitarian premise: that a woman should derive from her clothes the ease and confidence that a man does. But Chanel formulated a few simple and lucrative principles, from which she never wavered, that changed the way women wanted to dress, while Kawakubo, who reinvents the wheel—or tries to—every season, changed the way one thinks about what dress is.

Early Comme, as devotees winsomely call it, gave comfort to the wearer and discomfort to the beholder, particularly if he was an Average Joe with a fondness for spandex stirrup pants. Kawakubo’s silhouette had nothing to do with packaging a woman’s body for seduction. Nearly any biped with sufficient aplomb, one thought, might have modelled the clothes, though especially, perhaps, a self-possessed kangaroo, whose narrow shoulders and well-planted, large feet are a Comme des Garçons signature. The palette was monochrome, with a little ash mixed into the soot, and one hears it said that Kawakubo “invented” black—it is one of the “objective achievements” cited by the Harvard school of design when it gave her an Excellence in Design Award, in 2000. What she objectively achieved was the revival of black’s cachet as the color of refusal.

The French Old Guard, needless to say, reviled Comme des Garçons, but it immediately became popular among women of the downtown persuasion. In Kawakubo’s voluminous clothes one felt provocative yet mysterious and protected. They weren’t sized, and they weren’t conceived on a svelte fitting model, then inflated to a sixteen. Their cut had the rigor, if not the logic, of modernist architecture, but loose flaps, queer trains, and other sometimes perplexing extrusions encouraged a client of the house to improvise her own style of wearing them. Shop assistants showed one the ropes—literally. A friend of mine who included Kawakubo in a course on critical theory suggested that these “multiple open endings” were a tactic for liberating female dress from an “omniscient male narrator.”

Conventional fashion, and particularly its advertising, is a narrative genre—historical romance at one end of the spectrum and science fiction at the other, with chick lit in between—and Kawakubo doesn’t have a story line, insisting, not always plausibly, that she works in a vacuum of influence and a tradition of her own creation. “I never intended to start a revolution,” she told me last winter. “I only came to Paris with the intention of showing what I thought was strong and beautiful. It just so happened that my notion was different from everybody else’s.” Yet so many entitlements were challenged by the black regime of Comme des Garçons that it is hard not to see its commandant as a Red. The hegemony of the thin was one target, and the class system that governed fabrication was another. Kawakubo ennobled poor materials and humbled rich ones, which were sent off to be reëducated in the same work camp with elasticated synthetics and bonded polyester. She crumpled her silks like paper and baked them in the sun; boiled her woollens so that they looked nappy; faded and scrubbed her cottons; bled her dyes; and picked at her threadwork. One of the most mocked pieces from 1982 was a sublimely sorry-looking sweater cratered with holes that she called (one assumes with irony, though one can’t be sure) “Comme des Garçons lace.”

Kawakubo’s most radical challenge to the canons of Western tailoring lay in her cutting. Couturiers before her had experimented with asymmetry in the one-shouldered gown or the diagonal lapel, though they were still working from a balanced pattern with a central axis—the spine. She warped her garments like the sheet of rubber that my high-school physics teacher used to illustrate the curvature of space, and she skewed their seams or closures so that the sides no longer matched. Just because a torso has two arms, she didn’t see any reason that a jacket couldn’t have none or three, of uneven length—amputated and reattached elsewhere on its body. Among the many mutants that she has engineered are a pair of trousers spliced to a skirt; the upper half of a morning coat with a tail of sleazy pink nylon edged in black lace; and her notorious “Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress” collection, of 1997—“Quasimodo” to its detractors—which proposed a series of fetching, body-hugging pieces in stretch gingham that were deformed in unsettling places (the back, belly, and shoulders) with bulbous tumors of down. The historian and curator Valerie Steele sees “a kind of violence—even a brutalism—to Rei’s work that made most fashion of the time look innocuous and bourgeois, and from that moment an avant-garde split from the mainstream and hurtled off in its own direction.” Steele was, she adds, “an instant convert.”

