AS A CURATOR, PART OF YOUR ROLE IS INTERPRETATION SHE IS OPEN TO INTERPRETATION BUT NOT JUST ONE INTERPRETATION Kawakubo founded Comme des Garçons (French for “like the boys), the Tokyo- and Paris-based brand in 1969 and she’s been disrupting the status quo ever since. The designer is infamous for her deconstructing habits, voluminous silhouettes, protrusions of fabric; like her creative process, her clothes are viewed as completely singular. She's an original. They aren’t pretty in the conventional sense; often, they’re not even, really, very wearable. That's all intentional, though. The wearer, or the observer, is meant to tap into how the clothes make you feel, rather than how they make you look; it’s fashion to be admired, appreciated, and inspirational. As statement-making as her items tend to be, though, Kawakubo is notorious for staying very far behind the scenes, choosing, instead, to have her work speak for her.
AN INTERVIEW FROM VOGUE DURING COVID (“The Power of Clothing” According to Comme des Garçons’s Rei Kawakubo | Vogue)
Mitsuko Watanabe: I’m hoping to hear what your thoughts are on the current situation where COVID-19 is spreading globally, as well as the new direction Comme des Garçons is taking. Rei Kawakubo: I don’t have much to say. [Laughs.] I’m sorry.
Around the time of the spring 2021 collection launch, you were interviewed by several TV channels and newspapers, which I thought was quite unusual for you.
The newspaper interviews had been arranged a while back, but because they coincided with the pandemic, they ended up getting more attention.
I think we were all surprised to see you being interviewed on TV.
I suppose people noticed because I did something different.
Did you make a conscious decision to do something different?
Given the situation, I thought I should talk a little about what’s on my mind. It’s nothing elaborate, but I just thought now is a good time to share some of my thoughts. I tend to avoid explaining (my thoughts) in words, even with my fellow staff at Comme des Garçons, but I figured that sometimes it was necessary.
Ah, so those words were also aimed towards your team at Comme des Garçons. Did you agree to be interviewed around the same time as when you decided to have shows in Tokyo?
The TV programs approached me just before the shows. Our shows were small, and most of the spectators were people we knew, but because it was unusual for someone to have physical shows instead of going digital, they became interested.
“It was important that clothes were seen as just clothes”
For this season, brands around the world experimented with a wide variety of formats to launch their collections. What made you go ahead with physical shows?
I didn’t consider digitizing the shows because that means introducing imagery as another form of creation. I believed it was important that clothes were seen as just clothes. There is significance in people coming to the venue to see the show close up. I always have small shows when launching my collections. I always think about the scale, not just for this season, so the audience are as close to the clothes as possible. This season, the scale just became a little smaller.
So that’s what you focus on, even if only a limited number of people get to see the shows?
That’s right. Seeing them with your own eyes is a completely different experience to seeing them through photos or videos.
What is the biggest difference, in your mind?
Everything. Do you not feel that yourself, too? Once my shows are over in Paris, I watch some of them back on videos online to see how people reacted, but I feel like I only get a tenth of what it was really like. I always think that you would feel 10 times more if you were actually there, both good things and bad. There were also many designers who chose to create videos in order to express their world.
Yes, and that’s one way to do it too. But that’s a completely different form of creation to making clothes. There are multi-skilled people who can use sound or draw as a means of expression, not just through making clothes, but I only have clothes, so that’s what I do. I therefore can’t, or won’t, create videos to showcase my clothes.
It is hard to capture details through digital media, and I feel like I’m only using a limited part of my senses to perceive them.
I am very concerned that the shows, watched by only 50 to 60 people in real life, are turned into videos and delivered to the world—but there’s not much I can do about that.
You can’t even have exhibitions in Paris.
There’s no opportunity for people outside of Japan to look at this season’s clothes.
I take it this is the first time you’ve encountered a situation like this, since you began creating clothes.
That’s right. That’s why I only show the clothes. I have not been creating in a way where you move people with your videos. I assume the other designers who also use videos to express appeal more to journalists. Comme des Garçons works well for those who can see our clothes in the flesh, but won’t have much impact on people outside of Japan, I just have to accept that.
Even in that situation, you have to keep your business going.
That’s an impossible task.
Even if we make clothes, there’s nobody to buy them. They can’t go out to shop, and they don’t have anywhere to wear them. We say, “We’ll carry on making” and “Once we stop, that’s it,” but since there are no opportunities for customers to wear our clothes, everything is looking hopeless at the moment.
But you have no way forward other than to carry on making?
That’s right, but we don’t know if it really is a way forward. We must prepare ourselves so we can act right away when normality resumes, by continuing to work at the same pace. That’s partly why we kept to the same schedule. But it is depressing. I’m not sure if we can work with vigor. We’ll have to push ourselves.” Has the business within Japan changed drastically, too?
We can’t go out, or we feel like we shouldn’t. There are no opportunities or reasons to dress up, or places to dress up to express who you are. That’s the reality.
