Rei Kawakubo is one of the world's best known fashion designers, but never sketches. In this interview, she discusses her unusual design process, how she set up Comme des Garçons and why she won't be pigeonholed.
"I design the company, not pieces of clothing," Kawakubo told Dezeen.
"It's nothing about clothes, it's a different way to express my value of Comme des Garçons," she explained.
Kawakubo said that, ever since she established the brand in Tokyo back in 1969, she has always had creative control.
"It's the only brand in the world that works like that A-Z," she said. "If my eyes aren't on it, it's not Comme des Garçons."
"Not an artist, not a fashion designer"
Comme des Garçons is one of the most influential fashion houses in the world right now, with stores in several countries, including Japan, the USA, France and the UK. Both the brand and its founder featured in a major exhibition at The Met in New York in 2017.
However Kawakubo never studied fashion. Instead she started out by getting a job in a textile factory, where she began styling. After struggling to find the clothes she wanted, she started designing her own, and eventually set up her company.
Her ambition was never to become a designer.
"I'm not an artist, not a fashion designer," Kawakubo explained.
"I always wanted to use fashion as a tool, as a material to make a business out of creation. I wanted to be independent, make a business and work."
"I don't sketch or style"
Kawakubo was in New York last week to receive the 2019 Isamu Noguchi Award, an annual prize given to an artist and designer with a "spirit of innovation, global consciousness, and commitment to east/west cultural exchange", in line with the work of late Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
She said she was surprised to be chosen for the award, but believes it may be because she and Noguchi – who worked across different disciplines in a variety of mediums – are considered kindred spirits.
"I have always started from zero, trying to make something that didn't exist before," she explained. "The process of creation is done mostly by words and imagination."
"I don't sketch or style. It's a unique way of working, I don't think anybody else works like that," she added.
Kawakubo does architecture and interiors
The Japanese designer, 76, spoke to Dezeen ahead of the award ceremony on 2 May. The interview took place at the New York headquarters of Comme des Garçons North America and Dover Street Market North America – the fashion concept department store that Kawakubo established with her South African husband Adrian Joffe.
The duo opened the first Dover Street Market in 2004 in London to sell Comme des Garçons and a curated selection of other brands.
Following the success of the London outpost – now relocated to a heritage-listed building on Haymarket – the team opened a second hub in Ginza, Tokyo, two years later. Dover Street Market has since expanded to include shops in New York, Los Angeles, Beijing and Singapore.
Kawakubo oversees the architecture, interior design and installations in every store, which are overhauled every few months.
"I want to think outside of the box in order to make something new," she said.
"I just wear the things I make"
Joffe, who has been married to Kawakubo since 1992, was present for the interview. He translated for his wife and at times answered for her.
Kawakubo was polite and a gracious host. After arriving for the interview, she tried to clear away a telephone that was cluttering the table. She then spotted an empty coffee cup and appeared concerned, asking Joffe if it had been left over from a previous meeting.
The designer wore simple clothing over her petite frame, finished with a silky black jacket. Her hair was cut in its signature style – a wedge bob with a sharp fringe.
When asked to describe her personal style, she appeared confused. Joffe replied: "That's going to be difficult".
"I never thought of making my own style. I just wear the things I make," she said.
"It's Comme des Garçons style."
Read on for an edited transcript of our interview with Rei Kawakubo:
Eleanor Gibson: Firstly, congratulations on the award. Why do you think you received this year's prize?
Rei Kawakubo: I think it's very strange. I don't consider myself to be an artist so I was surprised when they offered me the award. What I've being doing all of my life is making a business out of creation, using creation as a way to do business, always looking for something new, always trying to deal with creation, different aspects of life.
Noguchi did the same thing, he was always looking for something new. The reason they gave me this award is probably because they detect a kindred spirit between myself and Noguchi.
Eleanor Gibson: Could you tell me how you started out in fashion design?
Rei Kawakubo: First thing that I remember growing up is that I wanted to be independent, make a business and work. They were very important things for me, to be independent, free and work.
I always wanted to use fashion as a tool
I got a job by accident at a textile factory and worked as a stylist at this textile factory and just slowly, slowly, doing that work, I couldn't find the thing that I wanted to style so I started making my own.
But I always wanted to use fashion as a tool, as a material to make a business out of creation.
Eleanor Gibson: What was one of the first items that you made during that time?
Rei Kawakubo: I think it might have been a dress. For me it's not an important thing, but I feel like it might have been a dress, the first thing I ever made.
Eleanor Gibson: Did you spend time studying fashion?
Rei Kawakubo: I never studied fashion, I never went to fashion school. I studied ethics at university, never studied fashion.
Eleanor Gibson: Following the work in the textile factory, what was your next job?
I couldn't find any clothes I liked to style so I made my own
Rei Kawakubo: I couldn't find any clothes I liked to style so I made my own, and then I left [the textile factory] and made my company. There wasn't any other job.
Eleanor Gibson: Could you describe your personal style?
Adrian Joffe: That's going to be difficult. Do you mean lifestyle?
Eleanor Gibson: Fashion style.
Rei Kawakubo: I don't understand that kind of question.
Adrian Joffe: Most people have a kind of style, a personal style.
Rei Kawakubo: I never thought of making my own style, I just wear the things I make. To most other people that's my style. I always wanted to make clothes to make people feel positive and strong and healthy, that's always been my aim.
Since I wear those clothes that could be my style, it's Comme des Garçon style.
Eleanor Gibson: And how do you go about designing? What's your process?
Rei Kawakubo: I have always started from zero, trying to make something that didn't exist before. The process of creation is done mostly by words and imagination.
I don't sketch or style. It's a unique way of working, I don't think anybody else works like that. I get the staff to think for themselves.
A lot of it is philosophical, look in the street and pick up a stone and you get something new. I want to think outside of the box in order to make something new.
All I've been doing is looking for something new
For 50 years, all I've been doing is looking for something new and getting my team to do the same thing. Then there's catch-up conversations, what is new, what did you feel today and how does that express itself. And then finally it becomes the clothes. The starting point is just talking.
Eleanor Gibson: Can you tell me a bit about the company today? Is it the same as when it was first established?
Rei Kawakubo: It hasn't changed for 50 years. Of course the company has grown, but even though it has grown from 10 people to over 1,000 people, the daily process of making clothes and doing creation hasn't changed in my head at all.
What's important to add is that it isn't just making clothes, I do all of the architecture, interiors, furniture, it's not just clothes. I'm very pleased to meet you and have an article in Dezeen because it's not just about making clothes.
Eleanor Gibson: Could you tell me a bit more about those other facets?
Rei Kawakubo: I design the company, not pieces of clothing.
Clothing is just the material to express something that didn't exist before, that applies to everything. I do all the graphic design, the architecture for all of the shops, the furniture. You know the Dover Street Market. I do all the installations, all the Comme des Garçons brand installations, I design them all as well.
It's nothing about clothes, it's a different way to express my value of Comme des Garçons. It's the only brand in the world that works like that A-Z, everything in between. If my eyes aren't on it, it's not Comme des Garçons.
Eleanor Gibson: And what are your reference points?
Rei Kawakubo: No reference points, I try to avoid references points, that's the whole point, I want to make things that people have never seen before. There's no reference point. If anything I avoid any reference points. I feel I can succeed more in making something that hasn't existed before if I don't look for reference points.
Eleanor Gibson: How would you want to be described?
Rei Kawakubo: I'm not an artist, not a fashion designer, I just use fashion, use clothes as a material to make a business out of creation. This is a very important part. Don't put me in a box.