Behind the scenes of Rei Kawakubo’s Met Fifth Avenue show, a voyage through her labyrinthine landscape in the making.
This summer, the work of Rei Kawakubo, founder and creative director of Comme des Garçons, is the subject of an exhibition at the Costume Institute of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both Kawakubo and the curator in charge, Andrew Bolton, insist the show is not a retrospective – though that would certainly be Kawakubo’s due.
The last exhibition at The Met dedicated to a living fashion designer was in 1983, when Diana Vreeland, former editor-in-chief of US Vogue, staged a show exploring the work of Yves Saint Laurent, believed then and now to be one of the 20th century’s greatest. Two years earlier, in 1981, Kawakubo made her debut at Paris Fashion Week, presenting collections that radically reconsidered conventions of dressing, dressmaking and fashion as a whole. They were revered by few, reviled by many. Today, they seem uncannily prescient: a new way of looking at fashion, of embedding concepts, of cutting garments flat rather than tailoring them to the body. These clothes had a different form, a different look and a different intent.
Now 74 and still creating, Kawakubo is possibly the most important fashion designer of our age. One of the most radical things about her work is the fact that, in her eyes, much of her recent output hasn’t been fashion at all. Her past eight collections, starting with S/S 2014, have been described by the designer herself as ‘not clothes’. The S/S14 show was labelled ‘objects for the body’, which sounds like a synonym for clothes but is apt to describe pieces that more readily resemble soft sculpture than, say, a cocktail dress. Rather than surrendering to a visual effect, they seem to express an interest in space, in dimensionality. A Comme des Garçons dress is frequently so multi-layered and complex, so structurally intricate, that it is more than merely 3D in a world of 2D fashion.
Perhaps the fourth dimension to these pieces is an inner one – an exploration of soft engineering. How is the waist held? Where does your arm go?
How does it feel? You have to be inside these ‘not clothes’ to truly understand the architecture of the spaces Kawakubo has designed.
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