Patricia Urquiola and Rei Kawakubo Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 27 December 2016

Patricia Urquiola and Rei Kawakubo


Compare and contrast two leaders, at least one of whom must be a business leader. Which of the two was the more effective leader? Why? What skills must they demonstrate? These two leaders must be explicitly named in your assignment and will be drawn from your knowledge of them or from biographies of modern-day leaders. Provide enough details of these two leaders so that a reader, who does not know of them, will be able to follow the points about them that you are making. Your assignment should demonstrate that you know what makes a successful leader, manager and entrepreneur in any situation.

Word count

The total number of words should be 2500. (from the start of the Introduction till the end of the Conclusion): 2471 words

Executive Summary

This essay explores the definition of effective leadership and introduces two female leaders of the design industry, who originate from very different cultural backgrounds. Furthermore, it will outline similarities and differences in their way of leading based on preceding definition. In the conclusion, this paper explains that both featured individuals are effective leaders, however, one actually practices leadership on daily bases, while the other one has created a movement that will keep on attracting followers even after she stops working.

1 Introduction

Effective leadership is hard to measure and entails a life long process of practice and reflection. Once the main ideas behind effective leadership are defined, this essay examines two design leaders: Rei Kawakubo, the creator of an internationally recognized Japanese fashion brand, and Patricia Urquiola, a designer originally from Spain, who has made herself a name through opening her own studio in Milan. Throughout the comparison, this paper illustrates their individual approaches to leadership and explains their level of influence. Kawakubo is an enigmatic entrepreneur who has created a following by breaking the conventional rules of the fashion industry while Urquiola has educated herself to become a competent leader and manager. Concluding with the understanding that Urquiola is in fact leading and managing on daily bases whereas Kawakubo has successfully built a following by exhibiting her artistic collections, this paper points out that there is two interpretations of effective leadership.

2 Definition of effective leadership

There is no simple way of describing leadership. Our textbook states that leadership develops through experience and reflection and is defined as the ‘process of influencing an organized group towards achieving its goals’. We also learn that it is essential to examine not only the leader, but also the followers and the situation in order to give an appropriate evaluation (Hughes, Ginnet & Curphy 2012). In addition, the adjective ‘effective’ has two definitions, it can mean ‘successful in producing a desired or intended result’ or can be defined as ‘existing in fact’ (Oxford Dictionaries 2013). According to the Leadership Business Academy, typical characteristics of successful leaders are emotional intelligence, honesty, integrity, courageousness and self-confidence. In a business scenario, leaders also must be competent within the business and know the competitive landscape to be able to keep a clear strategic perspective and promote innovation.

Leaders create direction and ensure results within the company, in addition, they have to ensure ethically and socially sustainable values for up to four different parties: the client, who brings in revenue; the stakeholder, who invests in the company and wants to maintain the required levels of involvement; the supplier or partner, who is necessary for the production line and last but not least the employee, who advises and produces. Leaders also promote and develop the education of key employees as successors within their company. They believe that talent is vital to ensure the company’s endurance and invest in retaining the best talent (Leadership Business Academy 2013).

3 Who is Rei Kawakubo?

For the last four decades, Rei Kawakubo has continually pushed the boundaries of fashion, architecture and retail. She is the owner and creative director of the Japanese label ‘Comme des Garcons’ (French for ‘like the boys’) and has created a conglomerate that turned over $180 million in 2007 (Horyn 2008). Kawakubo was born in Tokyo in 1942 as the eldest of three children. After her graduation in history of aesthetics at the Keio University she lands a job in advertising for the Asahi Kasei textiles company in 1964. Three years later, she starts working as a freelance stylist when she first designs clothes for photo shoots. The label ‘Comme des garcons’ was established in 1967. Over the next decade she experiments with fashion and opens her fist boutique in Tokyo in 1975. Towards the end of the 70s she changes direction. She decides to ignore influences from any cultural or historical references in her design process in order to create something completely new. In fall 1981, Kawakubo has her debut show in Paris with her Japanese design colleague Yohji Yamamoto.

This radically innovative collection featured abstract shapes solely out of black fabrics. In a time when Parisian ladies were wearing colorful embroidered fabrics, developed to accentuate female shapes, this collection was regarded as ‘an assault at the very core of Western fashion and was harshly criticized for stripping women of beauty’ (Klensch 1987). Nevertheless, Kawakubo had managed to get the full attention of the European fashion world and opened her first boutique in Paris in 1982. During the following years, Kawakubo continuously keeps inventing new shapes and concepts. She receives numerous awards and acclaimed recognition. She publishes the first issue of ‘Six’, a biannual magazine, in 1988 and designs the set and costumes for the premiere of Merce Cunningham’s dance piece ‘Scenario’ in 1997. In 2004, Kawakubo launches an influential series of pop up shops in non-fashion centers called ‘guerilla stores’. In low budget spaces, warehouse stock from past collections was sold. ‘Pop up’ is now a worldwide occurrence with most fashion designers and retailers following her lead.

