Fashion deconstruction? From Derrida to Rei Kawakubo

By Pavel Veraza Tonda

In the 1980s, Japanese fashion designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto pioneered the deconstructivist style in fashion, breaking away from dominant standards. Despite this, the recently deceased Vivienne Westwood has been viewed as a pioneer of this style, creating punk clothing in the late 1970s by recycling and integrating elements from different origins in a defiant style (Scottish tradition, leatherwear from the sex industry, political symbolism). In contrast to Westwood, Kawakubo, Yamamoto (and the Belgian Martin Margiela) had the historical experience of applying deconstructive philosophy prolifically in architecture. There was also a more intellectualized discussion of this philosophical movement initiated by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the 1960s.

Derrida’s questioning of the Western thought system, destabilizing binary oppositions such as inside-outside, male-female, tradition-modernity, finished-process, paved the way in various cultural fields. By the 1980s, the term “deconstruction,” coined by Derrida, gained widespread use. Alongside the deconstructionists in 1980s fashion emerged garments breaking in diverse directions from Western design norms, such as those revealing production processes instead of presenting as finished, frayed garments showing internal seams, non-binary garments, body-enveloping instead of contouring, and garments using only black, in contrast to the glamorous style of the 1980s. Additionally, there was a deactivation of the designer’s authorial prominence, as seen in Margiela’s case.

In recent decades, deconstructivist fashion has experienced a resurgence, coinciding with a global wave of gender advocacy, post-colonial discussions against cultural appropriation, and ecological concerns related to climate change. Deconstructionism aligns with the rise of slow fashion and sustainability as responses to the environmental and social crisis caused by fast fashion, which pushed wage exploitation, design kleptomania, and high environmental pollution to unprecedented levels. In our time, recycling, non-binary clothing, and proposals aiming to break from the dominant fashion industry style are increasingly prevalent.

Given the extensive crisis caused by fast fashion and its accelerated production, consumption, and disposal of clothing, it is worth extending deconstruction to technologies, consumption practices, brand authority, geopolitical control of raw materials, and ecological sacrifice regions—not limiting it to designs. Various slow fashion initiatives are beginning to offer alternatives. It may be worthwhile to deepen the discussion and practices by revisiting deconstruction to broaden the sustainability perspective in fashion: designers providing garments for users to finish in different directions, empowering them with sewing skills and avoiding dependence on brands; generating forms of trade, collection, and lending of garments, as well as exchanging designs not controlled by fast fashion dynamics; engaging in a respectful yet transgressive dialogue with traditional clothing; and experimenting with alternative paths of production, distribution, and consumption in the industry. Deconstructive practices, such as asserting dissemination over monopoly, reclaiming the right to respond to technological imposition, or destabilizing social and political hegemonies, could foster a participative and democratized transformation of the fashion industry. More necessary than ever.