Rei Kawakubo doesn’t care to have her photo taken. The Commes des Garçons visionary would rather allow her designs — unusual, asymmetrical aversions to traditional beauty — speak for themselves. And so they have. When first discovered on a Parisian catwalk in 1981, her idiosyncratic pieces were cast aside as “Hiroshima chic.” But Kawakubo stuck with it, clothing subcultures throughout the streets of Tokyo until being embraced by vanguard sartorialists and cutting-edge outsiders in North America, inspiring such modern iconoclasts as Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela along the way.
Over the years, she has refused to compromise on her vision — the tattered edges remain, the hand-painted polka dots are as prominent as ever, and Kawakubo’s decided thumbing of her nose at convention continues to multiply exponentially (take, for example, 1998’s Odeur 53 fragrance, with its whiff of nail polish and burnt rubber).
Kawakubo’s latest shocker comes in the form of a ready-to-wear collection designed in collaboration with Swedish retail monolith H&M. Of the unlikely partnership, she says, “I was interested in selling Comme des Garçons to people who have never heard of the name. Reactions from our loyal customers have been great. Finding the right balance between the creative and the commercial has always been my work. The two are not necessarily opposed.”
Included in the collection, available worldwide next month, are Kawakubo’s signature dots, along with a goth-doll dress, double-breasted belted trench coat, bias-cut suits and canvas shoes. But what of Kawakubo’s eccentric design daredevilry? Surely that flies out the window when one partners with a mega-brand recognized for its denim and holiday gift-cards? Says Kawakubo, “The collection is constructed around Comme des Garçons’ style. Rather than aiming to make clothes that no one has ever seen before, it is very much Comme des Garçons to its roots. My priority has always been creativity, which was not the least bit compromised with this collection. That was the last thing H&M wanted us to do. Otherwise they wouldn’t have asked us.”