Born: Tokyo, Japan, 1942. Education: Graduated in fine arts, Keio University, Tokyo, 1964. Career: Worked in advertising department, Asahi Kasei textile firm, 1964-66; freelance designer, 1967-69; founder/designer, Comme des Garçons, 1969, firm incorporated, 1973; introduced Homme menswear line, 1978; introduced tricot knitwear and Robe de Chambre lines, 1981; opened first Paris boutique, 1981; formed Comme des Garçons, S.A. ready-to-wear subsidiary, 1982, formed New York subsidiary, 1986; launched furniture collection, 1983; introduced Homme Plus collection, 1984; opened men's Paris boutique, 1986; introduced Homme Deux and Noir collections, 1987; published Comme des Garçons Six magazine, from 1988; opened Tokyo flagship store, 1989; introduced, then removed men's pajama line, 1995; unveiled "padded" clothing, 1996; presented fused collection, 1998; opened Comme des Garçons shop in Chelsea, 1999; opened Comme des Garçons Two in Tokyo, 1999. Exhibitions: A New Wave in Fashion: Three Japanese Designers, Phoenix, Arizona, Art Museum, 1983; Mode et Photo, Comme des Garçons, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1986; Three Women: Madeleine Vionnet, Claire McCardell, and Rei Kawakubo, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 1987; Essence of Quality, Kyoto Costume Institute, Tokyo, 1993. Awards: Mainichi Newspaper Fashion award, 1983, 1988; Fashion Group Night of the Stars award, New York, 1986; Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Paris, 1993; Harvard Graduate School of Design Excellence in Design award, 2000. Address: Comme des Garçons, 5-11-5 Minamiaoyama, Minatoku Tokyo 107, Japan.
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White, Constance C.R., "Getting Personal in Paris with Romantic Visions," in the New York Times, 7 July 1998.
Viladas, Pilar, "Up from SoHo," in the New York Times Magazine, 14March 1999.
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My approach to fashion design is influenced by my daily life…my search for new means of expression. I feel that recently there has been a little more of an interest towards those who look for new ideas and who are searching for a new sense of values. My wish is to be able to continue my search for the new.
Rei Kawakubo's work is both paradox and ideological imperative. Minimal, monochromatic, and modernist, her approach to fashion design challenges conventional beauty without forgoing stylish cloth, cut, and color. Her clothing is not so much about the body as the space around the body and the metaphor of self. Architectural in conception and decidedly abstract, the clothing nevertheless derives from Japanese traditional wear.
Kawakubo emerged as a clothing designer by an indirect route, from both a training in fine arts at Keio University in Tokyo and work in advertising for Asahi Kasei, a major chemical company that produced acrylic fibers—promoted through fashionable clothing. In 1967 she became a freelance stylist, a rarity in Japan at the time. Her dissatisfaction with available clothes for the fashion shoots provided the impetus for designing her own garments. She launched the Comme des Garçons women's collection in Tokyo in 1975 with her first shop in Minami-Aoyama and her first catalogue the same year. It was an especially fertile period for Japanese fashion design, with the concurrent rise of Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto.
Kawakubo's themes combine the essence of Japanese traditional work-end streetwear, its simplicity of style, fabric, and color, with an admiration for modern architecture, especially the purism of Le Corbusier and Tadao Ando. Translated into clothing's rational construction, these affinities emphasize the idea of garment—the garment as a construction in space, essentially a structure to live in. The tradition of the kimono, with its architectural silhouette off the body and its many-layered complexity of body wrappings, combines with a graphic approach that is flat and abstract. It is a disarming look that requires a cognitive leap in wearability and social function.
The building block of Kawakubo's design is the fabric, the thread that produces the clothing structure. Her long-standing collaboration with specialty weaver Hiroshi Matsushita has allowed her to reformulate the actual fabric on the loom, the complexities of the weave, the imperfections, the texture of the fabric. Her 1981 launch of the Comme des Garçons line in Paris marked her first international exposure and the introduction of her loom-distressed weaves. What have been referred to as "rag-picker" clothes, an homage to the spontaneity and inventiveness of street people, was based on fabric innovation—cloth that crumpled and wrapped, that draped coarsely as layers, folded and buttoned at random. Most notable of these was her so-called "lace" knitwear of 1982, in which sweaters were purposely knitted to incorporate various-sized holes that appeared as rips and tears or intentionally intricate webs. This was an attack on lingering Victorianism in fashion, on the conventional, the precise, and the tight-laced. It offered a rational argument for antiform at a time when minimalism had lapsed into decorativeness.
