Clothes Few Dare to Wear

Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons objects on display at The Met’s Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between advance press event. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/BFA.com

Rei Kawakubo invented Comme des Garçons (like some boys) in Japan in 1973, and her Paris debut in 1981 made fashion history. Rei’s art is boundary-breaking and remarkable:

Rei Kawakubo (Japanese, born 1942) for Comme des Garçons (Japanese, founded 1969), 18th-Century Punk, autumn/winter 2016–17; Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photograph by © Paolo Roversi; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

  • Women in Japan at that time were just starting to head their own businesses.
  • Fashion was more tailored/traditional then.
  • The French and, to a lesser degree, Italians, had a monopoly on high fashion.
  • Fashion was a category separate from the fine arts of painting and sculpture.
  • Kawakubo’s designs relate to universal human concerns beyond the scope of fashion.
  • Kawakubo, with Issey Miyake, revolutionized the use of new materials, shapes, and textures.
  • Kawakubo modernized ways of looking at cultural histories, as seen in her 18th-Century Punk collection.
  • Kawakubo added intuitive, philosophical, and spiritual dimensions to her fashions.
  • Kawakubo’s concepts for women gave them wild possibilities while her men’s line is not as experimental and is not featured at the Met.
  • The Metropolitan Museum solo show for a living female artist is another milestone.

Rei Kawakubo (Japanese, born 1942) for Comme des Garçons (Japanese, founded 1969), Blue Witch, spring/summer 2016; Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photograph by © Paolo Roversi; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Kawakubo has said, “The void (mu) is important” and “I like to work with time and space (ma).” Mu  and ma are part of the Buddhist philosophy that eschews the ego. Andrew Bolton, Head Curator of the Metropolitan Museum‘s Costume Institute points out that mu and ma converge in her black 1982 sweater pierced with holes. Kawakubo told The Detroit Free News, “Those are tears to some, but to me…those are openings that give the fabric another dimension.[1] Her art is like a Zen koan — a philosophical riddle that defies logic. Hamish Bowles, International Editor for Vogue, told me, “What makes it both fashion and art is: she has always thought beyond clothing the body in conventional ways. That transforms the pieces into sculptural elements.”

On large pages with some foldouts, the exhibition catalog begins with Bolton’s introduction and an interview with Kawakubo. They discuss their disagreements, her reluctance to have a retrospective, and her preference for the last seven collections created since 2014, starting with “Not Making Clothing” and up to “Blue Witch,” “18th-Century Punk,” and “Invisible Clothes”.

The many color images that follow are in mostly chronological order; the book ends with a full chronology and the titles of all collections. Many quotes by Kawakubo are sprinkled throughout.  Altogether, this catalog offers philosophies about life that cannot be easily summed up. Kawakubo always challenges herself to create in new ways. This includes fabrics, processes, and methods of construction, such as not using a pattern.

Rei Kawakubo (Japanese, born 1942) for Comme des Garçons
(Japanese, founded 1969), The Infinity of Tailoring, autumn/winter 2013–14; Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photograph by © Collier Schorr; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

She also aims for transparency; sometimes seams are on the outside or edges are not finished. The famous 1982 sweater with oddly-sized and placed holes shows emptiness/mu yet, ironically, this started an ongoing trend in the opposite direction – rips and holes to expose the body’s corporeality and sensuality.

The exhibition is non-chronological and not as easy to follow. Groups of shapes, which look like sculpture and only obliquely show the outlines of the human body, are displayed in geometric pods –round, square, angular, and curved — with some pods above viewers’ heads. The pods pair dichotomies or opposites – for example,  “Clothes/Not Clothes,”  “Order/Chaos,” and “Bound/Unbound.”  These titles seem generic — less exciting than Kawakubo’s clever collection titles. Also, the exhibition sub-title “The Art of the In-Between” connotes neither here nor there and does not convey the nuances of the word “interstitial,” which Bolton also uses. Interstitial suggests an invisible connective tissue in Kawakubo’s journey of discovery – and germinating new ideas.

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons/ Art of the In-Between by Andrew Bolton. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 2017. 248 pages, 205 color illustrations. Distributed by Yale University Press. ISBN 978-1-58839-620-4.

In my view, the beautifully-produced catalog offers much that is not in the exhibition. Each work inhabits its page like sculpture; nearby Kawakubo quotes provide contexts missing from the exhibition. Kawakubo’s Blue Witch series of 2016 has all kinds of shapes that dance off the page in twists and roils of color. The richly exotic Blood and Roses series of 2015 is a signature collection for Comme des Garçons. Kawakubo’s notes include:  “…Often in history the image of the rose was more connected with blood and wars, in relation to political conflict, religious strife, and power struggles.” [2]

Comme des Garçons is a brand located in the most fashion-forward cities around the world. Its uniquely-designed stores offer signature wearable clothes. Kawakubo’s musings at the Met are high expressions of her life on this planet and also collaborations with her design team.

By Jan Garden Castro


[1] Kawakubo quotes from pages 10, 12, and 13.

[2]  Page 170.

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