During the economic crisis in 2008, she designs a collection for H&M, a Swedish multinational retail-clothing company and later develops a handbag collection for Louis Vuitton, a French luxury brand. The handbags could only be ordered during a short period of time through the Tokyo concept store that Kawakubo had designed herself for the luxury brand. Customers could only order one bag per person and had to wait several months for the delivery (Phelps 2008). Again leading the way using the notion of exclusivity to extreme levels. “Creation does not end with just the clothes. New interesting business ideas, revolutionary retail strategies, unexpected collaborations, nurturing of in-house talent, all are examples of Comme des Garçon’s creation.” she explains to the The New York Times (Menkes 2009).

The question still lingers in the room, who is Rei Kawakubo? She has given only few interviews over the past decades, which is surprising for a person that often gets compared to Coco Chanel, another fashion icon to push industry boundaries and redefine the way women wore clothes. She keeps her company culture separated from the outside world, for instance the headquarters are based in an ordinary five-story office building without receptionist. Also family and friends of her employees are not welcome (Horyn 2008). Ever since the inception of her label, Kawakubo has not changed her approach to a new collection.

Her work is based on her very own emotions with no influence from other design movements. Every new collection features new shapes and new textures never seen before, but no one knows how many of those pieces she actually sells. Tokyo based stylist Sonya Park puts it this way: “She makes her profit so that she can do something new the next season. It’s always about the next project. That’s why I see her as someone who wants to express the world through fashion. She just wants to keep on doing it.” (Horyn 2008). Indeed her cutting edge boutiques in New York, Paris and Tokyo carry a large array of branded T-shirts and accessories, which do not really comply with her ‘everything must be new’ rule. At the age of 70, Kawakubo still often works 12h days, 7 days per week.

‘There is a physical and psychological pressure apparent’, describes Cathy Horn when she visits the head office. Kawakubo’s work ethic has been passed on to the head designers. Their teams work in separated areas with no communication about the creative process between them. Kawakubo first lays eyes on her protégé’s collections on the day of the rehearsal, just before the shows. ”When I stop, the Comme des Garcons brand will stop but the company will continue,” she says at the end of the interview (Horyn 2008). Even though the name of Comme des garcons may cease to exist one day, Kawakubo has ensured that her ethos will continue.

4 Working with Patricia Urquiola

Over the past two decades, Patricia Urquiola has created award winning architecture, products and displays. She pushes the limitations of the companies that she works with and is the head of the design studio that carries her name. She only recently finished the interior design of the Mandarin Hotel in Barcelona, valued at $180 million. Urquiola was born in Oviedo, Spain, in 1961 as a middle child. Her father, who is an engineer, and her mother, who has a degree in philosophy, were opposed to the fascist regime and had a house on Ibiza to be closer to ‘open-minded’ international people (Tischler 2010). At the age of 18, she moved to Madrid to study architecture and eventually transferred to the prestigious Politecnico di Milano, Italy. During the following years she becomes assistant professor to Eugenio Berttinelli, a well-known architect, and Achille Castiglioni, an industrial designer, while leading the product development department at DePadova, a custom furniture manufacturer.

Later, Urquiola gets hired to be the head of the design team at Lissoni, a company that is positioned at the interface between architecture and design. Simultaneously bringing up a daughter out of a previous marriage, she did not believe that she could ever have her own business until she was finally convinced by colleagues and friends to do so in 2001. Ever since that year, Urquiola has been involved in designing two luxury hotels, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Barcelona and W Retreat & Spa in Vieques ,Puerto Rico, the sets for the Monteverdi opera ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea’ in Spain and showrooms, boutiques and interiors for the likes of Hermès, Gianvito Rossi, Valentino, Max Mara and H&M. At the international furniture fair in Milan in 2010, she was asked to design a display to promote the new BMW 5 series. The display explores the interior and exterior of the luxury car in a very imaginative way. It tells a story through the items one might transport to go on holidays.

Surprisingly, the interior was decorated with beige woolen fabrics and stitched patterns. The use of wool translated as a more sustainable choice for car fabrics and the nostalgic patterns aroused the sentiment of home. Her idea of sustainability and wellbeing had encouraged visitors to question the existing concept of luxury and had given BMW not only attention, but also a new aspect to the company’s identity. When Linda Tischler visits Urquiola at her studio in 2010, she describes her as animated character in a busy studio with 30 staff.

