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Rei Kawakubo's Clothes Speak for Themselves at the Met's Comme des Garçons Exhibit

Take a look inside the Costume Institute's landmark exhibit of the year before it opens to the public on Thursday.
A view of "Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between." Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A view of "Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between." Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Is fashion art?

If there's any fashion designer whose work makes a case for the affirmative, it would be Rei Kawakubo and the boundary-pushing label Comme des Garçons that she founded in 1969. The fact that the Metropolitan Museum of Art's spring 2017 Costume Institute exhibition, "Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between," focuses exclusively on her work — marking the first Costume Institute monogram on a living designer since its Yves Saint Laurent exhibition in 1983 — implies as much. But the exhibition is less interested in defining her creations as fashion or art than in looking at the way they've been transcending categories since the beginning.

And transcend her work has, in more ways than one. In her relentless pursuit of "newness," Kawakubo has defied conventional attitudes toward clothing construction and even the retail business with such force that her actions have created new conventions for other designers to follow.

"Many aspects of fashion that we now take for granted were pioneered by Rei," claimed Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute, at a press preview of the exhibition on Monday. "[That includes] asymmetry, exposed seams, raw/unfinished edges, outsized/overblown silhouettes and an uncompromising monochromatic color palette." To that rather impressive list, it could also be added that Kawakubo is often credited with "inventing black" in fashion and that her "guerrilla shops" paved the way for the now-ubiquitous pop-up.

It is through this constant innovation that Kawakubo's work has made an art versus fashion debate "redundant," according to Bolton. "Through her fashions, she points out the absurdity of the age-old sibling rivalry between art and fashion, by promoting art without obsolete hierarchies and pejorative classifications."

The dismantling of rival concepts goes beyond fashion and art in the "Art of the In-Between" exhibition; the whole show is built around the framework of paired oppositional concepts. "Absence/Presence," "Beautiful/Grotesque," "Subject/Object" and "Order/Chaos" are just a few of the many oxymoronic dualities explored in the exhibition, each of which is illustrated by clothing from Kawakubo's decades of work.

A view of "Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between." Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A view of "Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between." Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Upon entering the exhibition space, visitors are greeted by a small cluster of red ensembles from some of Kawakubo's most memorable collections, like a paper-doll-flat jacket and skirt from the Fall 2012 collection "2 Dimensions," and a dress and top with a tumor-like torso growth from the infamous "Body Meets Dress—Dress Meets Body" collection from Spring 1997. The pieces reflect Kawakubo's "preoccupation with blurring the boundaries between the body and the dress," according to Bolton; and this simultaneous establishing and blurring of boundaries is a theme that continues throughout the rest of the exhibition.

Kawakubo's distinctive and cohesive approach to creativity is displayed not only in the clothes but also in the physical space the exhibition occupies. Filled with a series of upright cylinders and cubes, it looks almost like a collection of colossal white building blocks left lying about by a giant, minimalism-loving child. Each block features one or more openings that let viewers peek at the garments arranged inside, and a few even have dresses perched on top, far above the heads of observers. The space was painted completely white in order to distract as little as possible from the clothing itself.

The lighting, designed by Thierry Dreyfus, was also chosen to facilitate a specific kind of interaction between the clothing and its viewers. "Typically, we use spotlights in our exhibitions, which has the effect of distancing and separating visitors from the artworks," Bolton explained. "By creating a skyscape of over 300 fluorescent tubes, this effect is diminished and visitors and the artworks are lit uniformly."

What results from the white space and fluorescent light is an environment that could feel almost lab-like in its sterility, if it weren't for the overwhelming richness of textures, textiles and concepts presented in the clothing itself. Whether you're looking at a wearable and red carpet-ready tulle-and-black elastic gown from the Fall 2008 "Bad Taste" collection or an is-that-even-clothing flat circle "dress" from Fall 2015's "Ceremony of Separation," what's clear is that Kawakubo's goal to look at the body in entirely new ways is one she has effectively realized over and over again.

Equally striking is that Kawakubo has done so fully through the medium of clothing itself, rather than relying on wordy explanations of her concepts. In the wake of a remarkably political fashion month that had designers sending all kinds of in-your-face statements down the runway, Kawakubo's refusal to explain herself or even to engage with anything too specifically tied to current events feels especially unique. Her notorious reticence about her own work is echoed in the fact that the exhibition lacks the usual bits of explanatory discourse on the walls, leaving only titles and a paper booklet with minimal text at the entrance for viewers hungry for more context.

The inscrutability of her work on the runway, with its jarring lumps and odd silhouettes, is thus largely maintained in the exhibit. And as frustrating as that may be for viewers who prefer the Kawakubo they can readily understand, the Kawakubo who has collaborated with Speedo and Doc Martens, it somehow seems fitting to introduce her this way in a museum space. Whether she's willing to call herself an artist or not, the logic that holds true for the best painters and sculptors holds true for Kawakubo, too: if she could've written down what she was trying to say, she would've. But she couldn't, so she communicated what she needed to through clothing. "Art of the In-Between" leaves viewers feeling like fashion, as a creative medium, is lucky to call Kawakubo one of its own.

The Costume Institute's "Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between" exhibition opens to the public on May 4, and is on view through September 4.

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