Rei Kawakubo Finds the Art of the In-Between

The Tokyo-based designer redefines beauty norms with her avant-garde exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Photo by Paolo Roversi/Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

During the opening remarks for the “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, Caroline Kennedy said Kawakubo’s work “transcends age and gender.” I got a sneak peek of the legendary fashion designer’s show—before the exhibit opened to the public on May 4 and before the likes of Madonna, Rihanna, and Giselle walked the Met Gala’s red carpet—and I can attest that it transcends far more than that.

The Japanese 74-year-old Comme des Garçons founder has been challenging ideas of traditional beauty, femininity, “good taste”—even the idea of clothes themselves; she often forgoes dress basics such as armholes, and comfort is certainly not her primary concern—through her fashion designs since the 1980s. She was so ahead of her time that her early garments still seem strikingly revolutionary today. They’ll likely feel radical 100 years from now, too.

Photo by Paolo Roversi/Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The show, featuring 140 of Kawakubo’s most experimental pieces, marks only the second time the Met has showcased the work of a living designer, the first being Yves Saint Laurent in 1983. The clothes, organized around dichotomies (Then/Now, High/Low, Self/Other, Absence/Presence, etc.), live up to that pressure and get at the central theme behind “the In-Between” exhibit (and most of the Costume Institute’s shows): Can fashion be art? Can fashion even push the boundaries of art?

The answer, of course, is a resounding “yes”—if Kawakubo’s work is any proof. She tackles ritual in her 2005 Broken Bride collection, both respecting and questioning marital ceremony with Victorian-style, trompe-l’oeil chiffon gowns with elaborate tasseling, delicate tulle, and modern patchwork. Her Absence/Presence red dresses, also known as the “bumpy and lumpy” collection, aren’t frocks so much as cocoons or straight jackets, with bulging bits of fabric in odd places. I didn’t want to wear them, but I also couldn’t keep my eyes off of them.

Photo by Paolo Roversi/Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Kawakubo’s full involvement in the design and layout of the exhibition—an all-white, minimalist labyrinth with asymmetrical walls and unusual curves—is evident throughout. (She built a life-size model of the display in a warehouse outside of Tokyo prior to setting up the final product at the Met.) Unlike other Costume Institute exhibits that traditionally use spotlights to showcase the garments (who can forget the incredible Alexander McQueen “Savage Beauty” show in 2011, where every stunning piece was illuminated from above?), a customized “skyscape” was made exclusively for the show; its 300 fluorescent tubes create the illusion that there is no ceiling at all.

A ceiling that’s not a ceiling, clothes that aren’t clothes…this is Kawakubo’s transcendent world where nothing needs to be more than it is.  

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue (between East 80th and 84th Streets), Upper East Side
Through Monday, September 4