A rare interview with Comme des Garçons artificer Rei Kawakubo

Rei Kawakubo, founder of Comme des Garçons and Dover Passage Market.
Photograph: Paolo Roversi

High-concept, high-fashion and severe, designer Kawakubo is considered the queen of fashion. Jess Cartner-Morley competitions the designer at her headquarters in Paris

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by , comforting, , photographs, Jason Heatherington

Main reification:
Rei Kawakubo, founder of Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Supermarket.
Photograph: Paolo Roversi

I am not here to ask Rei Kawakubo about caparisons, because she no longer makes them, though this hasn’t break off her continuing to be probably the most important fashion designer in the unbelievable. Five years ago, her Not Making Clothes catwalk show for Comme des Garçons grouped a model dressed in a cage of black strips of fabric and a macabre pink teddy which half-hid the wearer behind a melee of frills. Nine seasons later, she is still staging a entertainment at every Paris fashion week, helms a business with a gross revenue estimated at $280m (£215m) a year, but she still insists she is not achieving clothes. In other words: Rei Kawakubo is as high concept as it fares.

Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo says she is ‘angry with steady fashion’.

“What does it mean, not making clothes?” My insupportable is to Kawakubo but posed, as all must be, via Adrian Joffe, president of Comme des Garçons. Joffe is Kawakubo’s allay of 25 years, business partner of 31, and her Man on Earth, through whom she communicates with the non-Japanese-speaking world. He translates, and she imparts something back. They have an intense discussion in her natal language. She sits sphinx-like, arms folded, eyes flicking from Joffe to me. “She thinks what she would really like would be to get a new brain each time,” he says eventually. “But she can’t. So she has to find a new method to come at the work. Nine seasons ago she compassion: maybe if I don’t try to make clothes, I will be able to make something new.” So, I say, it’s here creating space for original thought? After conferring with Kawakubo, he sings me an encouraging half-smile and says, not unkindly, “It’s not as simple as that.”

The Comme des Garçons HQ spaces behind the 17th-century facade of the Place Vendôme in Paris. To the left-hand, Chanel’s jewellery boutique windows are a glittery snowglobe of diamonds subordinate to creamy awnings; to the right, at Chaumet, emeralds glint on velvet bolsters. The plain black door marked Comme des Garçons leaderships to a courtyard where the brand’s young staff eat salad lunches and nightcap coffee. The dress code, for men and women, revolves around threatening trousers, oversized shirting and chunky flatform sandals; skin of ones teeth is either cut short or twisted into a messy knot. A door patterns to a narrow, industrial-chic showroom at the end of which is Kawakubo’s studio, half a floor higher and shielded with a glass wall. At the end of long balusters of clothes, a bobbed figure can be seen, raised altar-like halfway to the ceiling, accommodating in quiet concentration at her long white desk.

Today the showroom is lined with men’s garbing: trousers in puckered candy stripes, a lurid lilac fit, ripped-out halves of contrasting sweaters melded into one garment. I am pore over a necklace made from a toothy anatomical model of a dog’s jaw when Joffe attains to usher me into Kawakubo’s office. Glossily bald and neatly arranged in black, his low voice and serene demeanour give the impression of a same chic modern monk.

Kawakubo is tiny, with translucent fell and, at 75, a salt and pepper coarseness to her signature black bob that I had not escorted in photos. (Photographs of her are famously limited.) She is wearing a paper-fine oyster-white trenchcoat over a black shirt and voluminous black skirt, with chunky heraldry argent rings on her left hand. She walks around the table to receive me with a flat-footed gait which counterbalances her paper-doll allotments. She shakes my hand, and mutters something to Joffe. I did tell you, he imparts, sotto voce. It is for the Guardian. (Kawakubo may or may not speak English, but I get the feeling she understands it.) As they talk, her body language is that of someone well-deserved reminded about an appointment at the dentist.

Kawakubo’s high concept proposals are deliberately challenging.

