Representing the creative future

Rei Kawakubo: Writing the Fashion of Madness

Fashion is much more than this season’s shows and what lies in your wardrobe: it is a remarkable cultural object that mirrors, at high pace, the fluctuating state of society. Since Roland Barthes’ semiological break-down of the fashion industry in The Fashion System (1967), a path was carved for a new way of looking at fashion, proving its potential to act as a prism through which to read politics, psychology, history, gender, literature, and much, much more. We are curious to open discussions on and about fashion to a wider circle of young critical thinkers, to learn more about how fashion is read, worn, understood and remembered. Opening our new series of critical essays by young, aspiring writers is Mahoro Seward’s deconstruction of Rei Kawakubo, revealing how terms borrowed from literary analysis might prove useful in shedding light on Rei’s shadowy oeuvre.

A literature and fine arts graduate of Tokyo’s prestigious Keio University, it would not be overly audacious to highlight the parallels between certain literary works and the work of Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo. Indeed, I would not be the first to do so. In her 2005 feature on the “Japanese avant-gardist”,published in The New Yorker, Judith Thurman situates Kawakubo’s game-changing 1982 ‘Destroy’ collection in a context  “much more Parisian than it seemed – a piece of shock theatre in the venerable tradition of Ubu Roi”, Alfred Jarry’s seminal precursor to the Theatre of the Absurd. Though home to institutions such as the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, with its almost dictatorial regulation, Paris has long been renowned as a nesting place for the avant-garde, producing warp-minded geniuses in a multitude of fields: theatre, literature and visual arts to name a few. The collection itself, an ascending of bedraggled crow-black figures draped in seemingly moth-eaten knitwear, stunned the French press, giving rise to the moniker “Hiroshima chic”, a somewhat problematic allusion of a relationship between Kawakubo’s earth-shattering Paris debut and one of the most devastating events witnessed by human eyes. Yet, though grounds for analysing the collection in light of Hiroshima are rather tenuous, tropes of destruction evidently pepper her work.



The Kawakubo aesthetic revolves around a central inexpressibility, implementing a relentless system in which fabrics and techniques are destroyed and appropriated, exposing an eerie silence in which the most essential creative inspiration lies. A glance at the 1997 ‘Lumps and Bumps’ collection reveals this, with dresses in clinging silks and checkered fabrics disfigured by tumorous lumps, simultaneously accentuating and obscuring the female form, contorting breasts, hips and buttocks to comic proportion, effectively satirising the sexualisation and commercialisation of the body in the fashion industry. In a particular look, she goes yet further in challenging constructed notions of femininity and interrogates the institution of motherhood, presenting a model wrapped in a svelte scarlet cocktail dress, an oversized protrusion that eerily resembles a swaddled child bound diagonally across her chest. The distinctive inexpressibility of Kawakubo’s approach lies here, in the visual dissonance between woman as sexual object and woman as mother; the exposure of the chasm between these two archetypes of womanhood acts as the unveiling of a societal inability to provide attainable standards of beauty for those that lie outside of these constrictive paradigms. Yet Kawakubo does not aim to create a new, more encompassing standard of beauty for the marginalised masses; instead, through manipulations and juxtapositions of fabrics, silhouettes, images and symbols, such as the contrasting of scarlet, a colour laden with connotations of sensuality, passion and violence, with a silhouette emblematic of maternity, she creates clashes that expose a void in which this beauty lies. Under Kawakubo, the rigidly dogmatic symbolism of conventional fashion loses value, birthing what has been heralded as an anti-fashion, a fashion of ‘madness’. Indeed, such laden terms pose a series of conundrums and paradoxes, for in order to discuss her work in the objective terms that contemporary fashion discourse necessitates is to completely eschew the nuance of her work. One could even go so far as to claim that discussing it using the prescriptive construct of language inevitably rationalises, and ultimately glosses over the quintessential unspeakability that lies at the heart of her oeuvre.


