Art of the In-Between:
Rei Kawakubo at The Met
Written by Ann Binlot
Photographed by Jonathan Hökklo
Rei Kawakubo doesn’t design clothes for the masses. Then again, Kawakubo isn’t your conventional fashion designer. Her garments aren’t made to accentuate the curves of the human body. They don’t reveal cleavage or show off svelte figures, nor do they follow trends. They’re more akin to wearable works of art that use the body in a way that a sculpture would sit on a plinth, or a painting would hang on a wall. Her unconventional designs may not be easy for most people to wear, but her core label, Comme des Garçons (French for “like some boys”), isn’t created for regular people. Yet the brand has endured since 1969.
“I have always pursued a new way of thinking about design...by denying established values, conventions, and what is generally accepted as the norm,” Kawakubo has said. “And the modes of expression that have always been most important to me are fusion...imbalance...unfinished...elimination...and absence of intent.”
Kawakubo’s approach to clothes is exactly why the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to dedicate an exhibition to her oeuvre—making her the second living fashion designer (after Yves Saint Laurent) to have a solo show at the Met. On view through September 4th, Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between follows the Japanese designer’s career from the early 1980s, when she dismissed prevailing Japanese folkloric influences, all the way to her spring/summer 2017 collection.
“I have always pursued a new way of thinking about design...by denying established values, conventions, and what is generally accepted as the norm”
“In blurring the art/fashion divide, Kawakubo asks us to think differently about clothing,” said Thomas P. Campbell, outgoing director of the Met. “Curator Andrew Bolton explores work that often looks like sculpture in an exhibition that challenges our ideas about fashion’s role in contemporary culture.”
Some 140 of Kawakubo’s creations are on display in the exhibition, categorized by a series of dualities: Absence/Presence, Design/Not Design, Fashion/AntiFashion, Model/Multiple, High/Low, Then/Now, Self/Other, Object/Subject, and Clothes/Not Clothes. The notion of “in-between” deals with the way her designs occupy the space between opposing phrases.
In High/Low, Kawakubo’s spring/summer 2005 motorbike ballerina collection combines pastel tutus with tough leather jackets. Next to it, the Good Taste/Bad Taste section displays two looks from autumn/winter 2008 in which grids of black elastic are laid over white tulle. East/West takes the red circle that represents the sun on the Japanese flag, transforming it into a dominant accent on delicate tulle dresses. In Male/Female are examples of Kawakubo taking the traditional suit jacket and turning it into a work of art through bulbous sleeves. Feminine oral prints are cut up and assembled into forms that resemble suits of armor.
“Rei Kawakubo is one of the most important and influential designers of the past 40 years,” said Bolton, curator in charge of the Met’s Costume Institute.“By inviting us to rethink fashion as a site of constant creation, recreation, and hybridity, she has defined the aesthetics of our time.”
Explore another chapter in The Stories:
Free Spirit: The Modern Vision of Charlotte Perriand