Rei Kawakubo

Reviewed by Christina Catherine Martinez

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My fashion pedigree is wholly derived from childhood predilection for wrapping swaths of cloth and ribbon left over from my mother’s sewing projects around my body in primitive, avant-gardist arrangements. I would punctuate the look with bright pink plastic heels, the kind that came in a blisterpack from the supermarket, and then hobble over to my mother and ask her with all the gravitas of a four-year-old-girl:

“Mom, am I fashion?”

“Yes sweetie,” she’d reply, “You’re fashion.”

Though not all are subjected to—blessed with?—a congenital penchant for getting dressed, internet culture has given rise to an entire generation of self-styled fashion aficionados who privilege ideas and images over the clothes themselves, and big-idea designers like Rei Kawakubo are their patron saints. I can’t pinpoint the moment of discovery, but in a mainstream landscape of bronzed legs, big tits, and beachy waves, Rei Kawakubo and the various arms of her fashion house crept in like a slow revelation; dark, angular creatures from another world moved into the periphery and eventually came to embody my love for clothes that are about clothes.

Punk, girlhood, the body in space, and female rites of passage are constant themes in her work, and for the right girl at the right time, the encounter can be an emotional experience, even through the prosaic lens of a Style.com slideshow. In the words of John Waters, “She specializes in clothes that are torn, crooked, permanently wrinkled, ill-fitting, and expensive… (she) is my god.”  Kawakubo was the first designer about whom I realized I could buy her ideas without buying her clothes; she is the reason I buy my basics direct from a school-uniform supplier—the prim skirts, peter-pan collar blouses, and pinafore dresses are clearly a point of reference for many of the pieces under her lines Comme Des Garçons Shirt and Comme Des Garçcons Play, but going to the source is all I can afford. And I like to think the subtle perversion of it all is amped up a bit by doing so.

The flat, shiny surface of Taschen’s new monograph on Kawakubo handles like an oversize children’s book. A collaboration between Taschen and the youth-centric British fashion magazine i-D; the book might be loosely described as a collection of primary documents with pictures rather than a series of essays. The contemporaneous reviews of Kawakubo’s now-infamous runway shows working under the label Comme Des Garçons, and the raw, full-bleed, photographs are all curated from the archives of i-D by its Founder, Creative Director, and Editor-in-Chief Terry Jones.

Far from the dense cinder-block catalogues that tend to accompany fashion exhibitions, (see ReFusing Fashion, a cinder-block accompaniment to the retrospective of Kawakubo’s work of the same name at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in 2008) Rei Kawakubo is the first in a planned series on incendiary fashion designers that include Vivienne Westwood, Yohji Yamamoto, Raf Simons and Rick Owens; it’s a new type of fashion book for a new type of fashion audience for whom the idea of “pedigree” is as stuffy, outdated, and even crass. Like a Juicy Couture bag. Like the beloved Childcraft books that are now sadly lost to the malevolent spectres of my parents’ attic, I can just picture the entire series lined up neatly on my bookshelf, assured of its place and mine because of it.

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Terry Jones, Rei Kawakubo, (Taschen, 2012) 
Images: Cover and interior images from Rei Kawakubo