For many people in fashion, looking directly into the eyes of Rei Kawakubo, the designer of the ultimate avant-garde label Comme des Garçons, is kind of like staring into the sun. It causes a little nuttiness.\
Kawakubo is held in such high esteem – she is considered a god, really – that on the rare occasion that she makes a public appearance, she is followed by a gently circling swarm of supplicants, all praying for some morsel of wisdom and yet not daring to approach her too closely. Years ago in Paris, I found myself improbably seated directly across from Kawakubo at a boisterous fashion magazine dinner at which she did not speak a word to anyone until the very end of the night, when she suddenly acknowledged my presence and declared, “You look a little schoolboy.” She then promptly left.
Manna from heaven! It was as if I had been blessed.
But I wonder what anyone outside this curious bubble of luxury huckstering that is the haute fashion industry will make of a new exhibition opening this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between” is only the second exhibition ever granted to a living designer, the first having been all about Yves Saint Laurent more than 30 years ago, when YSL was at the height of his powers. (The resistance to such shows may be justified, because dead designers are less likely to complain about how they are depicted.)
The decision to celebrate Kawakubo now, according to curator Andrew Bolton, was that had you asked any designer who was the most influential of their peers, the answer would have been YSL back in his day as much as it would be Kawakubo in hers today. And as much as I, too, worship at the altar of Rei, I do have to ask if this exhibition, rather than help to explain her peculiarly mysterious brand of creativity to the outside world, might do more to expose the utter lunacy of the fashion industry and the often absurd posturing of its elite creators and critics.
In fact, as Kawakubo’s work has shown, these goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive, since her designs, which challenge all conventions of beauty and shape, tend to self-select their audience. They poke and provoke, sometimes mischievously. That is, you have to be in-the-know to appreciate them, or to appreciate those who have the confidence to wear them, because otherwise you might walk into a Comme des Garçons store, or this exhibition for that matter, and think you have arrived on an entirely different planet.
The ultra-bright gallery space glows as gleamingly white as the inside of a spaceship, a rarity for a fashion exhibition because most historic garments require dim lights for conservation. Here, because the work here is fairly recent – with the exception of a few pieces from the early 1980s and 1990s, most is of this century – visitors may wish to wear sunglasses indoors in order to enjoy the full fashion-insider experience. In this large white room, roughly the size of a designer boutique, come to think of it, are a series of tubular chambers that contain many of Kawakubo’s most out-there creations: dresses with “lumps and bumps” from her groundbreaking 1997 collection that incorporated padding in the strangest of places, dresses made of knotted white sheets that look like piles of laundry bags, ceremonial gowns built inside cages, and, a personal favorite, a flattened coat from 2012 that sought to create fashion in two dimensions.
In all my years of covering this world, I have never been a Comme des Garçons customer. I just don’t have the nerve or the occasion to wear such things, nor the budget for that matter. But I adore listening to the chatter after every show, as editors debate the meaning of this lump or that shroud, what code words the critics picked up backstage, and the always magnificently bizarre staging or Kawakubo’s shows. They are fascinating to see. And I have relished listening to Bolton as he attempted to make some curatorial sense of her career by discussing Eastern philosophy, the very concept of emptiness, visual ambiguity and Wabi-sabi aesthetics (that last one about the beauty of imperfections).
The subtitle of his show, “The Art of the In-Between,” is a reference to Kawakubo’s proclivity to work within and without boundaries of all kinds, as well as her inscrutable comments about her own work. In one famous example, when asked to define the meaning of a collection, Kawakubo responded by drawing a circle on a piece of paper. “Ahh…” you can hear the fashionistas cheering, “genius!”
Strangely, I had a similar reaction to the exhibition, which is assembled in what are supposed to be groupings that reflect the dichotomies of Kawakubo. “Absence vs. Presence,” for example, “Design vs. Not Design,” “Fashion vs. Antifashion.” The temptation may be to reply with a “Huh? vs. What?,” but my hunch is that many people are genuinely interested in finding out more about Kawakubo’s work, which is, by the way, neatly described by Bolton in the accompanying catalog ($50).
But here, in person, you’ll have to work for it.
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Perhaps for aesthetic reasons, the curators chose not to include much wall text at all, but rather coded numbers on the displays, with tags like “5.1.4,” or “9.3.7.” Each relates back to a 40-page blueprint handed out at the entrance, printed with schematics of the various tubes and shelves that look something like an instruction manual for building an IKEA bed frame.
Perhaps there was another reason for the chronological mystery, in that the curators were dealing with a live subject, one who is notoriously averse to looking to the past. The Met might not have wanted to offend Kawakubo with details like dates or fabrics, but the result for visitors may be that all the work looks contemporary to itself, blending into one big collection, as if the exhibition were just another luxury boutique. Different and delightful, definitely, but will this one speak to anyone beyond the already converted?