Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons Press Presentation

I attended the Monday morning Press Presentation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s long awaited new exhibition Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art of the In-Between, May 4 – September 4, 2017.  The irony of seeing a huge BUDGET truck parked outside the imposing and grand 5th avenue entrance to the museum, where some of the world’s most glamorous people wearing some of the world’s most extravagant and ultra-expensive designer duds, will soon be walking up the stairs on the red carpet for one of the most exclusive galas, was not lost on me. Although considering the honoree, and her obsession with popular culture, good taste/bad/taste, and high/low, it probably could not have been more fitting.

Part of the Exhibition
Photo: Randy Brooke

It was fashion gridlock inside the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall on the second floor which has been transformed into a bright white box and is meant to facilitate engagement with the designs on display. Showcased are approximately 140 of Kawakubo’s most extraordinary designs dating back as far as the early 1980’s. The packed crowd included Suzy Menkes, Alino Cho, Cecila Dean, Grace Coddington and Thom Browne who told me he is dressing two women this evening (no doubt Amy Fine Collins is one of them).

Katharine K. Zarrella wearing Comme des Garcons
Photo: Marilyn Kirschner

Many attendees, both male and female paid homage to Rei Kawakubo in their choice of dress; some  more out there and obvious than others. Many simply opted for head to toe black or red, or selected gender fluid blazers, coats, or leather biker jackets that may or may not have born a Comme des Garcons label. But there were a few who wore Rei’s unmistakably distinctive, innovative designs.

Photo Randy Brooke

At one point, when I walked past a display with the caption, “Order/Chaos,” I had to chuckle because while there is obviously a well thought out order to the way and why the exhibition is designed, it was at the same time rather chaotic (no doubt done on purpose) and at times, I felt as though I was looking the same displays over and over again, while missing others. This is one that I will have to revisit many times, for sure.

Another thing that hit me, was how unusually BRIGHT it was. Ms. Kawakubo, who helped design the exhibition space said she wanted it to be “very very bright” according to Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s head curator, and requested that the illumination be turned up to levels that he warned, “could potentially damage the textiles”. But she prevailed. Since Ms. Kawakubo owns the designs, the risk is her own. Thierry Dreyfus from Eyesight Group designed the lighting and said that one of Rei’s goals was to put the spotlight as much on the people, as on the clothes on display. Indeed, the bright white walls were a perfect backdrop for her designs, and they really popped.

Photo: Randy Brooke

As it turns out, the element of light is rather fitting and symbolic. Since founding Comme des Garcons in Tokyo in 1973, Rei Kawakubo has helped us all see (and think about) fashion, beauty, gender, sex, and the world, in a new and different light (a “Rei” of Light indeed). This could not be more relevant now, considering we’re at a time when creativity, diversity, individuality, inclusion, and all that is unique, unconventional and strangely beautiful are at a particularly high premium, as is feminism. Rei, an avowed feminist, has taken the notion of flattering and obvious sex appeal out of her clothing (if you’re the type who asks “Will this make my butt look big?” when you try something on, this is not the label for you lol!) She chose the name “Like the Boys” for her label and her clothes, which are not made to “appeal or to attract the opposite sex” are geared towards a strong, independent woman who is “not swayed by what her husband thinks”. This exhibition will undoubtedly help shed more light on the 74 year old legendary anti establishment rebel and provocateur, and on the thought process behind the designs which have made her one of this era’s most influential designers. Anna Wintour has hailed her as “a designer’s designer”.

Andrew Bolton
Photo: Randy Brooke

Andrew Bolton’s remarks always help to shed light on the entire curatorial process from beginning to end.  I always look forward to hearing his erudite, poignantly descriptive and highly informative observations and astute comments, as they are always an important way to arm oneself with the information needed to properly navigate and fully understand what is on display. But they were even more necessary this time and took on a new meaning. Not only because Ms. Kawakubo’s approach to fashion and her body of work is so extraordinarily unorthodox and unlike that of any other designer, but because she is generally rather reticent and guarded and shuns being analyzed (neither her nor her work) and requested that there be no descriptions accompanying any of the designs on display: a first. And if there’s any exhibition that needed an accompanying highly descriptive narrative, it is this one.

