Feting Fashion's Sphinx

By Givhan, Robin | Newsweek International, June 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

Feting Fashion's Sphinx


Givhan, Robin, Newsweek International


Byline: Robin Givhan

The anti-celebrity success of Rei Kawakubo.

In a culture that presumes a universal addiction to fame and notoriety, Rei Kawakubo--one of the most admired and influential designers within the fashion industry--steadfastly abstains. She does not take a bow at the end of her runway shows. She does not tweet. Her public utterances are miserly at best. This elusiveness has heightened her reputation as a fashion oracle, someone who speaks in riddles wrapped in metaphors and whose clothes are like premonitions in boiled wool and nylon.

Her clothes leave fashion novices exasperated but make true believers swoon. She debuted in Paris in 1981 during the height of the Dallas and Dynasty period of ostentation and soon caused a stir with a collection of deconstructed "bag lady" rags called "Destroy." She has made dresses that are all front and no back, that are two-dimensional instead of three. In one of her most audacious collections, 1997's "Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress," she masterminded a series of garments fitted with padded protuberances that transformed the classic hourglass shape into something amorphous, beastly ... and mesmerizing.

And in 2009, one of her garments upended political Washington: former White House social secretary Desiree Rogers arrived for the Obamas' first state dinner wearing a gown in which strands of pearls lay trapped between sheer netting and a pale peach tube. The dress was a rebellious snub of political hierarchy and protocol. Rogers left the White House soon after.

Kawakubo, 69, is a petite Japanese woman with a dark-haired bob, whose resting expression is at once somber and ferocious. Once referred to as fashion's "nun," she dresses in an ascetic palette of black and white--one that gives no indication of the daring creations on her runway.

"I begin every collection, every aspect of design for Comme des Garcons, from zero. I want to try to make something strong that didn't exist before," says Kawakubo through a translator. "By the very nature of how I work, I cannot be in any dialogue with the fashion industry or the public, or let myself be influenced in any way, by anyone or anything."

Her collections are personal soliloquies; she is not interested in your neurotic body issues or your professional angst. "I do not work from a desk or do any sketches or look at fabric swatches. The process of creation for me is a constant act achieved through merely living my daily life. It's because I live, go shopping, read the newspaper, work in the stores, run the company, that I am able to find something."

This self-described conjuring-of-something-from-nothing makes Kawakubo a designer's designer. "I admire and worship her," Marc Jacobs has said.

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