Art

The Outlandish and Beautiful Juxtapositions of Rei Kawakubo

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute dedicates its second solo show of a living designer to Rei Kawakubo, who started her daring clothing label Comme des Garçons in 1973.

Gallery View, “Clothes/Not Clothes” in Rei Kawakubo Comme des Garçons: The Art of the In-Between at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

“Liminality” is one of those $10 words rarely heard outside of the echoes of a grand lecture hall in universities, or in the dense pages of an academic journal. From the Latin for “threshold,” it describes a sensation of being in between when something familiar is left behind without a replacement to fill the void.

This concept rings true in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute exhibition, Rei Kawakubo: Comme des Garçons, the Art of the In-Between, which celebrates a designer whose work can easily be described as being caught between two extremes: clothes versus sculpture; fashion versus fine art; beauty versus repulsion; ideas versus objects. One won’t find simple lines and satin ball gowns in Kawakubo’s oeuvre; instead, viewers reckon with pounds of fabric tied and piled to the point where one questions if there’s even a human figure underneath all that black wool and rubber. Red, silk cocoons wrap torsos so tightly as to evoke a mummy or a straitjacketed lunatic. Traditional motifs like gingham fabric and bustles are mutated just to the point of the uncanny. 

Gallery View, “Object/Subject” in Rei Kawakubo Comme des Garçons: The Art of the In-Between (image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Art of the In-Between denotes a shift in the Met’s typical presentation of costume — it’s only the second Costume Institute show dedicated to a single living designer, after Yves Saint Laurent in 1983. It’s a logical, even obvious, choice for this shift to take place with a fashion renegade like Kawakubo.

Born 1942 in Tokyo, Kawakubo was raised in an academic household that lauded both Eastern and Western arts, which she would eventually study at Keio University before starting her own clothing label, Comme des Garçons (“Like Some Boys”), in 1973. Her background in humanities, rather than fashion per se, careened her design aesthetic to an unexpected place. When she flourished in the 1980s, showing in Paris and selling clothes all over the world, she never adhered to trends of the time. When garish neons and tightly tailored blazers and dresses ruled the runway, she showed almost exclusively in black, treating fabric like basic clay to form monumental garments in scope and size. She, along with contemporaries Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, solidified a strong Japanese presence on the global fashion stage, challenging European norms while also augmenting them, though Kawakubo has rejected any specific Japanese influence. During the press preview of the exhibition, Caroline Kennedy observed, “[Her] work celebrates playfulness within rigid formality,” merging a Japanese sensibility with Western fashion.

Gallery View, (from left) “Bound/Unbound,” “Order/Chaos” in Rei Kawakubo Comme des Garçons: The Art of the In-Between (image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Just as Kawakubo reacted to Western traditions in her work, the design of this exhibition is unconventional. The gallery, bathed in bright fluorescent light, resembles a contemporary art space more than a typical costume exhibition. The need for a nearly aphotic space to preserve fabrics was deemed unnecessary since all 140 outfits came directly from the archives of Comme des Garçons, instead of private collectors or the museum.

The clothes, ranging from Kawakubo’s nascent designs from the early ’80s to pieces from her latest collection, are off-set, enhanced, and distracted by huge architectural structures. Much can be said of these forms and vitrines, the shapes of which can be accurately described as everything from modern playground equipment, to concrete septic tanks, to, as Hyperallergic writer Alissa Guzmán pointed out to me, Richard Serra sculptures.

It seemed good in theory to complement Kawakubo’s clothing, so intrinsically about form, with these austere architectural elements, but in practice, they probably compete too much with what’s on display — somewhere between helping and hurting. Still, the exhibition design affords the viewer a sense of surprise and delight — one must work hard to see all of the outfits, from tea-stained, gristly gowns worthy of Miss Havisham, to graphic, black-and-white cage crinolines, to a cascade of carnation-pink, latex ruffles. Around every corner is a new sensation, a new grouping of Kawakubo’s work, new themes the viewer must wrestle with.

Gallery View, “Then/Now” in Rei Kawakubo Comme des Garçons: The Art of the In-Between (image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Art of the In-Between is at turns amusing and austere; the dynamic design, multi-leveled displays, and general sideshow quality of some of the clothes adds a spectacle-like aura across the exhibition. It feels entertaining, like an activity for the leisure class, done before going to the movies, but after visiting the top of the Empire State Building.

The show stands as a model that refutes the conforming monoliths of both fashion and art, but despite this (or, perhaps, because of this), it triumphs as one of the best Costume Institute shows I’ve seen in a long time. Naturally this dichotomy perfectly sums up the work of a designer whose clothes can be seen as competing with the wearer’s body, but ultimately complement it in a new and daring way. Though usually found in extremes, there’s genius to be found in the in-between.

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 4. 

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