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

by Sid Feddema

When Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between opens at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in the first week of May, this groundbreaking exhibition will be only the second time the Met has curated an exhibition around the oeuvre of a living and working designer. In December 1983, the Met featured a 25 years retrospective of the design of Yves Saint Laurent with 150 outfits from couture to his work for the theaters and in the words of Diana Vreeland who organized the show then about the consensus on the most influential fashion designer in the second half of the 20th century – “half of the time he is inspired by the street and half of the time the street gets its style from YSL.”

“I created the wardrobe of the contemporary woman, that I participated in the transformation of my times. For a long time now, I have believed that fashion was not only supposed to make women beautiful, but to reassure them, to give them confidence, to allow them to come to terms with themselves,” said Saint Laurent in January 2002 in announcing his retirement and the closure of his haute couture house.  By transformation of his times, the designer meant he had deployed the power of clothes – putting women in pantsuits, in ‘le smoking’ and sportswear safari jackets and pea-coats – to not only changed the way women dress but also breakdown the social economic hierarchy dominated by a rigid patriarchal system. 

Rei Kawakubo’s work since founding Comme des Garçons in 1969 has shook the core fashion system and more recently has altered our view of what fashion is. Her story is now the stuff of legend – she started out working in the advertising department of a fabric company then went as a freelance stylist who began to make clothes because she could not find that she liked, an enterprise that eventually formalized into the main women's collection at Comme des Garçons in 1973.  Showing in Paris for the first time in 1981 with a collection consisting entirely of black asymmetrical and deconstructed clothes rendered in distressed fabrics, Kawakubo’s early work immediately challenged the ’80s high octane glamour and power dressing statements coming from the then style arbiters like Versace, Montana, and Thierry Mugler and reinforced by the ubiquitous images of the ‘Dynasty’ women on television. ‘Destroy’ - the fall 1982 collection where models stomped down the runway to loud beating drums wearing ragged clothes like an oversized sweater with holes in industrial fabrics like boiled wool – was the watershed moment that established Kawakubo as a designer who would go on to challenge the accepted ideas of beauty and to reengineer the conventions governing the constructions of clothes that often defies any adherence to logic and rationality. 

Rei Kawakubo disrupted the fashion system with her stated singular vision and mission to constantly seeking to create something new and something that has not been done before by going against the grain of prevailing aesthetics norms. It is a sure testament of an artist or a designer's power that years after a particular work, or in this case a collection, had been shown, there are still vivid memories of many of the collections that broke new ground in our understanding of fashion.  Most memorable were the "Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress" spring 1997 show of gingham stretch dresses adorned with irregular paddings stuffed underneath and around different sections of the body to look like giant bumps that satirized their older versions of corsets and crinolines that exoticized the woman’s body parts; the ‘Transcending Gender’ spring 1995 collection that erased the gender boundary of garments (my first CDG show) and "The Infinity of Tailoring" fall 2013 and "Persona" fall 2006 collections both expanded the tailored suiting into new dimensions; the "Broken Bride" fall 2005 collection of passementerie trim romantic dress that looked more disheveled than polished – perhaps reflecting the fragility of the modern woman; the "Ballerina Motorbike" spring 2005 collection of rigid bikers and black sheer tutus; and certainly the earth-shaking fall 2012 "The future in two dimensions" collection of colorful flat clothes made mostly in heavy wool felt. I remember that remarkable spring 1998 show staged at the Conciergerie in a joint venture by showing back to back with Martin Margiela to foster the spirit of independent creativity. 

As a business entrepreneur, Kawakubo established a creative ecosystem from within by organically developing and sponsoring talents within the company and grow them into their own brands like Junya Watanabe, Kei Ninomiya, Funito Ganryu, and just recently Gosha Rubchinskiy to others alumni like Junichi Abe of Kolor and Chitose Abe of Sacai.

In 2004, Dover Street Market opened in London as the first flagship store carrying all the CDG brands as well as nurturing new fashion talents by selling their products at the multi-label emporium. 

What’s most remarkable about any of the CDG shows – especially those staged in the last four years – is how the each person can individually interpret them freely. Kawakubo prefers to let her work speak for itself and be interpreted in any way possible. The meaning depends on subjective judgement rather than any predisposed meanings. For example, while many view the "White Drama" spring 2012 show as a celebration of the lavishness of haute couture for wedding – with long pant sleeves jacket embellished with white roses over white lace knee length dress or off-white large satin lace coat with silver floral hand pockets – I saw the show as a funeral service illustrating perhaps the subjugation of women because the color white is the color for mourning in Asia not for matrimony. Since the "No More Clothes" spring 2014 show, Kawakubo has completely moved on from using the show format to present actual clothes and opted for conceptual approach that culminate in "The Future of the Silhouette" fall 2017 show last March where models cross a pink triangular runway platform inside the concert hall Elysée Montmartre wearing unusual shapes such as an asymmetrical white bubble dress with no sleeves made from plaster.

In a morning talk about the CDG show at the Met at a preview in Paris in March, Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute curator, outlined the eight recurring aesthetics that have shaped Kawakubo’s work over the decades as “expressions of ‘in-betweenness in Rei’s collections:  fashion/antifashion; design/not design; model/multiple; then/now; high/low; self/other; object/subject; and clothes/not clothes. In her work, Rei breaks down the false walls between these dualisms, exposing their artificiality and arbitrariness. As her fashion demonstrates, in-between spaces are sites not only of meaningful connection and coexistence but also of revolutionary innovation and transformation, providing Rei with endless possibilities for creation and re-creation.” 

The Met exhibition is in collaboration with CDG and features 150 garments from the early ’80s to fall 2017 and is organized around these eight themes of aesthetic interstitially with heads and wigs created by Julien d’Ys. The final portion of the exhibition, the "clothes/no clothes" section, focuses primarily on the last eight women collections where Kawakubo’s anchor for newness separates these garments – yes they should be called garments, as they wore worn, thus wearable, by models – from any of her previous work into purely conceptual garments rather than anything utilitarian or functional.

Written by Long Nguyen
Images courtesy Long Nguyen and the Metropolitan Museum of Art