Often such murky waters can be clarified by a foray into the literary world, which offers perhaps the most immersive contextualisation of fashion within relevant spheres of thought, politics and revolution. Indeed, a fictional narrative centred around a character driven plot almost inevitably requires, to some extent, a narratorial engagement with the sartorial choices of one or more characters. While these subtle references and descriptions often slip under the reader’s radar, an engagement with the role of clothing in the construction of a character, and subsequently with the positioning of the character within a text, can often shed fresh light on the function and value of a certain garment or look in the depicted social, historical or philosophical climate. This, of course, does not go to say that the only area of interest for the fashion researcher should be fiction. A sterling example of the utility of non-fictional work is Charles Baudelaire’s essay “Le Dandy” (“The Dandy”), taken from Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne (1863) (The Painter of Modern Life), in which the renowned poet dispels the casual understanding of the dandy as an emblem of pure vanity, elevating him to the position of a stoic knight in the crusade against the triviality of modernity. Baudelaire eternalises the dandy’s preoccupation with individualised self-representation, evident in the almost neurotic obsession with bespoke tailoring, as an almost religious dedication, which “in certain respects comes close to spirituality”. But, other than providing an engaging insight into its history, how can this Baudelairean conception of dandyism aid the contemporary fashion practitioner? Indeed, his arguments on dandy spiritualism are valid, but in a contemporary setting seem to bear little immediate relevance. However, a peek at the aforementioned preoccupation with individualised presentation uncovers a transferable set of ethics, entirely applicable in an era in which the drive to conform to a uniform aesthetic is more powerful than ever. Baudelaire advocates the importance of personal consideration and investment in both the production and consumption of fashion, calling for an end attempts to mindlessly emulate a supposedly desirable, yet ever unattainable, fashion ideal.


From Kafka to Colette, Woolf to Joyce, notions of self-presentation and creation have wracked the brains of the epoch’s leading writers. With Kafka, perhaps the most enlightening text to begin with would be the aptly titled short story “Kleider” (“Clothes”), taken from Betrachtung (1913) (Contemplation) Though better known for his dreamlike, yet intensely realistic, narratives, Kafka muses on the ephemerality of the fashion system, in which “Kleider mit vielfachen Falten, Rüschen und Behängen […], die über schönen Körper schön sich legen”, (“clothes with manifold pleats, frills and appendages which fit so smoothly”) are predestined to fall into disrepair and out of societal favour. Echoing Baudelaire, Kafka succinctly encapsulates precisely what the dandy seeks to transcend through pseudo-spiritual sartorial dedication, leading an understated revolt against an urbanised world governed by banality.

Fashion’s intermingling with the modernist literary realm does not by any means limit itself to male discourse; some of the most vivid, engaging contextualisations of period-defining trends are the produce of the era’s prominent female writers. Colette’s Le Pur et L’Impur (1932) (The Pure and the Impure [1932]) retrospectively offers a crystalline chronicling of the pre-war Parisian socio-political climate that spawned the foremothers of le look garçonne, catapulted into mainstream adoration by Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel. The author pens a distinctly gender-fluid narrative, making heavy use of ambiguous and traditionally masculine vocabulary in her documentation of the crop-haired darlings of Paris’ revered music halls. The result? A literary gender-fuck, if you will. Yet perhaps more compelling is Colette’s immersion of the trend in a contextual pool of sexual revolution and chemical experimentation, her trail-blazing female protagonists striding headlong into hazy opium-fuelled underworlds, not as companions or concubines, but as equals.

Even in instances where literature is unable to directly contextualise, literary techniques can often serve as key instruments of elucidation in the decoding of sartorial issues, particularly when tackling somewhat more elusive concepts. And so we return to Rei Kawakubo, mother of “Hiroshima chic”, a look rooted in non-cathartic destruction: with each collection comes a novel lambasting of convention, a cycle that purposefully, relentlessly and unwaveringly grinds against the status quo. Before continuing, it would be wise to expand on “Hiroshima chic”. Naturally, the primary connotations of ‘Hiroshima’ are of the devastating attack on the Japanese city on August 6th 1945. Subsequently, to view the collection in correlation to the dropping of the atom bomb is troublesome at best, in no small part due to Kawakubo’s nationality. Yet beyond the understanding of Hiroshima as a uniquely Japanese tragedy lies its symbolic value as a pinnacle of human trauma, a tragedy of such magnitude that those who experienced its full effect will never be able to speak their experienceIn the prologue to Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Marguerite Duras neatly asserts: “Impossible de parler de Hiroshima. Tout ce qu’on peut faire c’est de parler de l’impossibilité de parler de Hiroshima.” (“It is impossible to talk about Hiroshima. All that we can do is speak to the impossibility to talk about Hiroshima”) 

