On Monday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York will do something practically unprecedented in its history: open a retrospective on a still-living designer. They have done it only once before, with a 1983 exhibition honoring Yves Saint Laurent. This time, the institute is celebrating Rei Kawakubo, the mercurial matriarch of the Comme des Garçons empire, and the festivities are warranted. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Kawakubo’s is the most singular voice in fashion, both today and in the 20th century. She has influenced every fashion designer who has come after her, whether they are aware of it or not. And yet, she is inimitable, her works tethered to each other more by an intrepid spirit than a specific aesthetic. From experimental construction to unexpected fabrics, no one has done more to expand our ideas of what clothing can be, the questions it can pose and the feelings it can evoke. It is this pure, uncompromising pursuit of creative expression that draws so many musicians, from the avant-garde to the pop provocateurs and high-fashion-fluent rappers to Kawakubo’s work.
Kawakubo founded her label in 1969, and found herself standing in the fashion world’s spotlight after her first runway show in Paris in 1981. Her work was severe and monochromatic, standing in stark contrast to the traditionally beautiful, delicate fare that typified the period. Ever the iconoclast, Kawakubo’s unwavering commitment to artistic exploration has always pulled other radical thinkers into her orbit. Björk is an avowed admirer of both Rei the woman and Rei the designer, returning repeatedly to Comme des Garçons over the years—she was shot by Jüergen Teller in Comme des Garçons for Self Service Magazine in the mid-1990s, mentioned her affinity for the brand in a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone and appeared in T Magazine in 2015 in head-to-toe looks. Lady Gaga, who perhaps more than any contemporary pop star demonstrates the energizing potential of experimental fashion, is, naturally, a big fan, and is regularly photographed wearing the label’s most extravagant (and often impractical) garments. For a music artist with the cultural capital to dress like an expressionistic sculpture, Comme des Garçons is really as good as it gets.
As the Comme des Garçons business grew through the 1980s and 90s, it expanded to include a host of sub-labels, including its most visible, Play, a less expensive, more accessible line marked by a googly-eyed heart logo designed by Polish illustrator Filip Pagowski. The Play line has been a favorite of trendsetters like Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, and numerous others. Drake even enlisted Pagowski for the launch campaign for his fourth studio album, Views, doubtlessly inspired by the designer’s work for Comme Des Garçons. Pharrell Williams has made his admiration for Kawakubo well known, referring to her as “genius,” and even collaborating with the brand in 2014 on a signature unisex fragrance, Girl, that was released in tandem with his solo album of the same name. On Monday, he will co-chair the annual Met Gala with Katy Perry and celebrate the retrospective on Kawakubo.
While the Play line has become an approachable entry point to the Comme des Garçons universe, much of Kawakubo’s work remains too esoteric for all but the most committed aesthetes—and music artists are no exception. Rather than trading on tried-and-true rocker-chic tropes, as Hedi Slimane did at Saint Laurent, or translating magpie, quirky-chic to the music masses, as Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele has been doing for the past few seasons, Kawakubo’s output tends towards forms too experimental to be easily contextualized. The designer is also famously taciturn and self-critical, rarely granting interviews. When she does, she appears motivated chiefly by a drive to create constantly and generate newness, and when asked which of her collections is her favorite, she always suggests that it is her most recent one. In recent years, a specific leather Comme des Garçons biker jacket has become especially popular, circulating perpetually via the social media posts of enthusiasts. It is an ordinary enough jacket, but for a painted inscription covering its back. On three lines it reads: “Live Free, Die Strong, Comme des Garçons.” For Rei’s flock—from everymen and superstars alike—that says it all.