A dress from the 2005 “Broken Bride” collection. Photograph by Sarah Moon

Photograph by Sarah Moon

Yet if Kawakubo consents to call her style “rebellious” and “aggressive” it is also intensely feminine in a bittersweet way. Her clothes suggest a kinship with a long line of fictional holy terrors: Pippi Longstocking, Cathy Earnshaw, Claudine—motherless tomboys who refused to master drawing-room manners and who, when forced into a dress, hiked up their petticoats and climbed a tree. Crushed frills are a leitmotif at Comme des Garçons, as are fraying ruffles; droopy ruffs; distressed pompoms; drab roses of wilted tulle, eyelet, crinoline, and broderie anglaise; and the round collars and polka dots that Kawakubo wore as a fauvish girl. In March, she showed a Fall-Winter collection whose theme was “The Broken Bride,” which was almost universally admired. (I doubt that she was entirely happy with the reviews—when everyone understands her, she seems to get depressed.) The models wore whiteface and antique veils anchored by floral crowns. The ensembles, despite their sovereign refinement, had an eerily familiar air of desperate, last-minute indecision. They were trimmed with passementerie that might have been salvaged from a Victorian steamer trunk in which the finery of an old-fashioned maidenhood had been abandoned along with its illusions. The show, in its melancholy romance, captured the tension between vigor and fragility which dominates most modern women’s lives, including Kawakubo’s.

Tokyo was enjoying an unseasonable warm spell when I arrived at the beginning of February, and the famous allées of cherry trees in the Aoyama cemetery had been lured into bud. In the labyrinth of paths that fret the verdant tract of incalculably expensive real estate, which is sacred to Buddhists, Shintoists, Christians, and fashion photographers, I kept running into an old man and his two whippets, all three in Hermès coats. The dogs upset the great flocks of crows—karasu—that nest in the foliage or perch insolently on the tombs and whose bitter cawing fractures the peace. A karasu was said to be the messenger of the sun goddess, Amaterasu, Japan’s mythical progenitress, from whom the imperial family claimed descent. Through the millennia, this brazen and potent female deity hasn’t been much of a model to her countrywomen, particularly once they marry. Of the numerous characters for “wife,” the most common, okusan, means “a figure of the inner realm.”

Japanese girls still tend to sow their wild fashion oats before they settle down with a mate and disappear, if not into the shadows, into a Chanel suit. But Kawakubo started out making clothes, in the seventies, she said, for a woman “who is not swayed by what her husband thinks.” (She was then deep into her black period, and her devotees were known in Tokyo as “the crows.”) Two decades later, and shortly after her own wedding, to Adrian Joffe—a South African-born student of Asian culture ten years her junior, who is the president of Comme des Garçons International—she told an interviewer from Elle that “one’s lifestyle should not be affected by the formality of marriage.”

Kawakubo owns an apartment near the cemetery, in one of the modern towers on its perimeter, not far from her headquarters and the three stores she has in the smart Aoyama shopping district. The apartment’s precise location is a secret (very few friends and none of the longtime employees whom I met had ever crossed its threshold), and she lives alone there with her twenty-year-old cat, the last of five. Joffe, who is based in Paris, sees her, he says, at least once a month, and between collections they take a week to travel—generally choosing somewhere off the fashion radar screen, like Yemen or Romania. He is a slight, intense man who speaks five languages, including fluent Japanese, and he acts as his wife’s interpreter. Small talk—indeed any talk—is not Kawakubo’s forte. She doesn’t take invisibility to theological extremes, like Martin Margiela, fashion’s Pynchon, who is, with some of his fellow-alumni of the Antwerp School (Ann Demeulemeester, Walter van Beirendonck, Olivier Theyskens, and Raf Simons), one of her acolytes, though she rarely poses for a photograph or gives an interview anymore, and, several years ago, she stopped taking a bow after her shows. From the beginning of her career, she has insisted that the only way to know her is “through my clothes.” Her employees, including Joffe, treat her with a gingerly deference that seems to be a mixture of awe for her talent and forbearance with her moods.