Kawakubo's use of monochromatic black as her signature is analytical and subtle rather than sensual and brash. Black, which is often perceived as flattering, assumes the status of a noncolor—an absence rather than a presence. Her intent is to reject clothes as mere decoration for the body. Even with the later introduction of saturated color in the late 1980s lines, in which her clothes became slimmer, black was still a basic—evident in the Noir line as well as in Homme and Homme Plus, her menswear collections.
Her control of the presentation of Comme des Garçons in photography, catwalk shows, the design of store interiors, catalogues, and most recently a magazine is integral to the design concept that extends from the clothing. Kawakubo was the first to use nonprofessional models, art world personalities, and film celebrities, both in photography for catalogues and in catwalk shows. Her early catalogues from the 1970s featured noted figures from Japanese art and literature.
The 1988 introduction of the quarto-sized biannual magazine Six (for sixth sense) replaced the Comme des Garçons catalogues and pushed Kawakubo's antifashion ideas to extreme. These photographic essays became enigmatic vehicles for stream-of-consciousness, surrealism, exoticism, and Zen, which informs Kawakubo's sensibility and, ultimately, in a semiotic way, is imbued in her fashion designs. Kawakubo's ideas have explored the realm of possibilities associated with the production and selling of clothing. Her control of the environment of her stores—including the sparse design of the interiors (on which she collaborates with architect Takao Kawasaki), the industrial racks and shelves, the way the salespeople act and dress, and even the furnishings (which she designs and sells)—is total and defining. Her art is one of extending the boundaries of self-presentation and self-awareness into an environment of multivalent signs. It is an extension of fashion design into the realism of metaphysic, of "self in landscape," of which the clothing is a bare trace.
Controversy, for which the inventive icon was often criticized, sparked again when the "anti" designer introduced "Sleep," her Comme des Garçons men's pajama collection. Striped and available in layers, the pajamas came as a reminder of the Nazi death camps, for the show occurred on the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust. The line, described as being stamped with "identification numbers" displayed by "emaciated" models with "shaved heads," soon was removed by Kawakubo herself.
With her disputed pajama line behind her and experimental style still much a part of her work, Kawakubo continued to present obscure designs in her connoisseur show. This time floral prints took to the stage and, contrary to popular belief, screamed success— exactly the recognition the Japanese designer needed to regain her renowned reputation.
Nearing the end of 1996, Kawakubo introduced the concept that "body meets dress, dress meets body and becomes one." Experimenting with new forms and new bodies, the creator inserted basketballsized pads into her clothing. These deformities, according to Kawakubo, exemplify the "actual" rather than the 'natural.' Critics claim the effect depends on the eye—to some, the eye adjusts and the look becomes real; to others, it is merely "strange."
Kawakubo's fashion is based on the event, not the clothes themselves. No music, no theatrics, and not even an audience are typical of the designer's shows. In 1998, the unpredictable artist designed outfits of unfinished patterns. The collection, as Kawakubo put it, was based on releasing energy through fusion. More recent, however, was the addition of her Comme des Garçons shop in the Chelsea district of New York City. The intimate, space-age interior occupies a bold, futuristic setting. The look is supposed to offer a highly personal experience of discovery. Described as mysterious, like its sculptor, the entranceway is hidden to imply exclusivity and says, "If you aren't in the know, then don't bother."
Next came Comme des Garçons Two, which opened in Tokyo, Kawakubo's first shop devoted strictly to clothing. This renovated boutique was inviting to outsiders, focusing on movement and interaction. A Paris shop followed, with "anti" perfumes as its focus. Kawakubo designed the new shops with Takao Kawasaki and Future Systems. Kawakubo's contemporary art and complex fashion trends later earned her the third recipient of the Harvard Graduate School of Design's annual Excellence in Design award.
updated by Diana Idzelis
Born: Chilleurs-aux-Bois, 22 June 1876. Family: Married in 1893 (divorced, 1894); one child (died); married Dmitri Netchvolodov, 1925 (divorced, 1955). Career: Dressmaker's apprentice, Aubervilliers, 1888-93; dressmaker, House of Vincent, Paris, 1893-95; cutter, then head of workroom, Kate Reilly, London, 1895-1900; saleswoman, Bechoff David, Paris, 1900-01; head of studios under Marie Gerber, Callot Soeurs, Paris, 1901-05; designer, Doucet, 1905-11; designer, Maison Vionnet, 1912-14, 1919-39; retired, 1940. Awards: Légion d'Honneur, 1929. Exhibitions: Three Women: Madeleine Vionnet, Claire McCardell and Rei Kawakubo, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 1987; Madeleine Vionnet, 1876-1975—l'art de la couture: Centre de la Vieille Charité, retrospective, Musée de Marseille, 1991; Madeleine Vionnet—les années d'innovation: 1919-1939, exposition, Musée historique des tissus de Lyon, 1994. Died: 2 March 1975, in Paris.