It reminded me of the thing that we took for granted, that we wear clothes to show ourselves in a certain way, depending on where we go, who we meet or how we feel. In the current situation, we can no longer enjoy these feelings.
It’d be great if we could overcome that and dress up to motivate ourselves, but that’s easier said than done. It’s easy to say, “Let’s dress up to cheer ourselves up.” I wonder if people get dressed up to appear on Zoom meetings for work—even though the others can only see your top half.
I hear people talk about how they focus on looking good from waist-up. [Laughs.] I suppose it’s the first time for you to stay in Japan like this.
Yes, and it’s tough. You’re in the same boat as me, no? I used to fly every six weeks or so, but now I’m stuck. By traveling, I could feel things, both good and bad. It’s like having antennae, I guess. And if I’m not moving around, my world becomes smaller.
We definitely have less stimulation, etcetera, from the external world. On the other hand, I feel that maybe it provides an opportunity to look again at where you are standing, and Japan.
Is that why you chose to highlight Japan for your April issue? [Laughs] But we can’t even move around Japan. I can’t even go to Kyoto.
“It seems that currently, there’s no value in being “a little unusual” A newspaper journalist asked you what you thought the future might bring, to which you answered, “I’m worried that it will be an era where everyone chooses to dress safely.”
Yes, to be precise, that would be bad for my business. [Laughs.] It seems that currently, there’s no value in being “a little unusual,” especially in womenswear. It’s very quiet. You’ve been saying that for a few years now.
That mood is prevailing, regardless of the pandemic.
You think the desire to “be different” or “express yourself” has shrunk for women?
People who have lived their lives with that drive, including me, are now getting old. And there’s a whole generation of women missing, who think like that or live with the same spirit as us. I see that reflected in my business; there’s very little demand from women in those age groups. I feel that people from older generations were stronger in all sorts of ways.
Even looking at the younger generations within the editorial team, I don’t see a strong urge to “dress differently.” Not to say that they don’t have their own criteria for choosing a T-shirt or a pair of jeans.
I guess they don’t purposefully try to live differently from others. That’s not important to them.
I feel that they don’t have a lot of anger, either.
That’s why they are the way they are.
They don’t have a lot of complaints or feel inconvenienced by society—at least they come across that way. Nevertheless, women in Japan still suffer from…
…low status. Looking around me, I personally don’t feel that way, so when I see such data, it still astonishes me to know how low it is (compared to other countries). Society seems to be kind to women, with fewer restrictions compared to the past, but according to statistics we are one of the worst countries in the world. We have very few female leaders of companies, for example.
It is evident that there are very few women in corporate leadership and in politics. The gender pay gap is also large.
I suppose those fields are still dominated by men.
Undoubtedly. If creators like you could stimulate Japanese women a little…
I’m powerless. [Laughs.]
Maybe not directly, but surely you have a desire to change the way people feel.
I can’t. I’ve learned that the hard way. [Laughs.] The people of this era want to dress naturally, comfortably, stylishly and not much more. My business suffers if people shy away from clothes that are difficult to wear. [Laughs.] When we really put our thoughts into a piece, it will become difficult to wear in some aspects. We need people to be OK with that and wish to wear it despite that. I sometimes think that it’s to do with what we make, and therefore partly my own fault, but at the moment, there’s the whole situation we’re in on top of that. Those who are interested in fashion are aware of the complex elements involved in clothes, and there are many people who need the items you create and will struggle without them.
But they just want T-shirts and jeans, don’t they?
Well, the younger fans, maybe. [Laughs.] Time will change though.
“It’s not really about the shape of the clothes. I want to move the atmosphere”
Once upon a time, Vivienne Westwood said something along the lines of “people have never dressed as lazily as now, in comfortable clothing, and that seems wrong.” I think she wanted to point out that we were less and less aware of the spiritual meaning of dressing up or wearing clothes. I feel that magazines and other media need to focus on that more, hence today’s interview. [Laughs.]
Going back to what I said, I think there’s a similarity between how I think that clothes themselves should be released, rather than through videos etc. and how magazine editors want readers to pick up a physical copy of the magazine instead of reading it online. I think it’s the same thing.
Oh, definitely. I believe now it is important to reach an overall balance between various parts of the Vogue brand, including the paper and digital copies. Likewise, in Comme des Garçons, you have created a brand with several roles within a single company.
You mean our brand configuration?
Yes, I think it suits the current climate.
Each element is tiny in scale though. [Laughs.] We set up an e-commerce site too, but we still have more customers visiting our bricks-and-mortar stores. In some ways, that’s a good thing for me. Depending on what kind of clothes you buy, some are fine to buy online, but some clothes are definitely better suited to see, touch, and buy in real life, while experiencing the atmosphere of the shop. I prefer clothes that I can experience, by going to a physical shop. The value of touching and experiencing the clothes before you buy them seem to be diminishing among the younger customers more and more, and with fewer people who value these things, I see no future regardless of how hard I try.