Kawakubo is now sixty-two. She is the sole owner of a company with a dozen boutiques and some two hundred franchises on four continents, which manufactures twelve lines of clothing, and grosses about a hundred and fifty million dollars annually. But, despite her wealth, her only apparent major indulgence is a vintage car, a monster Mitsubishi from the nineteen-seventies, which attracts the kind of stares in Tokyo that her clothes attract in Houston. The recreations common to designers of her prestige, such as collecting villas or art and socializing with celebrities, don’t appeal to her, and the atmosphere of her office “is more monastic than commercial,” as the journalist Deyan Sudjic puts it in a monograph on her career that was published in 1990. But she recently learned to swim, and on her way to work she sometimes takes a detour through the Aoyama cemetery to feed the stray cats.

Before I met Kawakubo in Paris, Joffe and I spent a day in Berlin at a Comme des Garçons “guerrilla store,” which then occupied the former bookshop of the Brecht Museum, on a seedy block in the eastern sector of the city. It is part of an experiment in alternative retailing (inconspicuous consumption) which the company launched in 2004. There are now seven such outposts, most in Northern Europe, in cities like Helsinki and Ljubljana. Each of the stores is an ephemeral installation that opens without fanfare and closes after a year. Their decorating budgets are less than the price of some handbags at Gucci and Prada, and original fixtures, including raw cinder block and peeling wallpaper, are left as they are found. Brecht might have approved the poetic clothes and the proletarian mise en scène, if not the insurrectionary conceit. “But the word ‘guerrilla’ as Rei understands it isn’t political,” Joffe says. “It refers to a small group of like-minded spirits at odds with the majority. She’s fascinated by the Amish, for example, and the Orthodox Jews.”

Part of Joffe’s role is to help make his wife intelligible whether or not she is present, and an unease sometimes creeps into his tone: the anxiety of a parent who resents the injustice yet accepts the inevitability of having to subject an antisocial prodigy to a school interview. “Are you scared of her?” I asked him bluntly over a Wiener schnitzel at the Café Einstein. “No,” he said, “but she can be dictatorial, and I’m sometimes scared of the way she might treat people.” Kawakubo treated me with a courtly if reticent politesse, and our conversations weren’t unlike a tea ceremony: exquisitely strained. She is a tiny woman with taut cheekbones, a graying pageboy, and an aura of severity. When we were introduced in her showroom, last January, she was wearing a pair of trousers most easily described as a hybrid of a dhoti and a jodhpur, with a trim cardigan and a corsage of safety pins. Though she cultivates a reputation for being both timid and intimidating, some of her friends—among them Carla Sozzani, the Milanese retailer and gallerist, and Azzedine Alaïa, the couturier—assured me that, in private, Kawakubo can be a charming pal, congenial and even “hysterically funny.” (I duly asked her what she laughs at, and she answered deadpan, “People falling down.”) She patiently entertained the speculations with which I tried to prime her, and allowed that some of them “might be true.” “But I’m very grateful that you haven’t asked me about my ‘creative process,’ ” she said, as I was leaving one afternoon. “I couldn’t explain it to you. And, even if I could, why would I want to? Are there people who really wish to explain themselves?”

“Oh, what the hell. Sure, I’ll have a little more marriage.”

Kawakubo was born in Tokyo in 1942. She was the oldest of her parents’ three children and their only daughter. (One of her brothers works as a director in the commercial department of Comme des Garçons, and the staff refers to him as Mister, to differentiate the two siblings in conversation, because there can be only one Kawakubo-san.) Their father was an administrator at Keio University, a prestigious institution founded by the great Meiji educator and reformer Fukuzawa Yukichi, a champion of Western culture and, according to Kawakubo, of women’s rights. She admires Yukichi as an “enlightened man,” but she has never belonged to a movement, followed a religion, subscribed to an ideology, or worshipped a hero, “because for me belief means that you have to depend on somebody.”

Sudjic relates a few anodyne details about Kawakubo’s girlhood (that she bunched her socks down as a revolt against the conformity of her school uniform, for example). Her home was “comfortable,” he writes, and her family “a close one,” and she told me that her mother made all the clothes. The trauma of war and the privations that Japan suffered in its aftermath didn’t, she thought, have an appreciable effect on her. Yet however ordinary she felt her upbringing to be (“You think I’m not normal because you’re looking at the clothes,” she said to me somewhat plaintively when we met in Tokyo. “But I am. Can’t rational people create mad work?”), her biography neglects to mention that she grew up with divorced parents. Her mother was trained as an English teacher—Kawakubo understands and speaks the language better than she lets on—and when the children were of a certain age she wanted to work. Her husband disapproved, and for almost all Japanese wives of that class and era his word would have been law. Kawakubo’s mother left him, however, and got a job in a high school. “She was unlike other mothers,” Kawakubo says. “I always felt like an outsider.” But she also had a model of defiance and autonomy.

