A draughty conference room just off Place Vendome was the place to be on a rainy, dreary Monday morning during Paris fashion week in March. In the centre of the room, on a plinth bathed in the transcendent spotlight usually reserved for museum exhibits, stood four pieces from the iconic Comme des Garcons’ 1997 “Body Meets Dress” collection. Red velvet draping exaggerated female shapes, the clothes were the perfect expression of the label’s values, existing somewhere between sculpture and garment.
Curator Andrew Bolton from New York’s Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute was in attendance to launch his institute’s Comme des Garcons retrospective, which opened earlier this week. Nearby stood the label’s creator Rei Kawakubo, who remained silent, sphinx-like, preferring to let others do the talking.
Covering the period from 1981 to present, curator Bolton has arranged “Art of the In-Between” around themes drawn from eight sets of binaries: “high/low”, “object/subject”, “fashion/anti-fashion”, “design/not design”, “model/multiple”, “then/now”, “self/hollow”, “clothes/not clothes”. “The concept of emptiness or mood can’t be fully appreciated without the related concept of mind, which roughly translates to space,” he said. “This in-between space reveals itself in Rei Kawakubo’s fashion as an aesthetic sensibility, establishing a discomforting zone, a visual ambiguity and engendering an art of the in-between.” In short, by consciously situating her work within such as dualisms, Kawakubo has consistently challenged many unquestioned values in fashion, art and beyond.
“At best, her collection titles serve as a code to be deciphered, but at worst they serve as a red herring designed to divert, distract and also ultimately bewilder” – Andrew Bolton
Kawakubo’s retrospective is only the second ever retrospective granted to a living designer at the Met; the first was Yves Saint Laurent in 1983. “We’ve been following Rei’s work for a long time and she was always somebody we were interested in doing a show with,” he says. In the end, it was Kawakubo’s impulse that started the curatorial process. “She was adamant when we first met with her that it wasn’t going to be a retrospective, hence it’s more thematic. That really was her only concern.” This stipulation aside, Kawakubo’s input has been minimal. “She’s a real conundrum,” Bolton acknowledges. “In terms of the object selection and curatorial narrative she was completely hands-off, I don’t think she likes it. I think it’s because she doesn’t like her work being interpreted.”
Famously, Kawakubo issues no press releases about her collections, and, other than their cryptic titles, offers no gloss on their significance. “At best [the titles] serve as a code to be deciphered, but [at] worst they serve as a red herring designed to divert, distract and also ultimately bewilder,” Bolton notes, comparing them to the Zen Buddhist narrative form of a koan, a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution, used to demonstrate the inadequacy of logic and provoke enlightenment. As a concept it’s thoroughly integrated into Zen law as well as poetry and painting, and its influence is evident in Kawakubo’s designs, too. “I think she wants her work to be experienced rather than interpreted,” says Bolton. “I think that once you apply an interpretation [to] her clothes she finds it limiting.”
“We need more people like her in this day and age more than at any other time” – Andrew Bolton
Despite these inscrutable motifs, Kawakubo’s exploration of the tension between high and low culture has been evident throughout her career. For instance, her Spring 2004 collection, “Abstract Excellence”, featured 34 similar but slightly different skirts – a statement, perhaps, on the dynamic between the supposedly “unique” artwork and mass-produced commodities. And her Fall 2008 collection, “Bad Taste”, mixed cheap and expensive materials, seemingly in order to question notions of good taste. “Rei’s revolutionary experiments in in-betweenness exemplify themselves in the unfolding of modernity as an ongoing project,” says Bolton.
Indeed, she is so committed to deconstructing established tropes in art and fashion that she prefers to label herself as a “clothes-maker”, rather than as an artist or a designer. In 2014, this radical approach expressed itself in the rejection of conventional design principles. Out went jumpers, shirts and trousers etc., in came what can only be described as ‘body objects’. “It was repudiation of fashion,” says Bolton. “A new way of thinking for Rei, fashion and art.”
It’s this way of thinking that keeps Kawakubo’s work fresh and relevant even in an age of Hypebeasts and athleisure. As Bolton notes, “We need more people like her in this day and age more than at any other time. Somebody who is purely about absolute creation in its purest form.” Whatever their take on fashion, tomorrow’s designers will undoubtedly have to contend with this legacy, as Bolton’s retrospective duly demonstrates.
“Rei Kawakubo/Comme de Garçons: Art of the In-Between” is on display at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art until 4 September 2017