I strongly believe that the value of physical stores will never die.
You think so?
I do, however, think that the number and the experience will change.
The number will go down a lot.
I foresee a future where the real experience becomes the most luxurious of all. The key questions are, how much that luxury will be needed, how much value it will create and whether people will want to pay for it or not. I’m sure this pandemic brought you opportunities to think about new forms of creation and business.
As our way forward? Yes, we did. As I’ve said earlier, it’s my homework to think about how we can combat the shift to online shopping, and how we should recreate ourselves. I don’t exactly know what this new form would be, but I do have a desire to create some kind of culture, mood or movement and shake the world just a bit. That’s my dream, but it’s not easily achieved in this age of the internet. Before, there used to be people or communities who used their lifestyle as a form of expression and when they united, they formed a pillar from which interesting fashion sprung. Sometimes they even created huge movements. Now, they ‘like’ other people’s posts on social media but the experience stays virtual so there doesn’t seem to be a mood to actually live your life to express. You quoted Vivienne earlier, but places like London in the 1970s, before the internet, had that. And there were many people who joined the fashion industry because they loved that. If I could spread that sort of mood, even at a modest scale… That’s my dream. It’s not really about the shape of the clothes. I want to move the atmosphere. The problem is, currently the atmosphere is so still, so even if it moves a little, nobody will feel it. I suppose if I could create an atmosphere where there is a craving, it might catch on a bit.
Perhaps nowadays, society as a whole does not easily permit the rise of such movement.
Possibly—which leads me to think that I have to collaborate with mass media in order to create a wave. Around the time when Magazine House launched a new magazine, An An, they approached us, asking us to create clothes because they couldn’t find clothes that matched the theme they had for one of the pages, so we created clothes for the shoot. That provided good publicity for us in return. Sometimes, it was events like that which helped Comme des Garçons flourish. We weren’t just making and selling products, but we were able to create a win-win relationship with the media, leveraging their power. I’m hoping to do a “modern version” of that. What would that “modern version” be, exactly? Trends tend to be short-lasting nowadays.
Big movements are hard to create.
I wonder if there’s a way to let it spread.
Everything is dispersed. I think each magazine used to have a stronger influence over its readers.
I agree. A magazine could be a “genre” in itself. You are a business owner, as well as a creator. That’s why you can see things like that.
It’s whether you can see ahead or not. From the investment point of view, development is necessary. Status quo is not everything. We can say the same thing about countries.
I know what you mean. I also think this trend of placing significance in numbers is due to the fact that the scale of the industry has grown in the last two decades or so.
Has it really? Maybe it looks bigger because we see cheap, comfortable clothes selling fast and circulating. In the last two to three years, there’s been an increasing amount of focus on the fashion industry’s social responsibilities. That, I think, points to the fact that the fashion industry has grown and so has its impact on society. When we produce fashion articles, there is now a demand that we clarify our own opinions and policies on the matters discussed, and our role as a medium.
That approach is necessary and correct. I’m concerned, however, that there is a trend of saying no to everything based on that. That mood seems to be prevalent right now, which tends to restrict the width and the depth of creative activities. Perhaps fashion questions the status quo by default. That’s the spirit of fashion, and what makes it interesting. If you accepted everything that was handed down to you without questioning, you would only create a boring society and boring fashion. I don’t really agree with the trend where only brands which advocate “goodness” are considered to be cool.
It’s always necessary to look at what is “right” in a relative sense.
I imagine this is why people are satisfied with regular clothes. I feel like there’s something wrong about feeling satisfied merely because you are wearing something that doesn’t have a negative impact on nature, but it’s hard to explain. I’ve had that feeling for a long time.
That touches on the fundamentals of fashion. This may sound innocuous, but I think what’s important is balance. We need to consider if a piece of clothing that doesn’t excessively harm the environment can claim value as fashion based on that quality alone.
There is no one perfectly right way. It’s difficult. Still, we shouldn’t let society just ride away on these superficial words.
I heard that at Comme des Garçons, you keep materials you’ve used and reuse them. Also, you use biodegradable plastic for garment cases to protect your clothes. We sometimes create articles in the hope of educating the younger generation. They just need opportunities to learn about these strong, cool women. Social media is overflowing with information, but it doesn’t necessarily provide a wide variety of information. Having said that, I also think Comme des Garçons might benefit from using things such as Instagram. We’ve been unable to go to Paris during the pandemic, but for you, is Paris somewhere that’s essential for creation and business?”
It is at the moment. Everyone comes to Paris.
Because it is important for people to meet each other and touch the clothes in real life?
That’s what I’d like to believe.
I definitely think so. Clothes are something we wear on our skin. Not all aspects of fashion can be virtual.
It’d be nice if young people felt that way and visited the shops.
I agree. Thank you very much for your time today.