In 1960, Kawakubo enrolled in her father’s university and took a degree in “the history of aesthetics,” a major that included the study of Asian and Western art. In 1964, the year she graduated, Japan hosted the Olympics. “The postwar period of poverty, humiliation, and, until 1952, Allied occupation was finally over, and the boom years of the economic miracle had begun,” Ian Buruma writes in “Inventing Japan.” Kawakubo’s generation discovered—and in varying degrees embraced—the counterculture of the sixties. At twenty-two, with a nod toward her mother’s act of lèse-majesté, she left home “without telling my parents where I was going or what I was doing,” and moved into a shared apartment in Harajuku, which was Tokyo’s East Village and is still a mildly louche neighborhood of clubs and boutiques where pierced teens (most of them home by dinnertime) hang out wearing outré street fashions and trying to look ghetto. Kawakubo was never a druggie or a rebel, she says, “though in my head I liked the bohemian life style.” On the other hand, she went to college with “a lot of rich people—that’s who goes to élite institutions, and they are generally conservative.” She found the solidity of their lives appealing, and she considers herself to have a dual character: the right half “likes tradition and history,” the left “wants to break the rules.” Nearly every statement Kawakubo makes about herself is hedged or negated by a contradiction, and she resists being defined even by her own words. The desire to be unique and the sense of isolation that the feeling generates are a predicament common to artistic people. What makes Kawakubo’s clothes so attractive to them is precisely her genius for wrapping up the paradoxes of being a misfit and a cipher in something to wear that is magically misfitting.

Tokyo in the sixties was not yet the world’s capital of luxury consumerism. Many women still made their own clothes or patronized a local tailor, and the best-known Japanese couturier, Hanae Mori, worked in a decorous Parisian mode. Kawakubo wasn’t thinking of a fashion career: her only vocation was for a life of self-sufficiency She found a job “at the bottom of the ladder” in the advertising department of Asahi Kasei, a textile manufacturer. Her boss was sympathetic to her ambitions. He accepted her unusual refusal to wear the standard uniform of an office girl, and he allowed her some modest creative freedom in helping to scout props and costumes for photo shoots. After three years, one of her older colleagues, Atsuko Kozasu, who later became an influential fashion journalist and an early booster of Comme des Garçons, encouraged Kawakubo to go freelance as a stylist. When she couldn’t find clothes suitable for her assignments, she began to design them, and she often says that she’s grateful to have skipped fashion school or an apprenticeship because, in the end, even if she can’t sew or cut a pattern, she had no preconceptions to unlearn, and no master to outgrow.

By 1969, Kawakubo’s work as a stylist had become a sideline that helped finance the production of the youthful sportswear that she sold through trend-setting shops like Belle Boudoir, in the Ginza, whose communal fitting room—“just like a London boutique”—impressed her. She rented office space in a graphic-arts studio and hired a few assistants. Tsubomi Tanaka, who is Comme des Garçons’ chief of production, has been with her almost from the beginning. Tanaka was then a country girl who had left home to work in a Harajuku shop and, she says, “do my own thing,” and she first noticed Kawakubo on the street. “Even in those days, she had an aura,” Tanaka says, “and I asked a friend if she knew her name, because I wanted to meet her.”

Sudjic writes, “Kawakubo’s experiences as a stylist had taught her the importance of creating a coherent identity”—a philosophy of design that is followed as strictly in the company’s Christmas cards as it is in the flagship stores. But the styling of that signature is a collaborative effort that demands an almost cultish attunement among the participants, and it is one of the paradoxes of Comme des Garçons that a designer obsessed with singularity and an entrepreneur allergic to beholdenness have spun such an elaborate web of dependence. In the workplace, Kawakubo’s laconic detachment—the refusal to explain herself—forces her employees, particularly the pattern cutters, to look inward, rather than to her, for a revelation of the all-important “something new.” Tanaka says, “The work is very hard, and I have to delve deep into my own understanding because her words are so few. But there’s always some give to the tautness. And I’m still moved by the collections. That’s why I’ve been here for so long.”

