“The Power of Clothing” According to Comme des Garçons’s Rei Kawakubo

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I was in a taxi, driving through the Aoyama district which was deserted, following the declaration of a state of emergency in April 2020 due to the spread of COVID-19. As I drove past the closed Comme des Garçons store, I wondered if Rei Kawakubo was busy working that day. Somehow, I was convinced that she would be—and this suddenly brought a sense of security to me. In a world where everything seems to have changed, I found solace in knowing that some things remained unchanged. The world may be changing, but I must carry on and do what I can.

At the start of October, right around the time when I would usually return from Paris Fashion Week, Comme des Garçons held its spring 2021 collection shows in Tokyo. While not many brands around the world chose to have physical shows that season, Kawakubo placed a strong emphasis on “showcasing people dressed in her clothes, in the flesh.” It was rare to see her agree to appear in so many papers and TV programs, which made me feel that there was a sense of “determination” driving her.

I interviewed her, wanting to hear her expand on that term in her own words. Considering this “challenging situation” we are facing in terms of creation and business, I expected it to be a heavy conversation. Yet I was surprised by the softness of her manner and delivery. Her words, too, were unexpectedly open in expressing the bemusement she felt, in response to this restricted environment and the difficulty in pondering unanswerable questions.

I’ve always known her to be an honest person. I believe you must be honest with yourself, to be a “real creator of clothes.” Nothing truly new can be born when you ignore what’s facing you. People are often inspired by Kawakubo’s powerful words, but this conversation convinced me that complex and deep “honesty,” which admits that there are obstacles which powerful words alone cannot overcome, creates “powerful garments.”

Comme des Garçons spring 2021

Photo: Courtesy of Comme des Garçons

Photo: Courtesy of Comme des Garçons
Photo: Courtesy of Comme des Garçons

Rei Kawakubo: We’re having a casual interview today, aren’t we? What was the theme?

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.

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.

Impossible?

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.

You’re right. We can’t go on sightseeing trips, so this issue focused on crafting in Japan. We figured we should treat this time that was given to us as a chance to look at the “good things” that surround us. I remember that last October, you exhibited an installation by photographer Daido Moriyama, in Comme des Garçons’ Aoyama store.

I’ve been using the Aoyama shop to express things regularly, since the shop opened. This is to show people our thoughts and suggestions as Comme des Garçons, through things other than our clothes, such as taking the materials printed on the advertising mail we give out to our customers and making it 3D. I’ve always been a fan of Mr. Moriyama’s works, and they often inspire me. He created an installation in our Osaka branch, and we’ve known each other for a long time. Last time, we exhibited enlarged versions of his works and it was fantastic. I was really pleased with the result.

At Vogue, all 26 editions around the world published on the common theme of “Hope” for the August/September 2020 issues, and as part of it, each editor-in-chief provided an image that represented hope for them. I chose the photograph Mr. Moriyama took from a window at his home, where Mount Fuji is portrayed beyond the twilight cityscape. The message was not explicit, but it conveyed a sense of resilience and a faint glimpse of hope, as well as the sadness of our living.

It’s nonchalant—no, not really nonchalant, but it’s not in your face. It’s something that just oozes out.

That’s exactly it. You said “nonchalant”—it reminded me of when I interviewed you last time, 18 months ago, when you told me that you try to express “strength within nameless things” through your collection. Now, the theme of your spring collection was “dissonance”—did the idea of “strength within nameless things” penetrate through this collection, too?

If it’s yes or no, it’s a yes. The technique I was using (until about three years ago) which was “something other than clothes” became too abstract and I felt trapped by it. This led to a desire to correct what became too abstract, by thinking about what “true clothes” might mean. It’s fair to say that “dissonance” was also created with the same approach that avoids excessive abstraction.

So, it’s not affected by the pandemic?

Not at all. Although I have lost some of my power, in places that are not visible, and that may have something to do with the virus. [Laughs] In terms of my thoughts, it doesn’t have a direct link to the pandemic.

