It’s one thing to be a fashion mainstay for decades on end, but it’s another completely to be honored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute with your own exhibit chronicling your life’s work. Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo has been fixing fashion by breaking it since the early '80s, and Hollywood and fashion’s elite will pay tribute to her at tonight’s Met Gala in New York City. Here's 10 things to know about Kawakubo before her official christening.
1. Born in Tokyo in 1942 and the oldest of three, Kawakubo’s father was an administrator at Keio University, where she’d later attend, which was founded by educator and reformer Fukuzawa Yukichi, a champion of Western culture and, according to Kawakubo, women’s rights.
2. She was never formally trained in fashion. The designer studied fine arts and literature at Keio University. According to a 2005 New Yorker article by Judith Thurman, Kawakubo took a degree in “the history of aesthetics,” where she studied Asian and Western art.
3. After working in the advertising department of a textile company, Kawakubo did work as a freelance stylist. In 1969 she began designing her own clothes under Comme des Garçons, French for “like some boys,” but wouldn’t incorporate the label until 1973.
4. Though she opened her first boutique in Tokyo in 1975, it wouldn’t be until 1981 that Kawakubo began showing her designs in Paris every year. Comme des Garçons has long been about defying mainstream fashion. “We had to get away from the influence of what had been done ine the 1920s or the 1930s,” Kawakubo said. “We had to get away from the folkloric.”
5. By the time she made her way to Paris, Kawakubo and her followers had been dubbed “The Crows” by the Japanese press because of the designer’s early emphasis on black clothing. “[I] never intended to start a revolution,” she told The New Yorker. “It just so happened that my notion was different from everybody else’s.”
6. Her debut Parisian show was heralded by fashion journalists as “Hiroshima chic” among other things, for her design’s asymmetry, draping, frayed edges, and holey appearance.
7. It’s not just the clothes that Kawakubo lends her creativity to, but everything around her brand. She plays a role in the graphic design and advertising of the company, as well as the interiors of her shops, believing everything feeds into the greater vision of Comme des Garçons.
8. Alexander McQueen recognized her as a contemporary fashion great. “When Kawakubo designs a collection, it seems kind of absurd, not just to the general public,” he said in a 2003 broadcast interview by Japanese company NHK. “But when someone’s challenging themselves like she does every season, it makes you understand why you are in fashion in the first place because of people like her.”
9. And it’s not just McQueen, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Donna Karan praised the designer in the same broadcast. “I believe that Kawakubo is a woman with extreme courage,” said Gaultier, associating her designs with the spirit of a young girl still innocent and a bit romantic, but also with an aspect of a fighting woman unafraid of everything. Karan added: “Rei Kawakubo is a very interesting designer to me as a woman and a female designer. As a person, she is very quiet and withdrawn, yet her clothes make such an enormous statement.”
10. The Costume Institute’s exhibit on Kawakubo will be only the second ever to focus solely on an individual designer. The first was Yves Saint Laurent in 1983 and there hasn’t been another until now. “Kawakubo [is] known for her avant-garde designs and ability to challenge conventional notions of beauty, good taste, and fashionability,” says The Costume Institute’s website. The exhibit will feature approximately 150 examples of Kawakubo’s womenswear for Comme des Garçons dating from the early 1980s to now. Objects will fall into one of eight categories – Fashion/Anti-Fashion, Design/Not Design, Model/Multiple, Then/Now, High/Low, Self/Other, Object/Subject, and Clothes/Not Clothes – illustrating how Kawakubo “breaks down the imaginary walls between these dualisms, exposing their artificiality and arbitrariness.”