Comme des Garçons’ chief patterner, Yoneko Kikuchi, a thirty-year veteran of the firm, describes the arduous, if not mildly perverse, esoteric groping in the dark through which a collection comes into focus. It begins with a vision, or perhaps just an intuition, about a key garment that Kawakubo hints at with a sort of koan. She gives the patterners a set of clues that might take the form of a scribble, a crumpled piece of paper, or an enigmatic phrase such as “inside-out pillowcase,” which they translate, as best they can, into a muslin—the three-dimensional blueprint of a garment. Their first drafts are inevitably too concrete. “She always asks us to break down the literalness,” Kikuchi says. The quest proceeds behind closed doors, like a papal election, and successive meditations on the koan produce more or less adequate results. The staff calls the process by a deceptively playful English word, “catchball,” though as the deadline for a collection approaches, and Kawakubo is still dissatisfied, the “anguish and anger” mount in the cutting room. “We all want to please her,” Kikuchi explains, “and it’s sometimes hard for patterners who have come from other companies, because they just want you to tell them how wide the collar is supposed to be. But you can’t teach people to let go, and some end up leaving.” (“They make it sound more interesting than it is,” Kawakubo says, dryly. “The ideas aren’t as abstract as they used to be.”)

The business flourished, and was incorporated in 1973. By 1980, Comme des Garçons had a hundred and fifty franchised shops across Japan, eighty employees, and annual revenues of thirty million dollars. Fans of the house had none of the designer’s scruples about hero worship: they went on camping weekends together organized by the franchisees, and there was talk of a Comme des Garçons restaurant where the faithful could meet. The clothes they loved were inspired by the loose and rustic garb of Japanese fishermen and peasants. When I asked Kawakubo what those early designs looked like (she hasn’t kept many pictures in her archives), she answered after a long, perhaps embarrassed, pause, “Denim apron skirt. Very popular. I made different versions of it.” Their chicest detail may have been the Comme des Garçons label, typeset in a font created by Kawakubo, with a star for the cedilla, which hasn’t changed. It isn’t obvious how she made her evolutionary leap, but it occurred in the early eighties, when she abandoned representational fashion and introduced the notion of clothing as wearable abstraction.

Most people naturally assume that Comme des Garçons is not just a logo but a slogan, and when Kawakubo was still giving interviews she compared her work with menswear, in its ideals of comfort and discretion, although she has denied that there was any message to the three words: she had just liked their French lilt. They mean what they mean, however, and there are few women who personify the ideals of seventies feminism with greater fidelity. The phrase comes, with a slight tweak, from the refrain of a pop song, by Françoise Hardy, in which a wistful teen-age girl enviously watches happy couples walking “hand in hand” and wonders if the day will come when—“comme les garçons et les filles de mon age”—she will find someone to love her. One may have such yearnings at any age, and Kawakubo was into her thirties when she met the love of her youth, Yohji Yamamoto. There was something pharaonic about their glamour as a couple, that of two regal and feline siblings with a priestly aura, and they shared the regency of a new generation in Japanese design. Both are alumni of Keio University (Yamamoto was two years behind her) and children of enterprising single mothers—his a widow who owned a dress shop. Yet, as the eloquent idiosyncrasy of their work suggests, a match between equals is rarely a balanced pattern whose cuts and edges align.

