On the occasion of “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Even assistant editor Lynette Lee spoke to Judith Thurman about the history and legacy of the Japanese fashion designer — and what might have happened if she'd worn Comme to the altar.
It’s not very highbrow, how I started thinking about fashion. When I was 20, I graduated from college young and went to Europe. I had a French boyfriend there. His mother was very chic, his father was an art critic, and they would invite me to places which I was sartorially incompetent to attend. Once they invited me to a hotel in Belgium for the opening of a Joan Miró exhibition, and I was at a table full of women in Dior couture — and I wore a white cotton skirt with a hat that had cherries on it. It was a tribute to their sophistication that nobody even looked, nobody said a word. Gradually, with all the street scenes and fashion magazines, I began to understand how to dress. But I’ve always been an outsider.
I first encountered Rei’s work in New York in the 80s. She burst onto the scene right after her first show, and her clothes became the downtown uniform for a certain bohemian artist type. I couldn’t afford her clothes, and they weren’t yet in retail stores. I just really, really admired them, and I remember, when the boutique opened, it was like a little museum of things you could go and marvel at.
Comme des Garçons was the perfect storm for me. It’s very poetic, it’s rebellious, it has a dimension of mystery. It’s a statement of individuality, and it wants you to reckon with basic questions of what clothes are. It’s also very feminist, an assertion of a woman’s right to hide in clothes or to say strange things with them, to be herself. Comme des Garçons defies all the prescriptions of how a woman should dress and be. It’s the opposite of hypersexualized, man-oriented clothing. Let’s say there’s Rei Kawakubo at one end and Victoria Beckham at the other.
Later on, when I was getting married, I thought: people spend a fortune on their wedding. I went to Barneys and bought a Comme des Garçons dress, which still wasn’t as expensive as a wedding dress. It was long and dark and wooly, even though it was sleeveless. But the morning I was getting married, I found myself trying to choose between that dress and another one I had, a white dress from Ann Demeulemeester with a little ruched skirt. It wasn’t a fluffy wedding dress, but at least it was white.
It was a spring day, the weather was very nice, and I was getting married in the garden. I must have known that showing up in a dark, black, weird dress would be a statement that said, “I don’t believe in this,” and maybe I wouldn’t have gone through with it. So at the last minute I gave in — gave in to the whole idea of getting married to this guy. I told myself, Let’s just do this. Let’s just pretend everything is great.
Though I didn’t wear it to my wedding, I still have and love that Comme des Garçons dress. I’ve worn it a lot since — I’ve worn it to the opera, sometimes I wear it as a coat, just open, and I wear it over another Comme des Garçons schmatta that I have, that I found over the years, with boots. But I turned 70 in October, and I’ve discovered that now that I’m older, I’m just not as interested in clothes. I’ve always wondered why fashion magazines are constantly appealing to teenage girls and women in their 20s, who don’t have much money, and why they’re not appealing to older women who do have money. And the reason I’ve figured is that you go where the desire is strongest. You appeal to people who are passionate, passionate, passionate, so they’ll spend money they don’t have. Whereas, as you get older, your desire for clothes, your sense of how much you need, the fantasies that you have — they all diminish. So I still buy things, but I buy much, much less. I’ve done a drastic triage of my closet; I’ve given away things that are just too demanding to wear.
Last night I went to a book party that my boss, David Remnick, was throwing. Simon Doonan of Barneys was there, and he said “Oh, who made that frock?” I was wearing a Morgane Le Fay dress, a strange, dark, plaid boiled wool with a ruched skirt, no waist. He said, “Oh, it looks like Comme des Garçons,” and I thought, Oh, it does. So I’m still wearing the same dress, basically. You find yourself attracted over and over to the same things, even though you already have them.
I had a rare opportunity to speak to Rei for a profile in the New Yorker. It was very, very difficult to interview Rei. She probably talked to me more than she’s talked to anybody. I spent a lot of time with her husband, Adrian, who I really got along with, and who interpreted for me. I spent a lot of time with her people in Tokyo and in Paris, with the people in the shops, with the people in her workshops, with her pattern-cutters.I think that Rei eventually got the idea that I was a serious writer, that I understood the clothes. But she was not forthcoming. I scrambled to keep the conversation going, because she would answer with one word. You would ask a long question, and then there would be a one or two-word answer. But in her very gnomic, less-is-more way, she said a few important things. There was an architecture of silence around the interview that I thought, in the end, was appropriate to the subject.
Rei Kawakubo is in her 70s now, too, and still is probably the most vigorous, interesting, original designer out there. She touches upon that border between art and fashion the way McQueen did, not in the stuff that he sold in the shops, but in his runway collections. And the way Iris van Herpen does, and some of the things from “Manus × Machina” did. The Met’s Kawakubo retrospective is less a show of clothes than a show about the imaginative aspect of fashion design. The conceptual, the performative, the sculptural — the aspect of fashion that correlates with contemporary art.
Comme des Garçons is new every year because Rei has an incredible drive not to repeat herself. She starts with a concept, a koan, and her staff tries to interpret it, and she sends them back to do it over and over again. There’s a style, there’s an ethos, but she’s not following anything but her own inner voice about what the clothes are. That same spare, laconic, hard-to-interpret quality of her speech is very much in the clothes, so you don’t get tired of them.
We’ll never see another Rei again, but the idea of fashion as art is something that’s more current than it used to be. Even with designers, like the sisters behind Rodarte, or certainly van Herpen, who I think is an heir to Rei. I would say that Rei is the founder of a dynasty, rather than the last empress.
As told to Lynette Lee