7 Key Themes in Rei Kawakubo’s Career

The Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo is one of fashion’s most influential designers — a fact that is about to be cemented by an exhibition at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which opens to the public on May 4. (It’s only the second time the honor has been bestowed on a living designer.) The show spans Kawakubo’s career — though, at her insistence, it is not a retrospective — and highlights key themes that have inspired and continue to inspire her creativity. Here, we examine seven of those themes, underpinning the work of fashion’s favorite conceptual designer. 

From left: fall/winter 1988; fall/winter 2004.
CreditRight: Firstview

Black Isn’t Just a Color — It’s an Entire Palette

In the 1980s, the color black quickly became synonymous with Kawakubo’s aesthetic. When Comme des Garçons made its Paris Fashion Week debut in 1981, the clothes drew attention in their absolute absence of color — an impression that was underlined by interviews with Kawakubo, herself invariably dressed in blacks. Note the plural: Kawakubo used so much, it was possible to see shades and nuances of black in her collections. She wasn’t the first to design in black, of course — Chanel transformed it from a color of mourning into a color of fashion in the 1920s, with her little black dresses, and designers had used it ever since. But by the 1980s, it had fallen out of favor with the rising preference for flashier colors — the brilliant pinks and greens of Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler — and the greiges and navies of Giorgio Armani. Black had never been used with Kawakubo’s severity and insistence — she’s used the word “strength” to describe the color. But in 1988, Kawakubo seemed to abruptly change course: She showed a fall collection dominated by rich scarlet. The thought process behind the decision? “Red is black,” she said at the time. Kawakubo’s…

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