When Rei Kawakubo presented her first show in Paris in 1981 an outcry went through the international press, such as no other designer has elicited. The indignation responded to what was perceived as an attack on the idea of fashion in general, and on the ideal of the ‘Western woman’ in particular – in short, an attack on beauty. This critical counter-attack was carried out with an aggressivity which did not balk at a cynical and tactless use of national and sexist stereotypes.
In the USA, the press of the nation that had dropped the atom bombs on Japan was not above disparaging remarks about a ‘post-atom-bomb-fashion,’ marked by death, tattered shrouds, depression, destruction, poverty and hunger. Traumatized by the defeat in the war, the Japanese, it seemed, were unable to take pleasure in their newly acquired wealth, and now opposed the triumph of the new world order with an enigmatic obstinacy.
If one recalls that this new aesthetic of poverty was attacked in America at the same time that the nation was being drawn down into Third World conditions by the percentage of the population living in poverty, then it is tempting to wonder if what was at issue here was less the victory in the Second World War than the defeat in the economic war. Certainly, the economic triumph of post-war Japan is in no way celebrated in Kawakubo’s designs – herein lies perhaps the deepest provocation of Comme des Garçons, in Japan as in America. An American power elite, which holds undeterred to the ostentatious exhibition of Western values through wealth and consumption, could only view with consternation a designer who makes a New York bag lady into a new fashion ideal.