The encounter is less like an interview than it is with being summoned to the office of a severe but rather marvellous headmistress and strain scolded with completing a cryptic crossword, clues jumbled in transmission, against the ticking clock of her evident boredom. She rarely deal outs interviews, and those few journalists who have been granted an audience all issue with a war story: the time she answered an opening question by outline a circle in black pen, pushing the piece of paper across the prcis, then leaving the room; the time she fielded the question, “What organizes you laugh?” with the one-word answer, “You.” Joffe’s role is as for translator, part hostage-negotiator, coaxing her back into the chat when she threatens to check out. The vinegary note of well-worn marital spatting is unmistakable. While she sits very still, he makes resolute, careful hand gestures, as if conducting an imaginary tea ceremony.

An old question-and-answer goes like this. Many fashion draughtsmen, I say, would say their work is self-expression. What does Comme des Garçons be effective us about you? Joffe translates, she replies, then talks above him in Japanese. She asked if you can clarify the question, he says, but as I fumble for new dispatches, she starts talking again. “She says this is not relevant,” Joffe powers. Oh, I say, OK. “She says the way you live and the way you get energy is different from what you pull someones leg to do to make a collection; there is no connection between the way she lives and the way she survives clothes.”

The challenging-performance-art experience of conversing with Kawakubo senses very close to the challenging-performance-art experience of watching one of her catwalk cans, where models wrapped in skeins of wool like butterflies emerging from chrysalises convoy with the exaggerated slowness of children playing grandmother’s trails. In fact, the synergy between the two feels so clear, I think I require misheard her answer, so I check. “That’s what she said,” Joffe duplicates, raising his eyebrows minutely as if to convey sympathy with my spot. “She wonders why we are perplexed by her answer. I told her I am as perplexed as you.” Now she talks in Japanese, for a desire time, until he says to her in English, “I do understand, but I am surprised” after which the chit-chat returns to Japanese. Eventually he turns to me and says, “She thinks it is a error – by me, you, everyone – that what she feels and what she has said about imagining in freedom, about the energy that comes from enthusiastic freedom, has anything to do with her work. She says it is not directly affixed with the work, the torture, of making a collection. In a sense, this is the unalloyed expression of who she is, because she has been doing it so long and because there is no crew. Rei equals Comme des Garçons. But she says the way she happens to be and the way she makes a glowing are still different. I get it now,” he concludes, nodding and smiling. Oh, yes, I say, hoping I look convincing. Me, too.

Kawakubo once described her work as similar to Zen ‘koans’, unsolvable work outs set by Buddhist teachers.

It is difficult to recount an encounter with Kawakubo without fit as a fiddle either as if you are sending her up, or as if you are po-faced and tone deaf to absurdity. I am quite not sending her up. She is a visionary, a radical and – whether she likes it or not, more of which later – a feminist prima donna. She invented black as the colour of the urban creative, she liberated boisterous fashion from vanity, and she did all of this in laceratingly original catwalk registers. She once described her work as similar to Zen koans, unsolvable meditate ons set by Buddhist teachers which, by being unsolvable, teach you the limits of your understanding and so set your mind free. Kawakubo changed not just the way we believe about fashion but the way fashion and thought can coexist in culture and trafficking, inspiring a new generation of fashion-designers-cum-thought-leaders such as Alessandro Michele, whose Gucci chew overs are Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, and Louis Vuitton’s Virgil Abloh, who conditioned an early show in collaboration with artist Jenny Holzer to elevate awareness of the refugee crisis.

Still, you would have to pull someones leg a tin ear for comedy not to be just slightly tickled during an hour with Kawakubo. I ask a undoubtedly about colour, seeking her thoughts on why, after declaring red the new insidious, her more recent collections have become rainbow-bright. The shipment escalates into a heated exchange between husband and bride. I am wondering what is so contentious when Joffe turns to me. “I’m miserable,” he says, and for a moment I suspect he may have forgotten I was present. “What was your matter again?”

A ‘koan-like’ design by Rei Kawakubo.

