Rei Kawakubo: the art of the opposite

“Hiroshima chic.” That’s what critics called her work. Rei Kawakubo’s fashion show in 1981 in Paris was panned. Most fashion designers failed to understand her work. Because it was so completely opposite to what they were used to.

While the Paris fashion scene was brimming with colours, Kawakubo showed up with clothes in only black, dark grey, and white. Her clothes had unfinished edges, maybe even a few holes in them. It was completely asymmetric. And people wondered who would wear such clothes.

And yet, today Kawakubo is a huge success. Employing more than 800 people. And doing business of over 200 million dollars a year. How did she succeed?

Wabi-sabi Fashion

Kawakubo had never studied fashion. Yet she had an urge to do something that had never been done before. 

Going with blacks and greys was an easy choice to stand out. But she would not have succeeded if she did not push the envelope to its limits.

By pushing the boundaries, she could redefine them. She pioneered a whole new movement in fashion: deconstructionism. 

Japanese have a beautiful word for accepting imperfections: wabi-sabi. Kawakubo asked: why not take apart the clothes and expose the elements that are typically hidden? Show the imperfections? So she showed the hidden seams and the linings. She gave her clothes unfinished edges.

And she rebelled against balance and perfection. She made her clothes asymmetric. 

Critics found her to be too different. But guess what. She found her audience. 

Fashion vs anti-fashion

There were enough people who wanted to move away from fashion and trends. Black and grey colours gave them timeless pieces – they could wear it forever. Unique asymmetric cuts gave them versatility. The clothes stood out, and yet transcended the seasonality of the fashion business.

By doing everything a fashion designer didn’t do, Kawakubo’s anti-fashion ideas created timeless dresses. A huge minority wanted her designs.

Over the years, various brands seeked her out and collaborated with her. Everyone from H&M to Levis to Nike to even Speedo. Because the novelty gave them instant publicity. And the contrast increased their store sales. it allowed them to reach and sell to more people.

Action Summary:

  • Every culture has a counter culture. But you have to push the boundaries beyond its limits. Break the rules of design to become noticed and find your pack.
  • Collaborate. People you are countering against will themselves want to stock your wares. Because they know a niche opposite exists. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.