Comme des Garçons fall 2021

Photo: Courtesy of Comme des Garçons

Photo: Courtesy of Comme des Garçons
Photo: Courtesy of Comme des Garçons

Will your next collection be impacted by the virus? I believe you are at the final stage of preparing the fall menswear collection.

Hard to say. I’m still confused. I’m carrying on as before, but menswear’s not easy either.

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.

Will it?

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.

So going to a physical shop becomes luxurious in itself, instead of the clothes they are selling? Some people claim that photographs provide the same experience as traveling, and the same logic can be applied here. With traveling, nothing compares to actually traveling and experiencing. Perhaps young people don’t see the differences in value between reality and photographs because they haven’t had many chances to compare the two.

It’s scary if they can’t compare them. It’s much healthier if they know both reality and virtual reality so they can compare the two.

Maybe they’re becoming harder and harder to compare… we sound so pessimistic. Is this going to work as an article? What shall we do? [Laughs.]

Let’s go back to your shop in Aoyama. At the end of 2020, in a project called People of the Year, you selected eight creators and athletes. Is this going to be an annual event?

Yes, we’ll do it once a year. We collaborated with a magazine (last year it was Japanese publisher SWITCH) to give it more publicity. A few years ago, we collaborated with Vogue (in 2009 when they created MAGAZINEALIVE inside the physical store). I find it interesting how a magazine and a physical store connect with each other to create a business opportunity. This project is similar in that sense. I find this approach three-dimensional.

You have integrated the works by the chosen eight into your products, too.

Yes, though only in a minimal way.

[Professional tennis player] Naomi Osaka was one of the eight. She’s in her early twenties and belongs to the new generation, but don’t you think that she inspires us to be brave too, through her posture and actions?

Sure, she’s sending out messages.

There are many young people who have started to make clothes or who are interested in fashion, not just Miss Osaka. That, I think, is the power of fashion and where hope lies.

There’s still hope.

Comme des Garçons fall 2021

Photo: Courtesy of Comme des Garçons

Photo: Courtesy of Comme des Garçons
Photo: Courtesy of Comme des Garçons

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.

That’s right. Now, the power is all dispersed. Online media has more power, but some young people don’t even look at these websites. They get their information from social media, especially Instagram at the moment. By the way, what do you think about Virgil Abloh?

You want me to comment on him? [Laughs] I don’t know much about him. I think I was introduced to him once, somewhere. I know Dover Street Market deals with Off-White.

I brought him up, because Virgil has become a cultural icon that everyone, mainly men, aspires to. He studied architecture before he got involved in fashion, he’s friends with musicians such as Kanye West, and his approach is considered to be modern and cool. So maybe men still hold on to that sort of structure.

He’s good at connecting, and I think it comes naturally to him. From someone like me, who’s been working in an old-fashioned way, that’s not creating something from scratch—but it’s considered to be cool nowadays. It’s not cool to try desperately to create something from scratch. [Laughs.] I have a feeling nowadays it’s more common to get a job in fashion or become a designer through that sort of connection or as a natural flow of events.

Collaboration that breaks the traditional image.

Now, you also connect with other brands through collaboration. This year in March, the Louis Vuitton store on Ginza Namiki-dori will reopen after renovation and to mark the occasion, they are launching the bag you designed in collaboration with them. Back in 2014, you collaborated with them on “Icon and Iconoclast” and the new design is an extension of that. Louis Vuitton are exhibiting collaboration works with various designers and creators, but yours is the only one that will be sold as a product. How did they first approach you?

We discussed what to make first, and we were initially hoping to revive another silhouette, but we only had the time to release the one. It was to do with the production issues, too.

How do you perceive the monogram, which is a signature for Louis Vuitton?

Even before Louis Vuitton stretched their presence to the global market, I considered them to be special in the way they craft, which is unique to a brand that is recognized as a traditional family-run company. I think of their bags as bags for grown-ups—those with a prosperous lifestyle, or those who worked hard at their jobs. You never used to see young people carrying one everywhere. That’s the image I had, of the old days, when I worked with the monogram this time. I prefer the forms of their old bags too. They represented a sort of “class” which is different from their current style. It’s hard to explain this, because I don’t mean to say they no longer have that.