Like Kawakubo, Yamamoto is an anomaly in the fashion world on a number of counts, his proclivities among them. He married young and fathered two children. A different union produced a third child six years ago. For some years in between, he and Kawakubo were “travelling companions,” as Kiyokazu Washida coyly puts it in an essay he contributed to Yamamoto’s book, “Talking to Myself,” a sumptuous pictorial chronicle of the designer’s career which was published in 2002. Malcolm McLaren remembers Kawakubo and Yamamoto as a petite, stylish couple of “excellent customers” (he didn’t yet know they were designers) who, in the seventies, turned up at Sex, the mother of all guerrilla shops, an outpost of seditionary music and fashion that he and his partner, Vivienne Westwood, had opened at World’s End, in London. (Decades later, Westwood told Kawakubo that she considered her a “punk at heart.”) They made their Paris débuts the same year, and were invariably linked, or lumped, together as part of an emerging Tokyo school that was challenging the conventions of Western couture, and of which Issey Miyake was the doyen. Kawakubo bridled at the group portraits. “I’m not very happy to be classified as another Japanese designer,” she told Women’s Wear Daily in 1983. “There is no one characteristic that all Japanese designers have.”

Yamamoto was unavailable for an interview, but his friend and associate Irène Silvagni, a former fashion journalist, speaks of “the enormous competition between Rei and Yohji that she, I think, needed and thrived on.” As far as Silvagni knows, they never collaborated, but “they both wanted to break the rules, and Yohji likes to say that ‘perfection is the devil,’ which I think is true for Rei. Japanese temples were always left unfinished for that reason.” It is her perception that “they admire each other deeply, but there’s a lot of baggage between them.” She referred me to the baggage depot at the end of “Talking to Myself,” in which Yamamoto sets down some fragmentary aperçus on a variety of existential subjects, including alcohol, gambling, insomnia, and women. “I’m always assuming that if she’s my girlfriend she won’t create a scandal,” he writes of a nameless consort. “I’m sure of this even if it’s unfounded.”

The relationship ended in the early nineties. When a childless single woman nearing fifty suddenly starts to do her best work, she often has a broken heart. Joffe had joined Comme des Garçons in 1987, and on July 4, 1992, he and Kawakubo were married at the city hall in Paris. The bride wore a black skirt and a plain white shirt. That winter, she showed a hauntingly lovely collection that is still a favorite. It was composed of ethereal chiffon layers yoked to cone-shaped knitted turtlenecks that masked the face from the nose down, worn over flowing shifts with sorcerer’s sleeves. Their color was nightshade, and their inspiration the myth of Lilith—a female demon of Jewish folklore, whom God created of “filth and sediment” when Adam, like the girl in the Hardy song, complained that he was the only creature on the planet without a mate. In Robert Graves’s version, Adam and his first wife “never found peace together,” because she rebelled at “the recumbent posture he demanded.” When he “tried to compel her obedience by force, Lilith, in a rage . . . rose into the air and left him.” So much for girlfriends who don’t create scandals.

“He knows what you did in Las Vegas.”

Lilith’s heretical divorce was a juncture for Kawakubo, too. She was tiring of black (but she tires of anything once it catches on, and being avant-garde, she said recently, has become a cliché). She began to play with the opulent fabrics she had once disdained: damask, brocade, and velvet; with brilliant, sometimes lurid colors; and even with the staples of drag and bimbohood—sheer lingerie (worn with winkle pickers) and campy bustiers (layered over bulky topcoats). For commercial reasons, she says, she started sizing the clothes and narrowing the gap between dress and body. She edited the guest lists for her shows to a sympathetic coterie of editors and buyers, in part, as Amy Spindler wrote in the Times, because “multiplying the attendance figures . . . only serves to increase the number of people who don’t get it.” But Spindler also noted that Kawakubo “typically throws a bone to those who still believe clothes are for wearing outside fashion focus groups without being gawked at.” Her easier-to-wear subsidiary lines, particularly Robe de Chambre (now called Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons)—a microcosm of her own wardrobe—streamline the runway concepts to reach a broader public. “I’m not an artist, I’m a businesswoman,” Kawakubo says. “Well, maybe an artist/businesswoman.”