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Madeleine Vionnet's inexorable synergy is the body of her extraordinary dresses. Her draping on the bias gave stretch to the fabric, a fully three-dimensional and even gyroscopic geometry to the garment, and a fluid dynamic of the body in motion as radical as cubism and futurism in their panoramas on the body. Her work inevitably prompts the analogy to sculpture in its palpable revelation of the form within. Some accused Vionnet of a shocking déshabillé, but Vionnet was seeking only the awareness of volume. Bruce Chatwin, writing in the Sunday Times Magazine in March 1973, commented, "No one knew better how to drape a torso in the round. She handled fabric as a master sculptor realizes the possibilities latent in a marble block; and like a sculptor too she understood the subtle beauty of the female body in motion and that graceful movements were enhanced by asymmetry of cut."
The only rigidity ever associated with Vionnet was her definite sense of self: she closed her couture house in 1939, although she lived until 1975. She lamented the work of other designers and disdained much that occurred in fashion as unprincipled and unworthy; she was a true believer in the modern, scorning unnecessary adornment, seeking structural principles, demanding plain perfection. Fernand Léger said that one of the finest things to see in Paris was Vionnet cutting. He used to go there when he felt depleted in his own work.
Vionnet draped on a reduced-scale mannequin. There she played her cloth in the enhanced elasticity of its diagonal bias to create the garment. In creating the idea in miniature, Vionnet may have surpassed any sense of weight of the fabric and achieved her ideal and effortless rotation around the body in a most logical way. When the same garments achieved human proportion—their sheerness, the avoidance of decorative complication, the absence of planes front and back, and the supple elegance of fabric that caresses the body in a continuous peregrination—were distinctly Vionnet.
While bias cut was quickly emulated in the Paris couture, Vionnet's concepts of draping were not pursued only by Claire McCardell (who bought Vionnets to study their technique) before World War II, but by Geoffrey Beene, Halston, and other Americans in the 1960s and 1970s, Azzedine Alaïa in France, and Japanese designers Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo in the 1970s and 1980s. Mikaye and Kawakubo were alerted to Vionnet by her strong presence in The 10s, 20s, 30s exhibition organized by Diana Vreeland for the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1973 and 1974.
One of Vionnet's most-quoted aphorisms is "when a woman smiles, her dress must smile with her." By making the dress dependent on the form of the wearer rather than an armature of its own, Vionnet assured the indivisibility of the woman and the garment. It is as if she created a skin or a shell rather than the independent form of a dress. Like many designers of her time, Vionnet's external references were chiefly to classical art and her dresses could resemble the wet drapery of classical statues and their cling and crêpey volutes of drapery.
At Doucet, she had discarded the layer of the underdress. In her own work, Vionnet eliminated interfacing in order to keep silhouette and fabric pliant; she brought the vocabulary of lingerie to the surface in her détente of all structure; she avoided any intrusion into fabric that could be avoided. Darts are generally eliminated. In a characteristic example, her "honeycomb dress,"all structure resided in the manipulation of fabric to create the honeycomb, a pattern that emanates the silhouette. Elsewhere, fagoting and drawnwork displaced the need for darts or other impositions and employed a decorative field to generate the desired form of the garment. The fluidity of cowl neckline, the chiffon handkerchief dress, and hemstiched blouse were trademarks and soft symbols of a virtuoso designer.
In insisting on the presence of a body and on celebrating the body within clothing, Vionnet was an early-century original in the manner of Diaghilev, Isadora Duncan, and Picasso. But there is also a deeply hermetic aspect to Vionnet who remained, despite the prodigious research revelations of Betty Kirke, a designer's designer, so subtle were the secrets of her composition, despite the outright drama of being one of the most revolutionary and important fashion designers.
At the end of the 20th century, Vionnet's name was revived and once again adorning fashion. After the label was acquired in 1994, scarves and fragrances tested the waters for a full revival of the Vionnet name. A new boutique on the rue Montaigne, where Vionnet's own house used to reside, was planned as well as ready-to-wear and couture lines.