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1.19.2012

"Fashion is no longer just about clothes but anything new - be it music, art, or homeware - is fashion." says Rei Kawakubo

There was an absolutely superb long interview of Rei Kawakubo published in the Asahi today:


Unfortunately, the interview is only available in Japanese and I know that automatic conversion into English won't do the article justice, so here are some of the highlights:

Asked if she feels the current economic environment is a challenging one for those wanting to sell luxury fashion, she says:

"Regardless of genre, there are many people who are thriving to create something new without allowing restrictions on the actual price of the goods or cost of manufacturing to become a barrier. That is because such efforts are necessary under whatever conditions for people to move forward. For me, fashion is my stage to do just that."
"Even if the clothing is too expensive for the general public to buy, it is important that the emotion behind the new creations or movements are felt by everyone. Creators need to work hard to showcase their creativity towards the world. And when someone endorses it by wearing them or seeing them, there is a ripple effect. Just by being new, there is a sense of excitement and therein lies a new start. That is what fashion is."


She is then asked to comment on the interviewer's view that while she is known for her avant-garde designs, the world is embracing safe and comfort as a trend. 


She says:
"There is indeed an increase in the number of people who are satisfied with easy clothing that can be worn right away. They wear exactly what other people are wearing and ask no questions about that. It is not just about the way they dress. I feel that people today are not finding it important to see strength, coolness, or newness, but just happy to get by today. There is a lack of passion, excitement, anger, and the will to break out of the mold. I have a great sense of crisis about this."


"And the creators need to thrive to be No.1. There was a Japanese politician who asked, "why can't we just be No.2?" Even if the results say we are not No.1, we must at least have the desire to be so from the start. One can only be among the world's greats if one aims to be No.1. Japan lacks resources so we have to take on the world through such soft powers like modern technology and culture."

The interviewer points out that there is a rise in awareness in being eco-friendly and thus many people are questioning the rationale of mass consumption. Then asks, "isn't the fashion world that continues to introduce new products on the extreme opposite of eco-friendliness?"
Rei Kawakubo says:
"I continue to create new clothes because by continuing to introduce new things, I believe that my creations can trigger a change in something somewhere on earth. There are ways to directly talk about environmental conservation and participate in movements, but I do not want to go down that path. It may be a round about way of going about it, but I want to speak through my creations directly to the senses. I want people to realize the issues through that."
"I do not create on the basis that I continuously create new things and if they become slightly old, I throw them out. Of course we have leftover inventory because we launch new collections twice a year. I try to sell everything at the original price the best I can. I launched a store in Tokyo that combines recycling and design. In the last five years, I opened approximately 40 pop up stores throughout the world including Berlin to sell all my inventory. From a business perspective, in some ways, it is tough. If creators are serious, they all tend to end up poor."
I feel that the last comment I quoted here cannot be more true coming from her. Yohji Yamamoto, another Japanese designer who has been around as long as she has, and is often painted by the same brush as an avant-garde creator from Japan, went bankrupt. He admitted to being too creative and not business savvy enough. 
Though he has since been rebuilding his business with the help of new investors, some in the Industry have said that Yamamoto's woes were not in his ignorance about the commercial aspect of his brand, but that he was surrounded by people who spoiled him too much. That they treated him like a god and never challenged him enough, and as a result, he became the emperor who walked around naked without realizing how ridiculous he looked or rather, how dated and repetitive or rather, predictable, his collections had become. 
On the other hand, insiders are not shy to talk about the passionate and heated arguments Kawakubo has with her husband. Of course, "she is right and he has peace" in the end, but perhaps this is one way she managed to keep a more firm grasp of the environment around her compared with Yamamoto. 
I have always admired Rei Kawakubo for her business savvy as well as her creations, though I admit it took me a long time to realize her greatness. 
I came of age during the "designer and character brands boom" in Japan of the 1980's. Mine was the first generation to skip the coming of age ceremony in favour of queuing up at a branded boutique on the first day of mark downs. My peers and I went crazy over the loud creations of Kansai Yamamoto and of such brands as PERSONS and MIKI HOUSE. 
We were in college when Tina Turner strutted the stage in Azzedine Alaia and Versace was the outfit to wear to such discos as the Maharaja and Velfare. 
I remember standing outside the Issey Miyake boutique in Aoyama, staring at a coat in the window, vowing that one day, I will be able to afford a Miyake coat (around $2,500 at the time). 
But now, after my own mini version of SATC shopping sprees and a whole bedroom converted to a closet, and working for the world's leading fashion trend intelligence firm, I have taken to wearing things made by Japanese creators as my point of difference and a show of my support for them. 
Unlike the UK and the US, Japan is a terrible place for creative designers. One hears horror stories like the parents had to sell off a whole mountain they owned for the designer to continue to show her wares at Tokyo Fashion Week. The Industry here just doesn't do enough to support up and coming talent. 
Even greats like Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, and Kenzo were not recognized until they made their mark in Paris. Chitose Abe of Sacai is better recognized since she became the designer of Montcler. 
But after many years of chasing western designers, I decided to look closer to home, and that is when I realized how amazing Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe, as well as Tao are. 
I also learned how amazing Issei Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto are in the fact that young creators who had worked at one or the other have since launched their own labels and are surviving past their first year, the first three years and then some! 
One last quote from the said interview of Rei Kawakubo...
The interviewer looks back and says that once upon a time, fashion influenced many other fields, but then says fashion no longer seems to have that kind of influence. 
Kawakubo replies:
"That is a sign of the change of the times and maybe that is the way it is. Sometimes I think we have lost already. Because it is a fact that we cannot change the situation. However, fashion still makes people forward-thinking and I believe it has the power to be a catalyst to make people want to challenge something new."
"Fashion is a very sensory-oriented thing and is often taken lightly, but in actual fact, it has a power that people need. It is not about logic or data, but it can convey important things through the senses. Unlike art, a deep understanding is established through wearing the garments on the persons. I love fashion including all the bits that is considered frivolous about it. Fashion exists only in the now, in this instant because someone wants to wear something now. That is fashion. It is delicate like a bubble. It has the power to convey important things because it is so finite."
I have often admired her commercial savvy and her openness and honesty about it. 
She openly says that her collections are her pure creative activities, and everything else - the pop up stores, the collaborations with H&M and Louis Vuitton - are commercial activities that support her creative activity. 
I believe it is because of this and the jealousy with which she guards her creativity in her collections that she is so highly regarded both by other creators and their commercial guardians as well as clientele. 

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