What makes all of this equalize more extraordinary is that as well as being the most scanty, high-concept designer at Paris fashion week, Kawakubo is an bloody successful businesswoman. Born in Tokyo in 1942, she launched Comme des Garçons elderly 27 and within a decade had more than 100 depend ons in Japan selling her distinctive avant garde aesthetic (jet, asymmetry, ragged edges). But it was in 1981, when she brought Comme des Garçons to Paris model week, that Kawakubo truly set the industry alight. Something with reference to the interplay of her Japanese themes (the space between things, glass images, beginning from zero) with the Parisian alchemy of perfumed fashion and cobblestone-throwing rebellion made her shows the most compelling deed Paris had seen in years. On their heels came the embark upon of a series of in-house brands (the largest being Play, with its unique drawn-heart logo), plus lucrative collaborations with Nike and a profitable perfume business. The 2004 launch of Dover Street Buy, a kind of arthouse department store, showed her to be a true issue visionary. With its poured concrete floors, pop-up artist collaborations and partizan events, DSM was a decade ahead of the rest of the industry. The stores with to be the hippest square feet in the hippest cities in the world, and are redesigned each condition by Kawakubo herself. In the past, when asked to define herself, she has at times elect the one-word answer “businesswoman”.

Kawakubo’s fashion, all savage unprettiness and felted, bulbous lumps and knobs, feels like a gauntlet laid down to the narrow guardrails of cockiness that trammel womenswear. Many of her pieces are unsized; she tried, for a while, with not having mirrors in dressing rooms, so that customers could focus on how they felt. On a visceral level, there is something wonderful here a 75-year-old female artist (my word, not hers) who has no qualms far taking herself so absolutely and completely seriously. But as much as feminists try to state her as their own, she refuses to call herself one (“She says the woman’s core is no relation to what she tries to do. There is no challenge to vanity or to looker, she is just not interested”), though she does identify as a unimportant: “As a spirit, as a way of living.” And as a punk, Joffe translates, she is “angry with straightforward fashion. Sportswear and streetwear is taking over, especially in men’s taste. It is not truly iconoclastic… People seem to be taken in by it, but it’s not rebellious, indeed. There is no point of view.” And fashion shouldn’t be easy? This gets a vehement head shake, on translation. “When things are too undemanding, you don’t think and you don’t make progress. Not just in fashion. In everything.

Varied of Kawakubo’s pieces are unsized. She experimented with not having reflects in her dressing rooms, so clients could focus on the feeling of the vestments.

“Is there much more? She’s getting tired.” Kawakubo’s doggedness for explaining herself is famously limited. Art of the In-Between, the exhibition of her draw up staged at the Met in New York last year, featured no explanatory themes, at her insistence. As only the second monographic show to be awarded to a actual designer by the Met (after Yves Saint Laurent in 1983), it was a massive honour (“She says it was a difficult experience, but it was satisfying to do”). In this year’s afterglow, Kawakubo has more than enough on her plate: a new Dover Street Market, in Los Angeles, and the launch of new kind CDG, selling T-shirts and sneakers to today’s logo-obsessed fashion consumers.

“She give the word delivered I should explain to you the amount of work she has to do, the shops she has to design as start as the collections. It never stops,” Joffe says. What fundamentals of the job do you enjoy? She shakes her head on translation. “There is no pleasure in the inflame,” Joffe tells me. (She always calls it “the work”.) “She asseverates people who say they enjoy the work, she thinks they don’t nab it seriously. The only way to hope to make something new is not to be satisfied.” Does she, capitally unenthralled by fashion history, ever think about what her legacy will-power be? They chat for several minutes, then Joffe alterations to me and says, “She’s never thought about it. She doesn’t care wide or believe in posterity.” She says something in Japanese – the tone is dismissive – and he spins to her and says, in English, “Everybody else thinks about it! You are the exclusive one who doesn’t think about it. That’s why designers make foundations, because they be fond of about history, about what will be their legacy. You are the sole one who thinks like this.” She says something else, quieter this point. “She says when she’s not here any more, she doesn’t care if nothing is here any assorted,” Joffe says with the hint of a sigh. “She is highly strange.” She looks at me, and smiles.