Critics love to analyze and intellectualize Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons. And it’s kind of fun, given how little information Kawakubo provides about her work. She frequently explains wildly elaborate collections by offering but one or two words that may or may not have anything to do with what’s actually seen on the runway. Is she predicting the end of the world (Fall 2017)? Is she commenting on the flat superficiality of contemporary Internet culture (Fall 2012)? Is she fighting against the fashion establishment (pretty much every season)? These are all valid, even important questions, particularly for those who are interested in how fashion interacts—conceptually—with the world around us.
But most people don’t consume fashion in such an academic manner. Most people—those who buy and wear fashion, those for whom fashion is produced—are drawn to any given garment because they think it looks cool or interesting, because they enjoy how it feels when they try it on, because it awakens something within them, or because they simply like it. That’s what’s so great about the Met’s new exhibition, Rei Kawakubo / Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between, which features 150 mannequins garbed in looks from Kawakubo’s nearly 50-year career. There’s nothing preachy or haughty or intellectually snobby about the show. It’s literally just incredible designs in a stark white room.
“What we wanted to do was create a space that no one had ever seen before—in a museum, at least,” explained the Costume Institute’s Curator in Charge, Andrew Bolton, who curated the show and worked closely with Kawakubo on the exhibition. “And also a sense of discovery. That was something really important to [Kawakubo and I]—we wanted people to come into the space and be surprised and shocked by what they’re seeing.”
Anyone unfamiliar with CDG will be just that. Upon entering the exhibition, the entirety of which is contained in a single, sterile space lit by 300 fluorescent tubes and divided by various cylinders, enclaves, and arches (think Richard Serra’s “Intersection”-meets-2001: A Space Odyssey), viewers are instantly confronted with five shocking red looks. This grouping includes two pieces from 1997’s famed “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body,” two ensembles from 2012’s “ 2 Dimensions,” and the red velvet babydoll dress from Spring 2017’s “Invisible Clothes,” and represents “Absence / Presence,” the first of nine categories that fit within the overarching theme of “the in-between.” There’s an optional pamphlet you can pick up at the entrance that’s packed with detailed analyses of each category and quotes from Kawakubo. But the show itself is devoid of text or explanation, a deliberate choice on the part of Bolton and Kawakubo so that attendees can come up with their own interpretations and “create their own narrative.”
Mannequins donning everything from Spring 1984’s “Round Rubber” to Fall 2017’s “The Future of Silhouette” are posed on platforms above viewer’s heads, around corners, and behind walls. The whole thing is kind of like walking through an enchanted, futuristic forest of fashion, or embarking on a CDG Easter egg hunt. For instance, you’ll be admiring the gaggle of Spring 2016 “Blue Witches” looks and then, bam! out of the corner of your eye, there’ll be a pink ruffled Spring 2004 cage dress beckoning you on a new adventure.
Also awesome? Kawakubo and CDG own nearly all the pieces in the show, so, as Bolton put it, “we didn’t need to adhere to the usual museum regulations about lighting levels, about touch distance. If she signed the waiver, we were in the clear.” That means you can get up-close and personal with Kawakubo’s masterful designs.
I mean, yes, this is Kawakubo and Bolton we’re talking about, so obviously there’s a lot of concept at play here, and the show beautifully explores the core concepts and dualities of Comme des Garçons’ collections, like “Fashion / Antifashion,” “Beautiful / Grotesque,” “Life / Loss,” and more, as well as the evolution of Kawakubo’s aesthetic and her quest to desexualize the female form and redefine beauty. But you need only dive into the nitty gritty if you so desire. If not, you can simply lose yourself in the visual feast Bolton and Kawakubo have created, relishing the textures, shapes, colors, and the fantastical hairstyles crafted by CDG collaborator Julien d’Ys. It’s very easy to lose yourself in the fluorescent-lit labyrinth, but I didn’t hear anyone complaining. After all, fashion is largely about escapism, is it not? Art of the In-Between is the ultimate escape. Leave the imploding world behind for an hour or so and surrender yourself to Kawakubo’s expansive imagination when the show opens on May 4.
Rei Kawakubo / Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from May 4 through September 4.