I was hoping they would answer questions about everything from the meaning behind the title, Art of the In-Between to the arduous thought process behind the arrangement of the approximately 140 designs. According to Bolton, “there are 9 recurring aesthetic expression of “in-betweenness” in Rei’s collections: fashion/anti-fashion, design/not design, model/multiple, then/now, high/low, self/other, object/subject, and clothes/not clothes”. “Kawakubo breaks down the false walls between these dualisms, exposing their artificiality and arbitrariness. As her fashions demonstrate, in-between spaces are sites not only of meaningful connection and coexistence but also of revolutionary innovation and transformation, providing Rei with endless possibilities for creation and re-creation”.

“For Rei, in-between spaces are not only sites for creation and re-creation but also for hybridity and hybridization, concepts examined in the sections “Self/Other” and “Object/Subject”. The former explores hybrid identities through the dualities of “East/West”, “Male/Female” and “Child/Adult” and the latter explores hybrid bodies through Rei’s Body Meets Dress-Dress Meets Body collection.”

I was hoping he would provide us with a peek inside the head of one of the world’s most private, elusive and enigmatic designs legends. And he did. But not before Thomas P. Campbell, Director, Metropolitan Museum of Art had his chance to say a few words before a front row that included Rei Kawakubo, her husband Adrian Joffe, and Anna Wintour. What made this most poignant is that Mr. Campbell, the museum’s 9th Director who has held the post since 2008, will be stepping down in June.

Caroline Kennedy
Photo: Randy Brooke

“In blurring the art/fashion divide, Kawakubo asks us to think different about clothing. Curator Andrew Bolton explores work that often looks like sculpture in an exhibition that challenges our ideas about fashion’s role in contemporary culture.” Among other things, he thanked Julien D’Ys, for creating the fabulous headpieces, and French architect Thierry Dreyfus who along with Rei and the Met, designed the exhibition space and created something “never seen before” as he put it. And naturally, he thanked Met Trustee Anna Wintour for her unwavering support of the Costume Institute. At the end, he introduced Caroline Kennedy, former United States Ambassador to Japan.

Among the highlights: “I’m pleased to join you to celebrate a woman I deeply admire and proud to call a friend. I was asked to say a few words about Rei’s significance in her home country. Last week I asked Adrian whether being Japanese was important to Rei. He said it was “irrelevant”. I knew instantly he was right. As an artist and designer, Rei’s vision is universal. But having spent the past three years in Japan, I think there is something about the uncompromising originality, the rigid formality of her work, that attention of detail, that embodies the sensibility of Japan. On the streets of Tokyo;and in the smaller cities of Japan, you can tell when you’re getting close to a Comme des Garcons store. People are walking the streets in her image and wearing her amazing designs transcending rules inspired by the freedom she has given them. When my children visited me in Japan and wanted to know what’s happening, what’s coming next, that’s where they wanted to go. Her designs are beautiful and transcend age and gender and reconnect us to silence. Although Rei Kawakubo is probably too unpredictable to be designated a living national treasure in Japan, she certainly is one in the hearts of the fashion community worldwide.

FYI, Andrew Bolton’s favorite part of the exhibition is the 1997 Body Meets Dress-Dress Meets Body collection (“one of the best” he’s ever seen). I honestly couldn’t tell you what my favorite is. I need to see this a few more times to come to that conclusion.

Meanwhile, the eyes of the world are now focused on the Met Ball tonight. It will be interesting indeed, to see how attendees will translate the dress code, “avant-garde” in their sartorial choices. Sylvana Ward Durrett, chief planner and Anna Wintour’s right hand for the annual event, who appeared on a segment of Access Hollywood last Thursday, said they had been flooded with calls from invitees asking to explain what that means and as she told them, it could mean whatever you want it to mean for you. That could make some interesting fashion moments (no doubt the late great Bill Cunningham would have been in his element!) But let’s face it, if you are truly avant-garde, you will by definition completely ignore any mandated dress codes and go your own way. So I suppose this year, the ones who will in effect, be most avant-garde, will be those wearing the chicest, most classic ensembles.

– Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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