Designer Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons has always maintained that fashion never interested her. Clothes are her sole preoccupation; her passion, the New. “All my effort is oriented toward giving form to clothes that have never been seen before,” she once said, and she has done exactly that for nearly fifty years. An avant-gardian who’s managed to create a $280 million empire, she has designed otherworldly garments that cross a spectrum from sculpture to screwball. To wear Comme des Garçons is to dress to be seen — to be looked at — yet remain a hidden commodity. Dresses without arms, or padded in the least flattering of places; sweaters run through with holes; gowns constructed so they nearly stand by themselves; veils through which a wearer can’t see: Kawakubo reimagines the way clothes function, the way they reconfigure a figure. “Can’t rational people create mad work?” she challenged Judith Thurman in a 2005 New Yorker profile. Which is to say that the incongruity of Kawakubo’s mind is that she doesn’t think apart from the world; rather, her radical visions are the result of a profound thinking inside of it.
“Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between” is an exquisite exhibition celebrating Kawakubo’s career as a designer of women’s clothing. It is also one of the most refined and unerring shows of fashion that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has put on in recent years, including such must-see exhibitions as “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” and “China: Through the Looking Glass,” which drew unprecedented numbers of visitors to the Met. Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute, who was responsible for both those blockbusters, collaborated with Kawakubo in designing the show. This fact would simply testify to the sovereign precision with which she oversees her work, but as it happens she’s the only living designer to receive a solo exhibition at the museum since Diana Vreeland brought Yves Saint Laurent to the Met in 1983.
Kawakubo’s lawless eye may be the result of her having never formally studied fashion, or apprenticed for a couturier, which runs contrary to the industry standard. After finishing a degree in the history of aesthetics at Keio University in Tokyo, she worked for a textile company for a few years before becoming a stylist. She started to design out of necessity: She couldn’t find clothes that were interesting enough. Soon, she was selling her garments in small boutiques around Tokyo, and in 1969 she formally founded her label, calling it Comme des Garçons — a name that translates from the French as “like the boys” — just because she liked the way the words sounded.
Yet Kawakubo has always challenged how gender plays out in clothing. When she first began, she’s said, she imagined clothes for a woman “who is not swayed by what her husband thinks.” After all, originality, newness, can’t take root in the dust of old institutions; it requires light, fresh air. In her collections “Persona” (autumn/winter 2006–07) and “The Infinity of Tailoring” (autumn/winter, 2013–14) traditionally masculine-cut suits appear inflated, pouffed, with sleeves stitched atop sleeves, draped to seem simultaneously brutish and soft. The dresses on view from “Two Dimensions” (autumn/winter 2012–13), made of vibrantly colored polyester felt cut to look like flat cartoons of dresses, exaggerate what might be considered a childlike femininity. They’re oversize, almost monstrous, and pure delight to behold.
Beyond any feminist interpretations, Kawakubo is a philosopher-designer, her work propelled by the concepts of mu (emptiness) and ma (space), from which arrive the idea of the “in-between,” the uncharted territories reached via paradox. The exhibition captures and frames the depth of her thinking along nine themes: Absence/Presence, Design/Not Design, Then/Now, Self/Other, Model/Multiple, Fashion/Antifashion, High/Low, Object/Subject, and Clothes/Not Clothes. By design, the show is not a history of her work, and in the spirit of Kawakubo’s singularity, “Art of the In-Between” isn’t a traditional retrospective. The word spiritual creeps with disingenuousness when used to describe even the most transformative material achievements, but this show preserves the sensation that Kawakubo’s designs arrive from an unmapped elsewhere. No didactic texts crawl up the walls. The clothes aren’t presented in chronological order, and not all her collections are represented. Untethered from titles and time (although visitors can pick up an exhibition guide and read along), all is instead arranged thematically to foreground the “in-betweens” from which her works spring.
The show presents itself more like a visitation, as though the garments alighted here. The gallery has been built out in spare, open-air architectures, distilled almost to pure geometries, to both frame and house the clothes. Some thrust forward as stages, pushing the garments into our world, while others — cylindrical, conical “pods” — shelter them, and keep them a bit apart from us. Bare fluorescent bulbs line the ceiling, giving the room an aura that measures somewhere between the celestial and the commercial. The exhibition design isn’t unlike the Comme des Garçons boutique in Chelsea, and lest one get too woo-woo about her, Kawakubo has long maintained — in her usual, paradoxical style — that she is a businesswoman before all else. “All art is commercial,” she told Bolton in an interview for the exhibition’s catalog. “It’s always been commercial — more today, in fact, than ever before.” Out of her mouth, this isn’t cynicism; it’s a practical constraint, yet another contradiction to wrestle.
Ideas can be arduous, uncomfortable things to bring into the world, which may be why Kawakubo’s clothes can appear arduous and uncomfortable to wear. Taken from her autumn/winter 2015–2016 “Ceremony of Separation” collection, two garments here categorized under the theme of Life/Loss are almost literal interpretations of grief and the weights we carry. One is made of black lace, the other of white polyester. For each, the fabrics have been cut, stuffed, and tied to create satchels, which are then stitched together to encircle body, almost smothering it. It’s remarkable how dynamic these clothes are, how they never settle into place, how their gravity remains uncertain. Does this evoke a death sentence, or a lifeline? Do the clothes buoy or anchor the body beneath?
This play between lightness and heaviness, between burden and relief, recurs throughout her collections, complicating the presence of a wearer — a woman — and the skin she’s in. In Kawakubo’s clothes, sexuality, at least the socially sanctioned kind, is secondary to a rightful self-possession. Her designs aren’t “man-catchers” by any traditional standard. And in comparing red-carpet photos of the few celebrities daring enough to wear Comme to this year’s Met Ball — among them Rihanna, Caroline Kennedy, and Tracee Ellis Ross — with images of those who went a more conventional route, one sees quite clearly how bland popular ideas of beauty are and have always been, and how a woman is rewarded, and how she is cheated, by becoming an acceptable object of desire.
Kawakubo’s clothes also liberate by leaving room for possibility, for the next idea, for the garment to come. The ecru cotton dresses from “Clustering Beauty,” her spring/summer collection of 1998 (Design/Not Design) are brilliantly constructed to appear unfinished: fully formed, but also full of promise. Two dresses made of white synthetic wadding from autumn/winter 2017–2018’s “The Future of Silhouette” collection (Bound/Unbound) look like warping cocoons. They’re sleeveless, inhibiting a woman’s movement, wrapping her up, trapping her. Then again, she’s untouchable under there, out of sight, and as any butterfly can attest, she might just be metamorphosing at this very instant into a beauty beyond beauty — into a woman the likes of whom we’ve never quite seen before.