The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is honoring the creator of Comme des Garçons – and the result is powerful, artistic and emotional.
Katy Perry sang her heart out – enough to shake the dust off the ancient Egyptian statues at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. While the star-studded audience swayed to the music, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, the subject of this year’s exhibition at the Costume Institute, sat still and silent.
What was the 74-year-old Japanese designer thinking as Rihanna flaunted a Comme outfit strewn with three-dimensional flowers? She competed on the red carpet stairway with Madonna in camouflage-patterned Moschino, Julianne Moore in feathery Calvin Klein, Kim Kardashian in a white Vivienne Westwood dress and Kylie Jenner in a lacy Versace dress, while Donatella herself was in a shiny yellow sheath with hair dyed to match.
“In general, I am always angry,” Rei Kawakubo told me a few weeks before, as we sat in her Paris showroom on the Place Vendôme – she a tiny, tense figure, her face hidden under a clothes brush of a fringe.
“I wasn’t particularly angry at the time of the punk collections,” she continued, “but ‘Dress Meets Body’ came out of anger – not something specific, but a more abstract anger at the unfairness and contradiction in the world.”
The designer, who has been at the helm of Comme des Garçons for nearly half a century, was referring to her Spring/Summer 1997 collection of clothes with contortions and protuberances. It was immediately dubbed ‘Lumps and Bumps’ and was seen as a reference to tumors and a belief that clothes could be – even must be – more than something merely to cover the body.
“From the very beginning, her search was always for something new – and in the natural process of time passing, that became harder and harder, so inevitably clothes became more than just clothes,” explained Adrian Joffe, Kawakubo’s husband of 25 years and CEO of Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market.
“The Art of the In-Between” is the definition of the current Rei Kawakubo exhibition. It is the first fashion exhibition the Met has dedicated to a living designer since Yves Saint Laurent, in 1983. Although not a retrospective, meaning an A-to-Z view of Kawakubo’s past four decades, curator Andrew Bolton has a clear vision of his subject. He positions the designer not in the context of fashion’s development through the 1980s – when there was a dramatic split between a revelry of gorgeousness on the one hand, and the simple lines of Japanese and Belgian designers on the other – but in Kawakubo’s native Japan.
The show titles – those few words that Comme offers for each collection – echo Zen philosophy and especially mu, which Bolton said “roughly translates as ‘emptiness’.” This also links to ma, meaning the gap, pause, or space between, hence Bolton’s title: “The Art of the In-Between.” The curator’s displays reveal a face-off between fashion and anti-fashion; the high and low; then and now, and many more of Kawakubo’s designer-isms.
But to the museum visitor, the effect is primarily visual and emotional. It starts with the famous lumps and bumps, in colored checks, with a film (the only one in the exhibition) of choreographer Merce Cunningham showing the clothes on dancers in motion.
“It was only when I was here alone that I felt the emotion and what we have achieved,” Bolton said, looking out at displays of clothes framed by white squares or rounded structures that hold red punk tartan, fitted black jackets, or pretty, girly dresses. The eye is also drawn upwards to white wedding dresses and black garments in the blinking brightness of a neon installation by lighting designer and visual artist Thierry Dreyfus.
But all this seems not so much Japanese as a reflection of the world, from the tiny, red baby outfit to the all-black lace, suggesting mourning. Bodies covered in parcels of white cotton tied with bows, with black hair shielding the face, have a label that reads “Life/Loss.”
I asked Kawakubo whether she felt that her creativity was rooted in her Japanese identity and if she could ever envisage working outside Japan – perhaps in Paris, where she has shown her collections since 1981? Her emphatic response surprised me.
“I have no consciousness on a day-to-day basis of being Japanese,” she said, “and yes, I could work somewhere else – it doesn’t have to be Japan.”
Whatever way you look at the exhibition, it is about a visionary blurring the distinction between art and fashion and pushing the boundaries of design. This applies as much to the extraordinary headpieces as to the clothes.
At the exhibition opening, hair stylist Julien d’Ys, creator of wigs and hair wonders for Comme, chatted with Vogue editor Grace Coddington, recalling the moment when they dressed Lady Gaga as a witch. The exhibition itself is full of examples of his hair craft: punk peaks rising above red velvet dresses, or a fuzz of scarlet curls contrasting with animalistic garments in furry deep pile or feathers.
“Every time is the same: there is always a surprise that pulls at my creativity until something comes into my brain,” said d’Ys, referring to the time when Kawakubo demanded “No hair.” His response was to wrap strands of hair into individual pieces of plastic.
At the Met Ball, few even tried to make hair the focus, unless you count Thandie Newton’s bunch of country garden flowers or the long locks of Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele.
As the exhibition proves, there have been different phases in the development of Comme collections, each one beginning with a rupture that Joffe said expresses “the torture and the hell of making something new.”