You see them as a symbol of established craftsmanship—you think their products have a solid presence as something “good and proper.”

That’s right. Also, they remind me of Paris.

Talking about the latest work, what inspired you to pierce holes through such a product?

Back then (when it was first released in 2014), I felt like breaking that old traditional image a little—though I suppose a bag with holes is not practical.

You just need to insert a bag inside.

That’s tedious. [Laughs.]

You are the one who said fashion wasn’t just about comfort earlier. [Laughs.]

I know. [Laughs.]

I also wanted to ask you about what you said to New York magazine. You said, “the fashion industry in recent years has come to a point where we need to re-evaluate the flow towards ‘worship of money’”—as the translator puts it.

We were talking about how everything is based on calculations and judged on the outcome. For example, if something sells well, that’s “good.” Don’t you feel like that’s how everything runs? Things that can be converted into money, that produce a lot of money, are valued, and ultimately that’s all there is to it. It’s almost like, even if you work long and hard at creating something powerful and good, if it doesn’t make money, it’s disregarded. I probably shouldn’t say this to a magazine editor like you, but magazines also need adverts to survive. The adverts start to have a bigger and bigger part of a magazine and become the driving force. That was basically the background to what I said. Is it hard to write about such a topic in a magazine? I feel like everything I said has been inappropriate. [Laughs.]

It’s fine. [Laughs.] You’re saying there’s too much emphasis on quantitative evaluation. I do feel that there is a trend to more marketing-led creation within the fashion industry.

At Comme des Garçons, we have production meetings, and when they start talking about how well a product has sold the year before, I get angry. When you work based on your achievement, which are basically numbers, you won’t be able to see ahead of you. It’s not as simple as, “This sold well last year, so it will sell well again this year.” I hear fewer people say things like, “even if we can’t sell it, it’s valuable” or “I know these won’t sell, but let’s make them because they are necessary.” That’s not good. We need a good balance. Of course, we will make products that are sellable, but we also need to value those that aren’t. I think that’s what I wanted to say in the interview.

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 use materials from a year or two ago. Also, in our shops, we recently started selling products from previous seasons by cleverly mixing them in. I do think about environmental issues and respond to them by reducing waste for example, as I see fit. That doesn’t mean, however, that I want to raise it as a theme or a concept for my company.

That’s a different story altogether.

Yes.

I think it’s your creativity that people want the most.

I doubt that. [Laughs.]

I’d be disappointed in this world if that’s not the case. [Laughs.]

You’re going to struggle turning this interview into an article. [Laughs.]

Would you like there to be more women who express and transmit powerful things?

Absolutely. Things have to change. I wish there were more people like [the late] Eiko Ishioka (costume and graphic designer) or Sadako Ogata (former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). They belong in genres other than fashion, but I remember Vogue featured people like them before. Have you done anything like that recently?

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.

Good luck to you too, Watanabe-san.

I’ll look forward to your next collection.

After the interview

I had attended the interview wearing my favorite round-collar Comme des Garçons dress that I had bought a few years ago. It had been a while since I last met Kawakubo-san, and I started wondering about what I should wear from the day before, and in the end, I chose this outfit following my instincts. On a later day, Kawakubo-san told me, “You looked good, and it made me happy,” through one of her PR staff—imagine how delighted I was to hear that.

Choosing something that is myself, not the same as others, while thinking about the person that I’m about to meet… that process, the joy, the sentiment, as well as being able to share that with other people, feeling fulfilled and inspired. All that reminded me of the fresh emotion fashion brings to one’s heart, that I had forgotten for a while. We may not have answers, but we can do our best. Rei Kawakubo’s words and clothes present the “authentic” power of creation, at a time when everything is opaque and all we can do is strive.

This article originally ran in Vogue Japan.