Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between at the Met

Text by Mary Gregory, Photographs by Adel Gorgy

In between is an apt title for the exhibition of Rei Kawakubo’s daring, unconventional designs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The garments the maverick Kawakubo constructs fall somewhere between idea and reality, fashion and sculpture, clothing and performance.

Kawakubo’s name, while known around the world, is less recognizable to many than the name of her label, Comme des Garçons (French for “like some boys”).  By the late 1970s and early ’80s when punk rocked the cultural scene and Madonna turned underwear into outerwear, Kawakubo had already been planting seeds of sedition for a decade.  She put forward fashion on its own ground, rather than as a means to flatter the wearer.  Her creations mirrored the environment around her (on the streets and in nature) as well as her philosophy, her understanding of the world, and her views on history and politics.

Yet, as subversive, radical and revolutionary as her designs were and are, Kawakubo stated, “I am not against fashion.  This is something else, another direction.”  Her direction would lead her to completely rethink what clothing could be.  In the exhibition of some 140 garments, we see jackets that have sleeves in numbers that don’t match human anatomy (sometimes 3 or 4, or even none).  There are skirts that have extra openings for legs (or are they alternate waists?).

By flouting convention, Kawakubo created a genre that didn’t exist before: conceptual clothing.  And yet, they’re not so out-there that they can’t be functional and even perfect.  Lady Gaga, a canny fashionista, joined Kawakubo’s artistic statements with her own in 2012, when buzz arose about her weight.  She defiantly wore one of Kawakubo’s “Flat” pieces, that looks like a cut-out paper doll’s dress (above) hiding her form while proudly proclaiming its beauty.

This goes to the heart of Kawakubo’s vision.  She’s, in part, giving voice to the Eastern idea of wabi-sabi, a Japanese Buddhist-inspired precept that acknowledges and embraces the beauty in the imperfect, incomplete and evolving.  Nine sections of the exhibition present such dichotomies as Absence/Presence, Design/Not Design, Fashion/Anti-Fashion, Model/Multiple, High/Low, Then/Now, Self/Other, Object/Subject, and Clothes/Not Clothes.  They’re staged in an inspired installation of circular forms, stacked platforms, and overhead catwalks, all in pure white, that both isolate and highlight aspects of the designer’s vision.  (They also give a sense of the voyeuristic pleasure of peeking into someone else’s closet.)  These rooms within rooms serve to join certain pieces and extract and pinpoint ideas.  Almost blindingly lit by overhead fluorescent bulbs, there’s no fuzzy, soft focus here.  These are bold statements about shape and color, line and form, that just happen to be adapted to the human body.

Curator Andrew Bolton stated that Kawakubo’s designs aren’t really about clothing at all.  They’re more conduits for performance art.  “It wasn’t really about wearability,” he said. “She’s been forced to enter the debate of art and fashion.”  Inherent in her fashions are all the questions and statements that attend serious works of art.  She raises ideas of beauty and ugliness, the natural state versus the artificial, East and West, male and female, completion, opposition, asymmetry, juxtaposition, history, conformity and identity.

Cocoon dresses, bulging with gossamer humps, contradict the feminine ideal, but recall the perfection of nature.   In her 1997 collection, “Body Meets Dress—Dress meets Body” fantastical shapes challenge ideals but do so in sweet pink and blue gingham.  They’re simultaneously shocking and charming.

There’s a dress that resembles a vacuum cleaner filter, a leather biker jacket paired with a tutu, a gown that looks like a crumpled paper bag, and a coat made from damask, sequins and leather that channels Samurai armor via Louis XIV.

By some of the later collections, she’d almost stopped thinking about clothing and was working with pure abstraction of color and form.  “I don’t care about function at all,” Kawakubo stated.  “When I hear ‘where could you wear that?’ or ‘it’s not very wearable,’ or ‘who would wear that?’ to me it’s just a sign that someone missed the point.”

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between
Costume Institute, at The Met Fifth Avenue through September 4, 2017