Rare is the designer that is as quiet, as removed, as Rei Kawakubo. She’s the opposite of a showboat or a loudmouth. Consider this, from the New Yorker: “Small talk — indeed any talk — is not Kawakubo’s forte…She rarely poses for a photograph or gives an interview anymore, and, several years ago, she stopped taking a bow after her shows. From the beginning of her career, she has insisted that the only way to know her is ‘through my clothes.’”
As an introvert living in a country largely defined by its extraversion, I prize the success of other quiet types. I love that Rei makes her own rules, I love that she has the power to allow her work to speak for her and I love that she’s a bit crotchety. She doesn’t paste a smile on her face for anyone. As she told the Guardian, “I’ve always been against people who told me what to do.” In an interview with Lynn Yaeger, Comme des Garçons superfan, for Vogue, the designer responded to a question about failure by saying, “Maybe the fact that it’s such hard work to do what I do and so much torture and living in hell and getting so tired working dawn to midnight every day for the last 40 years — maybe that would be called a failure in some sense.” Imagine, as an interviewer, rebounding after that sentiment. Then consider this exchange: “‘What makes you laugh?’ I ask. The reply: Nothing.” (Another deadpan answer she’s given to that question: “People falling down.”)
Rei is in the headlines this week because today, an exhibit of her work opens at the Met in NYC. Later this evening, a gala will be held in its honor. Maybe you’ve heard of it. The exhibit itself, which the press previewed this morning, feels contained, rather than sprawling. The designer’s unconventional pieces — over 100, dating from the early ‘80s to today — clothe mannequins set about, alone or in small groupings, in a white space. Some look like Victorian brides swimming in lace; others like bulbous angels of death; still others like lumpy, bumpy, overgrown sweater creatures. The exhibit features minimal signage and no captions. It could be a concept store. Visitors must guide themselves via a numbered pamphlet.
Much has been made of the fact that Rei is the first living designer the Met has honored with an exhibit since Yves Saint Laurent in 1983. She’s also notable for her simultaneous commercial and critical success. CdG isn’t owned by a big fashion conglomerate, it’s owned by Rei. “She has always said she made the company because she wanted to be free and independent,” said her husband, Adrian Joffe, to Dazed. As Chavie Lieber writes for Racked, “Comme des Garçons is known for designs that are avant-garde and noncommercial, and yet the company is a massively profitable entity that sees more than $280 million in annual revenue.” Impressive, especially, for a global fashion brand that refuses to have a “face.”
I don’t know if Rei considers herself an introvert. What I do know is that in this country, there’s a particular narrative — a look, a feel, a presence — that we expect out of leaders. It’s the loudest voice in the room, it’s a bold and brash decision maker. Rei flips that on its head. Rei and her work are proof that a compelling point of view doesn’t need a celebrity face and that a powerful voice doesn’t have to be so literal. Something about that feels urgent.
Feature image photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue. Exhibition images via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.