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Japanese Designer Rei Kawakubo Committed to Live Fashion Shows Despite Pandemic

Courtesy of Comme des Garcons
A gown from Comme des Garcons’ 2021 spring-summer collection for women is shown in October.

Comme des Garcons has inspired the world for years as a leader of the fashion world. Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, president-designer Rei Kawakubo, 78, canceled the brand’s participation in Paris Fashion Week for spring-summer 2021, which took place from late September to early October. It was the first time Comme des Garcons had not presented a women’s wear collection in Paris in autumn since its 1981 debut in the French capital.

Instead, Kawakubo held a fashion show in Tokyo in October. The iconic designer recently talked to The Yomiuri Shimbun about making clothes in these difficult times.

■ Creating something new

The Yomiuri Shimbun: You canceled your participation in Paris Fashion Week, which you had taken part in for about 40 years, and unveiled your new collection at your brand’s headquarters in Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo.

Kawakubo: Physically going to Paris presents various problems. This is a business, so you have to put on shows, and I always have the urge to produce something new. You can’t help it, because the top priority is creating new things.

When in Paris, people from various countries watch our show and give us their opinions, including negative comments. There’s also tacit competition with other designers. [Tokyo] isn’t like that, for sure. But regarding the attire we produce, and the operation of the show, there’s no difference from Paris. Our staff work with this mindset. The only difference is whether we take the finished clothes aboard a plane or carry them up to the seventh floor [of our headquarters].

Yomiuri: Many fashion brands have switched to online fashion shows to introduce their new collections, but you’re committed to holding live shows with an audience, such as the men’s collection you presented in July.

Kawakubo: I don’t think it particularly necessary to change the way we let the audience watch people wearing clothes right in front of them. Different people have different opinions, but I don’t really expect to go digital because I don’t think I can express what I’m thinking that way. Expressing something digitally becomes a type of creation a little different from making clothes. That’s a digression as far as I am concerned.

Courtesy of Comme des Garcons
A model shows a look from Comme des Garcons’ 2021 spring-summer collection for men in July.

■ Using all five senses

Yomiuri: Cacophony is the theme for your women’s collection for spring-summer 2021.

Kawakubo: Because there’s something beyond that. It may produce something interesting and unexpected, or it may feel fresh. It will lead to the next step, and nice things will happen. In classical music, I’m sure there were a lot of negative opinions when the first works that included many cacophonic chords came out, but they’re still around today.

When things of different natures clash with each other, some people feel uncomfortable, but there are also people who see something different. That’s the interesting part, and I’m always looking for such a sensation. If you’re neatly settled down, just following a routine, then that’s the end of the road for you. There’s no progress.

Yomiuri: The pandemic has forced many industries into a difficult situation. You’ve experienced the collapse of Lehman Brothers as well as the Great East Japan Earthquake, both as a company president. This time, some of your brand’s franchise stores closed for a while.

Kawakubo: There’s no solution this time, or there’s nothing we can do, which makes the current situation different from before, when there was still room to make a strong effort. There are many things we have to work on to solve the problem.

We make clothes, and there will be our next collections and shows. There’s no way to stop them. Telecommuting is recommended, but you can’t telecommute with certain types of jobs, such as manufacturing. You can’t do everything with a computer. There are things you can produce only by constantly using your five senses, by touching and feeling.

Making things involves many people, so there are many difficulties and concerns under the current circumstances. But if you can make things, there’s always a road ahead.

■ Tireless efforts

Yomiuri: You haven’t changed your attitude toward work under any circumstances.

Kawakubo: You need to work tirelessly to produce new things. I keep saying that you can’t carry on once you stop. This is true in various other industries too. Comme de Garcons continues to exist because there are people who dedicated their lives to making things. They’re the foundation what we’ve built on, and here we are today. We must bring this forward even more.

What I fear now is that the pandemic will continue for a long time and a feeling of resignation will prevail. People will stop putting across their presence and their ideas, and the predominant feeling will be that we can stay the same as everyone else. Then society will produce nothing.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

■ Rei Kawakubo

Born in Tokyo in 1942, Kawakubo graduated from Keio University and worked at a textile manufacturer before establishing Comme de Garcons in 1973. She made her debut at Paris Fashion Week in 1981. Kawakubo was awarded The Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s Art Encouragement Prize in 2001 and the Ordre National du Merite of France in 2004. In 2017, she held an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.