If the record-breaking press attendance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between" exhibition is any indication, the show is bound to be a success. But it's one that's been a long time coming. Curator Andrew Bolton revealed on Wednesday night, during a conversation with Comme des Garçons CEO Adrian Joffe and fashion journalist Vanessa Friedman, that he's been trying to make the exhibition happen with Kawakubo since he first met her in 2003.
"At that point, Rei just didn't want to do it," Bolton said at the New York Times-hosted "Times Talks" event. But Bolton didn't give up based on Kawakubo's initial disinterest. Instead, he continued to bring up the possibility whenever he saw her in the intervening years and told Joffe, her husband and business partner, "Whenever Rei's ready, we'll do it."
He may have ended up wishing he hadn't said that quite so definitively when Kawakubo decided in 2016 that she was finally ready, because the museum usually schedules its exhibitions with far greater advance preparation time than Kawakubo was willing to give. "When Rei wants to do something, she wants to do it right now," Joffe explained. "I [told Bolton] it was next year, or not at all."
While most designers would be flattered that Bolton had offered at all — only one living designer had ever had an entire show at the Met dedicated to them before — Kawakubo was resistant because she doesn't like to dwell on her past work, according to Joffe.
"She's always trying to start from zero. But by definition, looking back... means there's baggage," he explained. "She was always saying the person that did those things in the '80s and '90s is not the person she is now." She would rather, she told Joffe, that any exhibition of her designs happen after she was gone.
Kawakubo is also famously resistant to explaining her work or even placing it in context, which every curator seeks to do to some degree.
"Rei... wants the work to stand for itself. But as a curator, part of your job is to interpret. So we were always at odds, really, right from the start. We were never really on the same page," Bolton explained.
So what convinced the famously free-thinking designer to finally accept Bolton's invitation? Having the chance to shape how an exhibition of her work came together, not just in terms of curation but also in designing the exhibition space, was important to her. Despite her appreciation for the Met's inherent grandeur (she told Joffe after visiting, "if we do it at all, it's got to be here"), she had very specific ideas about the kind of space she wanted to create for guests to experience her work in.
Because the museum was hesitant at first about running with her interior plans for the space, Kawakubo had a 116,000-square-foot, life-size replica of the exhibition design created outside of Tokyo to prove the concept. Apparently seeing it in person was compelling enough, because the museum decided to go with it.
That, in turn, created new headaches for Bolton as a curator, who was used to designing the space to fit the curation of a show, not the other way around. "We had many tense conversations about the curation and design," he said. Other sleepless nights were sparked by disagreements about what should or shouldn't be included in the exhibition, with Kawakubo initially saying she only wanted to include the last few seasons of her work rather than going all the way back to the beginning of CDG. "I think our biggest battle was over the early '80s work, like the "lace" sweater, the holey sweater," Bolton said.
Ultimately, the sometimes-painful collaboration process resulted in an exhibition that both the Met and CDG teams could be proud of. Bolton made clear that the show is not a retrospective of Kawakubo's work so much as an "essay" of it that helps introduce it to people who may not have history with the brand. And getting that work in front of a wider audience was something that Kawakubo has been eager to do — so much so that she was willing to overlook her alleged distaste for the Met Gala itself in order to make it happen.
"I think one of the scary things about doing it [for Rei] was the Met Gala," Joffe said. "She just didn't want to pose [for cameras or on the red carpet]."
In the end, Kawakubo not only attended the Gala but even hosted the official Comme des Garçons after-party, suggesting that she was willing to swallow her fear for the sake of her work. Looks like all the blood, sweat and tears of collaboration were worth it in her book, after all.