Donna Karan On One Of Her Greatest Inspirations, Rei Kawakubo

Photo: Gonzalo Marroquin/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images.
Tonight's Met Gala marks the second time in the event's history that a living designer is being honored. "Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between" sees the work of Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art because, well, that's what it is. The work of Kawakubo is, as fellow designer Donna Karan would put it, more than fashion: It's reality. Karan walked us through her connection to Kawakubo, which stems from Karan's early days in the business. From Karan's days of wearing Issey Miyake, to developing silhouettes for her eponymous label, Kawakubo has always served as an inspiration to the New York-based designer.
Though Karan and Kawakubo's personalities might seem like oil and water — Karan is somewhat of an extrovert and Kawakubo's been very reclusive — the ready-to-wear designer admires the artistry and meditation that Kawakubo's work requires. For Karan, she embodies an identity that the landscape of today's designers is lacking. Ahead of tonight's event, we spoke with Karan about what it's been like to admire Kawakubo's work for Comme des Garçons from afar, and what her work has mean to her own craft, as a fellow designer in the game.
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"I think I was [always] fascinated by Asian designers: Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, and Yohji Yamamoto. I started with wearing Issey. It was just that the clothes were real, but with something else to them. It took the reality to another level. For me, black was always important. And so was anybody who used the fabric and having the fabric talk. Their fabrics were modern, the shapes were modern; they weren't basic, so to speak," Karan told Refinery29. She continued: "I mean, Comme [des Garçons] is probably the most avant garde of all. [Rei] is a true artist in what she says, but on the other hand, she's able to do clothes [that reflect] great reality."
For Karan, her connection to Kawakubo, and Asian designers in general runs deep: "I think I've always been drawn to the East. I wish I could explain it, but I can't. That has always been my inspirational ground, whether it be the fabrication or the artistry — I've been practicing yoga since I was a very young girl — so I've always been drawn to that culture."
"[Rei] is very quiet. She's never followed anything else other than what she believed in. Not fashion trends — she created the trend. She is a true artist. For me, having fabric talk is very important. It's like a partnership, like what a sculpture would be: the body, art, and fashion together. And she's always been true to herself, which is very hard for a designer to be. To stay on brand, so to speak. Outside of people like Armani, Ralph, and Calvin, there are very few designers who stay [true to] who they are."
In Karan's opinion, there are very few designers today who stay that faithfully consistent, the way Kawakubo has. And, with the ever-shuffling of top fashion houses, Karan makes a good point: "The change of designers is so rapid. There was a time that Saint Laurent was Saint Laurent, Dior was Dior, Halston was Halston — they weren't anybody else's designs but theirs," Karan said. "And I think there's a search right now for the authenticity of a designer. I love the fact that she's being honored. It's an inspiration, and it's a callout to artistry and identity. It's beautiful. I applaud her for it."
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