What Would Emerson Say About Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons?

By Eric ’21

Emerson uses transcendentalism as the basic starting point to promote “self-reliance.” He believes that the only way to fulfill one’s potential is to be nonconformist; he also emphasizes that all men must adhere to themselves, and act according to their inner hearts and intuitions. In the fashion industry, there is pressure on designers to follow mainstream fashion trends and produce standardized ready-to-wear clothing. Designers who yield to this pressure prioritize fame and financial stability over being true to themselves. However, there is a different kind of designer who follows Emerson’s principles, personified by the Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. According to Emerson’s beliefs of independence and confidence in “Self-Reliance”, his views on Rei Kawakubo’s reconsideration of the human form and interests in deconstruction would definitely be positive.

The avant-garde notion of the human form reconsideration is developed by Kawakubo on the basis of her antifashion concept. It has a unique design of in the appearance of the garment, which is very different from the traditional clothing shape that matches the human body. The Spring/Summer 1997 collection “Body Meet Dress – Dress Meet Body” is Kawakubo’s most radical work representing this unique style. One garment from this collection is a tight jacket and a bottom skirt, which is made out of the red elastic nylon cloth with down feather inside. Kawakubo uses methods of wrapping and entanglement to implant a long-pillow-like filling in the garment. The lump is asymmetrically stretched through several positions in the human body. It is fixed from the left shoulder to the lower right abdomen, which would eventually be extended to the waist and hips. This piece resembles an overall distorted shape of a pregnant woman, and has different morphological features that can be observed from all angles.

When being asked about the design idea of this specific collection, Kawakubo responded “to make a form in which a woman looks pretty in a conventional way is not interesting to me at all” (Bolton 138). She is a nonconformist because her style of the human form reconsideration has created a subversion of traditional aesthetics. Its randomly structured protrusions and protuberances give strange, disturbing and even morbid feelings to the audience, because they look like lumps growing in the human body, as well as the clothing worn by people with abnormal body shapes such as pigeon chests and hunchbacks. Many viewers could not understand or affirm this concept from the conventionality especially when it was initially brought out in 1997. The style was not re-examined until recent years. Emerson would definitely have liked Kawakubo’s design because she proposes a new definition of beauty. People should act according to what they think. He said that “no law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.[…] the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it” (Levine 598). Emerson supports that people insist on carrying themselves in the face of all opposition. The true self-independent man is one who plays a major role while other people are supporting roles. 

The belated acceptance of the value of Kawakubo’s work is actually the result of people’s long-standing aesthetic habits of clothing. People have been obsessed with the appreciation of rules and garments with perfect body shapes. But Emerson points out that “it is easy to live after the world’s opinion” (Levine 599). Most people prefer to this in daily lives. But a great man is “to be misunderstood” (Levine 601) and always separates from the crowds. Kawakubo has broken this agreement in the form of variation and distortion. She questions symmetrical and mathematical ways of designing. Thus, a nonconformity or the new shift from the original beauty can be found in an asymmetrical, irregular, and discordant order, as she expressed after producing this collection “If we made clothes that are easily understood and likely to sell well, there will be no place for Comme des Garçons” (Bolton 141).

Another way to show Kawakubo as a nonconformist is through the form of deconstruction. It is essentially the decomposition of the constructionism. Kawakubo uses this concept to negate traditionally unified principles of design and create fragmentation and uncertainty by recombining the components of an object. Her Autumn/Winter 1982-83 collection “Holes” is defined as the beggar clothing. The style is mainly characterized by irregular structure, torn fabric, and the low purity color of black reflecting the poverty aesthetics and decadent fashion. Emerson would have liked Kawakubo’s deconstruction concept because she confidently presented herself in the international stage by rejecting Parisian norms. In Emerson’s opinion: “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice without notice his thought, because it is his” (Levine 596). In other words, many people do not express themselves bravely and underestimate their divine ideas just because the ideas are their own. But Kawakubo goes towards the opposite way of the fashion trend with aggressions, which is exactly what Emerson suggests.

The most iconic design in this collection is a black sweater perforated with holes, which Kawakubo dubbed “lace.” She intentionally “loosen[ed] a screw of the machines here and there” (Bolton 31) in order to achieve this imperfect construction process. She incorporated two traditional Japanese concepts on the “lace” instead of containing the western fashion aesthetics. First, mu symbolized the singular color of black in this piece of clothing. Second, ma was used to describe the oversized, amorphous, and ragged structure of the garment. It created a space between the body and the garments, which Kawakubo explained in 1983 “those are tears to some, but to me they’re not tears […] Those are openings that give the fabric another dimension” (Bolton 30). Emerson said “Do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself” (Levine 599). He states that the only way to know one’s personality is through one’s own actions. Kawakubo expresses their own ideas by doing the work bravely in spite of others’ opinions. If people begin their actions that are true to themselves and different from others, the more they do their works with the same principle, the more they will be as nonconformists.

According to Emerson, the fundamental way to achieve self-reliance is to be a nonconformist, which requires independence and confidence. The fashion designer Rei Kawakubo is indeed the ideal nonconformist that Emerson had written in his work “Self-Reliance”. Primarily, Kawakubo’s style of human form reconsideration stands independently from the original definition of beauty, which reinterprets the relationship between the body and the clothes, and subverts the traditional fashion aesthetics. Moreover, Kawakubo confidently spoke against the prevailing styles of western fashion by presenting the deconstructed garments with Japanese notions to the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s