“If I’m doing faucets, I’m a superlover of faucets,” she says to Tischler. Urquiola often gets described as charismatic, intelligent and charming, however, the greatest thing about success, she explains later, is that she can be ‘picky about whom she works with’ (Tischler 2010). Every project that she takes on, she researches and brainstorms until she finds a solution that meets both, the requirements of her client and also her own criteria. “I know how to fight for my ideas” she says at a lecture at the Asian Civilization’s museum and has proven this in many projects (Eu 2008).

5 Comparing the two leaders

Both leaders have achieved enormous success and influence in very different ways. The entrepreneurial decisions that Kawakubo has taken throughout her life show great courage and self-confidence. Never could she have known that her business would ever attract that many followers, but she has believed in her own self and created a very personal body of work. She is an autodidact that has created a unique vision, which has inspired millions of people to follow her: employees who want to learn from her, clients who buy her products and competitors who want to be associated with her. One cannot be certain if this had always been her intention, but her excessive wish for creative independence has motivated her to set up a source of income. If her business would have been unsuccessful, she may have had to acquire other tactics, but because of the fact that it has been exceeding expectations, she could endure this position in her own unique way.

Throughout the process, her self-confidence got solidified and her influence would become greater. Being involved in the manufacturing of fashion, she could create a product and test it on the market using little interaction with her followers. She used her visual language to campaign her vision. In contrast to Kawakubo, Urquiola learned to be courageous and confident throughout her childhood, study and career. The more educated she became, the more self-confidence she would show. Urquiola surrounded herself with the top of her league. Her emotional intelligence and integrity have helped her to accelerate her path. Like her mentors, she now pushes the boundaries towards innovation though discussions.

Her communication skills enable her to be a successful manager and innovator within her field and she uses charm and intelligence to convince her clients to buy into her ideas. Running a business that offers design services, good communication skills are a vital factor for success. The enigmatic Kawakubo has created an iconic image of herself that attracts followers who believe in individuality. Many of her clients are artists, architects, writers and designers. They buy her clothes to be part of a movement. They think of themselves as radical and forward thinking. Everything that is connected to the Comme des garcons label communicates this statement visually.

There will always be people that celebrate individuality and even when Kawakubo stops working, she will continue being the hero of her deciples. Furthermore, her company will continue to create cutting edge fashion as her head designers already operate as independent entities. In contrast to Kawakubo, Urquiola’s followers are clients that buy into nostalgic and sustainable sentiments. They like entertainment and use her furniture to have conversational pieces in their homes. Urquiola designs for the masses and will be going into the history of worldwide influential designers of the 21st century, but when she stops working, there will be other designers to start a new conversation.

6 Conclusion

Rei Kawakubo has influenced millions of people through creating a unique movement that is now carrying on without her having to manage other head designers. Referring back to the definition of effective, it is now clear that she has been ‘successful in producing a desired result’ and she has exceeded in the amount of influence that Urquiola has reached, even though she might not comply with all leadership characteristics mentioned in the definition (Oxford Dictionaries 2013). Her unique concept has ensured a strong position within the market place for ongoing success. The second definition of effective is ‘existing in fact’ (Oxford Dictionaries 2013).

Urquiola is a practicing leader and exceeds in the majority of leadership characteristics throughout the comparison. She continually manages and supervises ‘the process of influencing a group towards achieving its goals’ through nurturing and motivating her followers (Hughes, Ginnet & Curphy 2012). Urquiola is the more effective leader in that respect. Her integrity and strive for innovation make her an innovator with many followers, but when she stops working, her name will become history. Looking at these two leaders, one may question weather the characteristics described in the definition are valid. There seems to be no blueprint to gain influence, however, there is a sentiment that all leaders have in common. They all have passion for their visions and somehow communicate this passion to their followers.

Hughes, RL, Ginnet, RC & Curphy, GJ 2012, Leadership – Enhancing the Lessons of Experience, 7th edn, McGraw-Hill, Irwin, p. 4-5.

Oxford Dictionaries 2013, Definition ‘ effective’. Available from: . [19 January 2013].

Leadership Business Academy 2013, Effective Leadership. Available from:

Horyn C 2008, Gang of Four. Available from: . [12 January 2013].

Klensch E 1987, Another World of Style: Rei Kawakubo, Vogue US, August issue, p. 307.

Phelps N 2008, Rei Kawakubo Puts Her Stamp on Louis Vuitton. Available from: <>. [8 January 2013].

Menkes S 2009, Positive Energy: Comme at 40. Available from: . [10 January

Tischler L 2010, Che Bella Figura!, Fast Company, October 2010, issue 149, p. 115-121.

Eu G 2008, Patricia Urquiola: A spunky Spaniard. Available from: . [11 January 2013].

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