But relative to this concept, where does Kawakubo’s “Destroy” collection fit in? Centred around a billowing, sombre template, the collection mirrors Duras’ reflection on the impossibility to articulate trauma. The almost exclusive use of black, colour of mourning, absence of light, leads to the creation of effectively void silhouettes that reveal fashion’s inability to express unspeakable, or ‘silent’, concepts, trauma being one of many, and therefore displays fashion’s impossibility to act as a resolutory or cathartic structure. A multiplicity of attempts at expression come no closer to providing resolution; each look revisits this ‘silence’ from a new perspective, tweaking techniques and fabrics to give it a comprehensible voice. Yet with each failed attempt comes a widening of this void, demonstrating the vast extent to which fashion and conventional means of creative expression can not come close to creating true meaning, for it lies beyond the rationalised structures that they necessitate. Just as the atom bomb at Hiroshima created a crater of nothingness, destroying buildings, lives and the expressive capacities of its victims, Kawakubo similarly ‘destroys’ fashion, disintegrating preconceived notions of how fashion should be created and what it should mean, for the meaning of her work lies in the voiceless void that she masterfully exposes. As cited above, a useful author in an exploration of such an idiosyncratic approach to fashion creation is Marguerite Duras, author of Moderato Cantabile (1958), Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein (1964) (The Rapture of Lol V. Stein) and L’Amant (1984) (The Lover).

Author, playwright, screenwriter or director: Duras is indeed all of these things, yet these terms, in any combination, do not come close to doing justice to her genre-bending oeuvre. A master of linguistic manipulation, she weaves narratives that expose the insufficiencies of language, revealing the ear-splitting ‘silence’ in which true meaning lies. Consequently, she has inspired a plethora of writers and critics, Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva amongst themto discuss l’indicible, or the unspeakable, in her texts. A summarisation of this notion would be that is a recognition of language’s inability to express concepts that do not conform to its necessarily prescriptive rules. Essential meaning lies beyond the sobriety of language, in what would commonly be thought of as ‘madness’. Just as with Kawakubo in fashion, Duras’s mission therefore becomes to ‘destroy’ language, as suggested by the title of one of her texts, Détruire dit-elle (1969) (Destroy She Said [1969]), and the symbolic meaning that it prescribes, implementing a particular style to expose the unspeakable, characterised by repetitions, refrains, missing words and curtailments.

A transposition of Duras’ technique onto the work of Kawakubo allows for us to comprehensively discuss her project, while respecting and preserving its distinctively uncapturable nature. While admiration is evoked for their mastery of craft, the true essence of Kawabuko’s and Duras’ work lies beyond the seams, stitches, words and literary devices. Of course, both language and fashion require a certain ‘grammar’, a technical framework that allows for the creation of supposed ‘meaning’, and it is in fact a profound understanding and consideration for the technicalities of this ‘grammar’ that permit them to undermine and destroy to such powerful extents. This, however, does not go to say that their work is governed by an aware progression to an envisaged end; Kawakubo has professed to working in a manner that mimics Woolf’s stream of consciousness, allowing this ‘madness’ to shape her expression, rather than attempting to create a means by which it can be expressed.  “My approach is simple[ ]”, she says to Interview Magazine’s Ronnie Cooke Newhouse. “It is nothing other than what I am thinking at the time I make each piece of clothing, whether I think it is strong and beautiful.” This creative ethic resonates profoundly with Duras, who, in her novel Écrire (1993), stated “Écrire, c’est tenter de savoir ce qu’on écrirait si on écrivait – on ne le sait qu’après” (“To write is to attempt to know what one would write if one were to write – one only knows after [writing]”). In both cases, the creative channels her impulse, never knowing where she will be taken and where she will end. She enters a trance, the outcome being a beauty that cannot be rationally quantified. Duras confesses that “[Elle] ne [sait] pas ce que c’est un livre. Personne ne le sait. Mais on sait quand il y en a un” ([She does] not know what a book is. No one knows. But we know what [a book] is when we see one”), a reflection of Kawakubo’s assertion that “[t]he result [of her work] is something that other people decide”, demonstrating a refusal to define her creativity in concrete terms that inevitably hamper and undermine its potency.

Literature’s utility in fashion research, critique, analysis and even trend forecasting is irrefutable, in fact, there is arguably no resource that offers such rich contextualising and comparative capacities. Yet literature should also serve as a warning, an apprehension against the numbing tendency to rationalise. Indeed, the tangible nature of clothing facilitates the logical impulse to define, and therefore understand, a look or garment, but the true meaning of fashion is not something that can be captured by knowledge, language or even the techniques and materials imperative to its creation. Instead, the meaning of fashion is something that one is charmed by, left gazing into a expressionless void that one knows all too well. Ultimately, attempts at concretising the ephemeral result in its death, at the expense of the raw unbridled silence, the purest source of creation.