Installation view of Clothes/Not Clothes: War/Peace. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Among the Japanese clothes designer Rei Kawakubo’s signature motifs are these: swellings, layers, and so many sleeves.
If the first, swellings, seems out of place in the emaciated world of fashion—in which the 74-year-old Kawakubo is among the reigning designers—then all is as it should be with her fervently unconventional clothing and her freeing propositions for beauty, identity, and fashion itself.
“Every era has its own ideals of beauty and…they’re shared by the collective conscience, so to speak,” explains Andrew Bolton, head curator of The Met Costume Institute, who organized “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between,” a stunning celebration of Kawakubo’s womenswear designs for her label, Comme des Garçons.
Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons, Inside Decoration, autumn/winter 2010-11. Photo by © Craig McDean. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons, 18th-Century Punk, autumn/winter 2016-17. Photo by © Paolo Roversi. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“I think what Rei tries to do is rebuke that consistently, even within herself,” says Bolton. “So even when she comes up with something that becomes accepted as beautiful, she then rejects it and creates something else. She’s always challenging our perceptions and her own perceptions of beauty.”
Pick any perception of feminine beauty, and it’s likely that Kawakubo has turned it on its head. Take the figure of the blushing bride, for example, and presumptions that a woman’s wedding day should be the happiest and prettiest of her life.
But were the bride to emerge in a dress from Kawakubo’s “White Drama” (spring/summer 2012) or “Ceremony of Separation” (fall/winter 2015–16) collections, all eyes would turn to a woman engulfed in material: a riot of ruffled skirts, whole dresses sewn on top of other dresses, a veil of massed acrylic flowers that devours the head beneath. Or, in a dress from the designer’s “Broken Bride” collection (fall/winter 2005–06), a flesh-toned train appearing to ooze like some bodily effluence.
Installation view of Then/Now. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Kawakubo founded Comme des Garçons in 1969, initially focusing on making clothes for women. Its name, French for “like some boys,” reflects her rule-breaking drive.
“She has always rebelled against the status quo,” says Bolton. “The idea of normality is something that terrifies her, because she’s always searching for something that is surprising and that no one’s ever seen before.”
Judging by the fact that she has built a highly successful, multifaceted company, that desire to be liberated from cultural and social conventions is shared by a broad swathe of the public, too, not least of all women. And despite critics’ consistently shocked reactions to her runway presentations, her once-unthinkable innovations like asymmetry, unfinished hems, and deconstructed silhouettes have been absorbed into fashion’s lexicon.
Not all of Kawakubo’s designs make it off of the runway and into the mainstream. “I learned that beautiful things for me are not necessarily beautiful to everyone else,” the designer once said, “but they could well be something very scary.”
Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons, Blue Witch, spring/summer 2016. Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photo by © Paolo Roversi. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons, Blood and Roses, spring/summer 2015. Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photo by © Paolo Roversi. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Her “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body” collection (spring/summer 1997) is an out-an-out subversion of the fashion industry’s vision of the ideal female body: small waist, slim hips, pert behind, flat stomach, and small, high breasts.
Against this she offers tight-fitting dresses padded here and there with goose down to create bulbous outgrowths. One crimson wrap dress devoid of armholes encases the wearer like a cocoon. It features a pregnant belly-like form jutting off-center and traveling up the right side of the body to merge with a tumid shoulder.
Another dress, in gray and white gingham, swells only at the right hip. While such dysmorphia is clearly exaggerated, even grotesque, so too are the dictates of beauty and femininity that have been trafficked to women across time and much of the world.
With all of her collections, and especially her most outrageous and unwearable, Kawakubo is making statements that, if truly absorbed, would help make the world a more tolerant place for everyone—no matter their gender or how they may define themselves.
Installation view of Bound/Unbound and Order/Chaos. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“I think that what she’s taught us, at least, is to show that the body, one’s own body and the collective body, has no bounds and that fashion in itself is limitless,” says Bolton.
Though Kawakubo is famously reluctant to offer conclusions or explanations of her work, when prodded, she often responds enigmatically with statements that have been compared to Zen koans, riddles used in Zen Buddhism to help lead practitioners to enlightenment. Like this one: “I like to work with space and emptiness.”
Kawakubo’s radical achievement is the creation of space for others, particularly women, and the lesson that an unbound body is a free body, one that can be female, male, both, neither, or maybe something else entirely.