I asked specifically about ‘White Drama’ – a powerful vision from Spring/Summer 2012 in which all-white clothes led the show through the rituals of birth, marriage, and death from a lacy christening gown to wide papal sleeves.
Kawakubo explained that it was “nothing to do with sadness as part of the starting point.” “It was not a conscious decision to make a sad collection,” she said, “but it is totally understandable that people have that reaction because it comes from a very sad place.”
I did not see the early Comme work as sad, although the models were almost entirely dressed in black, as they were in Yohji Yamamoto’s shows and the audience’s own clothes. Passers-by who saw us gathering around some obscure show location would whisper, “Who is the funeral for?”
Rei Kawakubo (Japanese, born 1942) for Comme des Garçons (Japanese, founded 1969), Blood and Roses, spring/summer 2015; Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photograph by © Paolo Roversi; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The effect of the pieces selected by Burton for the Met show is very different. The overall impression is of color, especially the vivid scarlet splashed like blood stains on white dresses or shaped as big whisks of red roses. Or a delicious display of 18th-century punk from Autumn/Winter 2016 – all rose patterns and elegant, courtly frills, as if the designer had switched the 1970s with the 1790s.
The accompanying exhibition catalogue goes even further to impress beauty on tortured shapes, and includes the work of sensitive photographers such as Craig McDean, Inez & Vinoodh, and Paolo Roversi. The Comme history is given a quirky prettiness in the catalogue, while my memory of the actual shows is of a much harder and tougher aesthetic. The absence of videos of the original presentations is a great loss.
It is interesting to ask Kawakubo how she feels about this uncharacteristic looking back to the past. According to a conversation with Bolton that is published in the catalogue, the designer compared her recent work to “outsider art.”
This “schism or big change”, as Joffe described it to me, started with the Spring/Summer 2014 collection, called “Not Making Clothes.” The dramatic direction here was to exchange recognizable materials for what looked like garbage recycled into clothing.
The most recent Comme show in March had models walking across a pale pink space in felted creations that resembled stuffing, rubber, duct tape, and carpet underlay molded onto the body. Only the Comme des Garçons x NikeLab sneakers seemed to have any connection with the reality of modern clothing.
This rupture had a dramatic response from even the most vaguely fashion-conscious general public, as I saw when I posted a video clip on Instagram of two models in the show – and had one million responses. That figure has now gone up to more than 12 million, many of the comments derogatory or downright nasty.
While Joffe was astounded by the figures drawn by a company that was until recently “very selective, very secretive” – and under most people’s radar – Kawakubo herself had an interesting reaction. “Let’s hope the turnover goes up as much,” she said.
Kawakubo’s status as an artist – so successfully illustrated by curator Bolton – has to be viewed alongside her business acumen, which is intensified by Joffe’s skill as an exceptional retailer, especially with the Dover Street Market stores. Equally important is the fact that over her long career, Kawakubo has created space for other designers in her business, including her nurturing of Junya Watanabe, who entered the company as a pattern cutter and was given his own label in 1992. Other protégés are Chitose Abe and Junichi Abe, who went on to found their own brands, Sacai and Kolor. Kei Ninomiya’s Noir is another example of Comme’s support of others.
Whether for Comme or for her mentees, Kawakubo says that every show she has held over the past 40 years has been designed to create a sale. Certainly her elegant, subtle designs for menswear have legions of loyal fans all over the world, who return season after season for the clever and highly wearable cuts.
“Because I see the collection first, sometimes I have panic attacks, thinking ‘What are we going to sell?’” Joffe admitted. “But this time I was almost blown away by the way she interpreted the show into a collection.”
At our meeting in Paris, Kawakubo led me towards the sales floor, where the “Who would ever wear those clothes?” mantra has an instant response. From the woolly tangle that I had interpreted from the front row as a horse blanket put though a washing machine emerged tailored coats and jackets, knits, and tailoring – clothes in the Comme spirit interpreted from the deliberate oddities on the runway.
Who makes these interpretations? A team of designers? The store manager? The answer is, of course, Kawakubo herself, who draws each outfit and creates them with her two pattern makers. The “outsider artist” is in fact an astute fashion designer and business woman.
Nothing of this is to be found in the Met exhibition. That is understandable, perhaps, as Bolton wants to focus on the designer as artist. But my unstinted admiration of the designer’s ethic and aesthetic is that the two fit together. And I would like to have seen a reference, even an explanation, to visitors about how these extraordinary creations can turn into a buck.
So is “artist” or “craftsperson” the definition of Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons?
I asked Dreyfus, who has created the lighting for the Comme shows for the last decade, whether he considered Kawakubo to be an artist or a fashion designer – or an artist who expresses herself through clothes? This was his reply:
“When Alberto Giacometti was asked if he was an artist, he answered, ‘I am a sculptor.’ Picasso was asked the same question and he replied, ‘I am a painter.’ Rei is a poet, working freely on the human form.”
Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: The Art of the In-Between is at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from May 4 September 4