Despite the relative accessibility of “The Broken Bride,” Kawakubo denies vehemently that she has mellowed (“I am still as aggressive as I’ve always been”), and every few years she reasserts her militance by exploding another bomb on the Paris stage. In 1995, the presentation of her menswear collection, which included a series of baggy striped pajamas reminiscent to some critics of the prison uniforms at Auschwitz, happened to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the camp’s liberation. Kawakubo apologized for any offense she might, unintentionally, have given, and Jewish organizations who reviewed the videos were satisfied that no sacrilege had been committed. But she was perfectly conscious of the storm she conjured two seasons later with “Dress Meets Body.” (Her own staff loved the sexy and salable silhouette, but there were worries about its bulges, and Kawakubo ultimately decided to make the troubling wads removable, though she wore them herself, and adapted them as costumes for a dance by Merce Cunningham. On perfect bodies in motion, they transcend their morbidity.) The collection was inspired, Joffe says, “by Rei’s anger at seeing a Gap window filled with banal black clothes.” Kawakubo concedes, with an ambiguous grimace that might just be a grin, “I may have been especially angry at the time, but I’m more or less always angry anyway.”

Early one morning in Paris, the cobblestones of the Place Vendôme were varnished by a drizzle, and a row of limousines idled in front of the Ritz, waiting for clients in town for the menswear shows. The couture had just finished, and, in the terribly chic restaurants where fashion people eat their tiny portions of mediocre food, they were complaining that the couture was finished. Only eight designers had bothered to mount a show, and there was a sense that a once festive, feudal tournament of virtuosity had become a Renaissance fair with demonstrations of spinning and horseshoeing in period costume. But no one had informed Armani, a couture débutant. In Le Figaro, he discoursed with a quaint gravity on les tendances de la mode and affirmed his belief in “simplified lines that are easy to understand,” because “true success means pleasing everyone”—a succinct résumé of everything in fashion that Kawakubo doesn’t stand for, in both senses.

Across the square, in a narrow courtyard adjacent to the showroom of Comme des Garçons, the company’s Paris staff, joined by a contingent from the Aoyama headquarters, who were groggy with jet lag, assembled for the morning salutation—a monastic ritual of solidarity performed daily in Tokyo. They formed a circle, shivering a little, and waited in silence for Kawakubo. Her protégé Junya Watanabe, who has a wrestler’s physique and a cherub’s face, squeezed in near Mister, who looked, in his business suit, a little like the hired mourner at a rocker’s funeral. Joffe was surprised at his wife’s delay (“She’s a stickler for punctuality”), but she arrived at her habitual gait—the anxious scuttle of a sparrow with a broken wing—and took her place.

Kawakubo was sporting her favorite accessory: a dour expression. A collection, she says, is never not “an exercise in suffering,” and she “starts from zero every time,” destitute of confidence. It is ironic to her, she said at our last meeting in Tokyo, that a career she undertook “with one objective: to be free as a woman,” has become a Spartan life of self-imposed servitude. But sympathy and compliments both annoy her, perhaps because they rub salt into the incurable and necessary wound of her discontent. The only consolation she can imagine “is an hour to spend with animals.”

When she wants to, however, Kawakubo smiles through her clothes. That morning, she had chosen a black sweater strategically appliquéd with two white circles and a triangle that one could read either as a face or two breasts and a pubis, and which was meant as an homage to Rudi Gernreich’s bikini and its muse, Peggy Moffitt. On her way to the rehearsal of her menswear defile, Kawakubo threw on one of her cheeky biker jackets from Spring, 2005: a crudely sutured leather blouson bred to an unbroken-in catcher’s mitt, then taught some charm by a vintage couture bolero with a standaway collar. “Balenciaga on steroids,” as an assistant put it.

Cristobal Balenciaga, who died in 1972, was a chivalric holdout from a courtlier age whose passing he lamented. If anyone “invented” black, he did. The ecclesiastic lines of his sculptural couture liberated women from the tyranny of the wasp-waisted New Look, and later from the ruthlessness of the miniskirt. His clients were the kind of grandes bourgeoises at whom Parisian spectacles of shock theatre have always been aimed, but Balenciaga himself might have recognized Kawakubo as a kindred spirit. They are both idealists whose work devoutly affirms that it matters what one wears—something pure in its distinction—and in that sense they have a common ancestor. He was an aging and spindly Spanish samurai who, like Kawakubo in her faintly obscene trompe-l’oeil bikini, was never afraid to cut an absurd yet heroic figure in a cynical world: the ridiculous made sublime. ♦


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