Comme des Garçons is an enigmatic force in the fashion world. Japanese designer and founder Rei Kawakubo has independently orchestrated the label's rise since its beginning in 1969. The success of Comme des Garçons is defined by Kawakubo's ability to challenge convention, not only through design, but also in the way she approaches the business of fashion.

She will soon become the second living designer—after Yves Saint Laurent in 1983—to be honored at the Met Gala with a solo exhibition at the Anna Wintour Costume Institute in 2017.

The Beginnings of Comme

Like many great designers, Rei Kawakubo had no formal training in fashion design. Instead, she studied art and literature at Keio University. In 1964 Japan, the post-war period had finally ended and with it came the beginning of new prosperity. Young people in Japan were participating in the youth culture of the '60s, which focused heavily on rebellion and counter culture. Kawakubo found herself in the middle of the bohemians and the elite; contradiction continues to be an ongoing theme in her collections to this day. She took her first job working in the advertising department at a textiles factory were she sometimes would style props or costumes for photoshoots. At the encouragement of her coworkers, she left the company to becomes a freelance stylist, often making her own clothing when she couldn't find the right piece for a shoot.

In 1969 she began making clothes under the label Comme des Garçons—whose typeface logo was designed by Kawakubo—with the assistance of a small team, including Tsunami Tanaka, now chief of production. The company became incorporated in 1973 supported by growing popularity amongst Japanese consumers. Notoriety quickly followed and an Aoyama boutique opened the same year, which is still Kawakubo's home base to this day. It’s windows were often kept empty with the merchandise displayed towards the back of the store. The boutique intentionally had no mirrors to emphasize the notion that one should buy clothes because of how they make you feel, not how they make you look. The clothing was predominantly rustic, based on the traditional dress of Japanese fisherman and peasants. For the remainder of the decade, Kawakubo worked to refine her aesthetic and build her company with menswear added to the roster in 1978.

Comme des Garçons made huge strides as a global brand when they presented their first show in Paris in 1981. The ground-breaking collection of all black, loose-fitting, asymmetrical clothing that was torn and had the look of rags received a controversial reception. Not everyone in the fashion establishment was ready for Kawakubo's unconventional approach to design. In the early '80s, the immaculate work of the French couture houses was considered the epitome of fashion: high-glamour looks like those worn by the actresses of Dallas and designed by Versace, Donna Karan and Thierry Mugler were what a modern woman of good taste would choose to wear. Comme des Garçons presented a collection in direct opposition of the ascetics of the time, and challenged the notion that clothes were intended for the sole purpose of making the wearer look attractive. Kawakubo's unfinished seams and asymmetrical cuts were deemed absurd. Critics derided her coats, dark palette and distressed fabrics as post-atomic and Hiroshima chic. Kawakubo responded to to the criticism personally:

Although I never went hungry I remember well the extreme poverty and devastation of those times. But this had no bearing on my work whatsoever. These critics had it all wrong. Being born in Japan was an accident. There is no direct correlation to my work. Growing up in postwar Japan has made me the person I am, but it is not why I do the work I do. It is a very personal thing – everything comes from inside.