Fashion focus

Rei Kawakubo's Dazzling Silhouettes

Unfinished hems, asymmetry, a palette of grim black and bombastic silhouettes: Rei Kawakubo has, over the years, added an unconventional aesthetic to fashion’s lexicon.

by Grete Simkuté

'Body Meets Dress - Dress Meets Body' - Spring 1997

The founder and designer of Comme des Garçons is now the subject of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s spring 2017 exhibition. The show, titled ‘Art of the In-Between’, is the first in over 30 years to honor a living designer.

Living legend Rei Kawakubo has long refused to define her work. ‘The meaning is: there is no meaning’, she once famously declared. Ever since the Japanese self-taught designer showed her first collection in Paris in 1981, her persona, vision and style have been described as a riddle: they are all open to interpretation, but not to just one interpretation. Imperfection and irregularity were and are still the defining elements of a fashion brand that by many in the industry is regarded to be outspokenly anti-fashion. The 120 Comme des Garçons pieces that are showcased in this exhibition, tell the story of this uncompromising brand and its experimental use of uncommon fabrics, shapes and themes throughout the course of 35 years.

Experiments in ‘in-betweenness’

According to Andrew Bolton, curator in charge of The Costume Institute, Kawakubo’s avant-garde vision has challenged and altered conventional notions of beauty, good taste and fashionability. In an official statement from The Metropolitan, he says: ‘The exhibition illustrates Rei’s revolutionary experiments in “in-betweenness”- the space between boundaries. Objects are organized into eight expressions of interstitiality in the designer’s work: Fashion/ Anti-Fashion, Design/ Not Design, High/Low, Clothes/ Not Clothes, and so on. She breaks down the imaginary walls between these dualisms, exposing their artificiality and arbitrariness.’ He furthermore adds: ‘Rei has influenced a whole generation of not only designers, but also artists and architects, through her practice. She forces you to rethink notions of the body, notions of beauty, notions of wearability.’

 

Where fashion meets sculpture

Kawakubo’s unique aesthetic draws from modified ideas from fashion history; a playful approach towards taste, good and bad; an orientation towards the visual and performance arts. In the end, her clothes appear not to be clothes anymore, but hybrid pieces that exist somewhere in between sculpture and clothing. Bolton: ‘Rei didn’t study fashion design. Therefore she doesn’t abide by any laws when it comes to techniques or construction.’ Visitors of the exhibition will encounter examples from collections both old and new. Amongst them are pieces from the famous “Witch”-line, an entire ready-to-wear line seemingly made out of sleeves; items from the 2005 “Broken Bride” wedding show, characterized by the use of desiccated tulle and lace; and pieces from the 2005 Ballerina Motorbike show, combining tutus and leather jackets.

 

'Ceremony of Separation' - Autumn 2015
'Body Meets Dress - Dress Meets Body' - Spring 1997

Following Saint Laurent

This is only the second time that a living designer has been the focus of an exhibition at The Metropolitan- the first was an Yves Saint Laurent retrospective in 1983. Artnet points out that this is not the only thing the two designers have in common, as they both held/ hold evident appreciation for the high arts. Laurent became renowned after having successfully integrated Piet Mondriaan’s geometric patterns into a series of dresses. This parallels Kawakubo’s own collaborations with various artists, among them Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei and American artist Cindy Sherman. Recent exhibitions at The Metropolitan have included ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’, and earlier this year ‘Manus x Machina’, which focused on the connections between fashion and technology.

Rei Kawakubo / Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between, The Metropolitan Fifth Avenue, May 4 – September 4, 2017