May 4–September 4, 2017
Andrew Bolton, Curator in Charge of The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, discusses the exhibition Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between.
A transcript of this video is available on The Met's website.
Form/Function features Not Making Clothing, the first collection Kawakubo produced in response to her aspiration to design "objects for the body." The title is a statement of intent, a declaration of her determination to favor pure form. In terms of process, she sought to abandon her previous design experience and create from the viewpoint of a naive child or untrained artist. She explained, "I wished there was a new psychedelic drug that allowed me to see the world differently, through the eyes of an outsider."
These designs break with traditional fashions in their relationship to the human figure. Abstract shapes and three-dimensional structures stand apart from the body, and eccentric silhouettes and exaggerated proportions—reminiscent of doll clothing—threaten to obscure and overwhelm the figure. While there is a definite fissure between Not Making Clothing and her preceding work, there are notable aesthetic, technical, and thematic similarities, as is apparent from the ensemble from her 2009 collection Tomorrow's Black. In addition to the color black, it has a similar body-obscuring silhouette, achieved through the piecing together of irregular and outsize pattern pieces.
Abstraction/Representation features Invisible Clothes, which Kawakubo considers "the clearest and most extreme version of Comme des Garçons." The abstract, sculptural qualities of the ensembles are emblematic of her indifference to the "representational" characteristics of clothing. Several of the garments comprise multiple versions merged together, an idea also evident in the 2011 collection No Theme (Multiple Personalities, Psychological Fear). Unlike the earlier pieces, however, the more recent ones disrupt and dissolve any hierarchy between body and dress.
The garments included in Invisible Clothes challenge the dominance of the body by obscuring, displacing, and in some instances eliminating figural elements such as the sleeve, bodice, neckline, and waistline. As the figure recedes into volume and planarity or dematerializes through fragmentation, body and dress become interdependent and indistinguishable. Of these designs, Kawakubo noted: "If you say clothes are to be worn, then perhaps they are not really clothes. . . . They are not art, but they don’t have to be clothes, either."
Kawakubo's notions of beauty have rarely conformed to accepted standards. The expressions of mu, ma, and wabi-sabi in her early 1980s collections, unfamiliar to most Western audiences, were interpreted by some observers as grotesque or offensive. An iconic black sweater pierced with holes from 1982 exemplifies what many critics called Kawakubo's "ugly aesthetic." She dubbed it her "lace" sweater, clarifying: "To me they're not tears. Those are openings that give the fabric another dimension. The cutout might be considered another form of lace."
A similar "ugly aesthetic" is evident in the more recent collection MONSTER, whose title refers to "the craziness of humanity, the fear we all have, the feeling of going beyond common sense, the absence of ordinariness, expressed by something extremely big, by something that could be ugly or beautiful." The garments confine and constrict the figure in twisted and knotted tubes of dark knitted wool. Like the "lace" sweater, these uncanny and unsettling forms both contest and expand the accepted limits of beauty.
For Kawakubo, creation is linked to defiance and a frustration with the status quo: "Many times a theme for a collection arises from a feeling of anger or indignation at conditions in society. The origin of an idea is found in not being satisfied with what exists already." At the same time, she has said, "I have no desire to make my own designs into messages addressing the issues of our world." When it comes to the zeitgeist, she tends to engage with it symbolically and conceptually.
A prime example is the role of flowers—a recurring motif for the designer—which is explored in War/Peace through two collections: Flowering Clothes and its later "not clothes" counterpart, Blood and Roses. While the former focuses on flowers as positive symbols of energy, strength, and happiness, the latter mines their darker, more somber, and disturbing connotations. It addresses the historical significance of roses as "connected with blood and wars . . . political conflict, religious strife, and power struggles." Roses and blood appear in both literal and abstract form, and both are represented through the color palette—an unvarying, uncompromising poppy red.
While Kawakubo has been described as an "intellectual" designer, she insists that her work deals with her "feelings, instincts, doubts, and fears." Her collections contain deeply personal and self-reflective narratives imbued with intense emotions and profound spirituality. These expressive dimensions are explored in Life/Loss, which elaborates on the themes of transition and temporality examined in Then/Now, extending them through the concepts of memory and memorialization.
It focuses on the collection Ceremony of Separation, whose title refers to the ways in which "the beauty and power of ceremony can alleviate the pain of separating, for the one departing as well as for the one saying goodbye." Tinged with sadness and despair, the garments—with their majestic and monumental silhouettes—can be interpreted as ponderous expressions of mourning dress. Rendered in delicate black, white, and gold lace, they represent a poignant meditation on the fragility of life and the finality of death. Several ensembles are composed of wrapped bundles, reminiscent of the earlier collection Square, in which every garment is constructed from a single piece of square fabric. Like their "not clothes" descendants, these precursors represent meditations on ritualistic practice, in this case the tradition of pilgrimage.
Fact/Fiction addresses Kawakubo's storytelling tendencies through selections from three thematically linked collections—Blue Witch and its predecessors Lilith (named for a murderous demoness from Babylonian mythology) and Dark Romance, Witch. While the designer regards witches as strong, powerful, and often misunderstood, she resists interpretations of the garments as feminist statements. "I am not a feminist," she has said. Nor is she a fantasist: "I don't have much in the way of daydreams or fanciful imagination. I'm actually a realist."
The ensembles, however, are unmistakably empowering and otherworldly in their forms and silhouettes. Early pieces take the rigidity and severity of men's formal wear and dismantle them through the surrealist strategy of unexpected displacements. In Lilith a jacket is relocated to the lower half of the body, while in Dark Romance garments are twisted out of alignment and skirts reveal vestigial sleeves. Blue Witch heightens this surrealism through distortions of scale that create a storybook-like sense of disorientation and destabilization.
When Kawakubo established Comme des Garçons in 1973, her sole purpose was personal autonomy. "Independence has always been of greatest importance to me," she has stated. Like the search for "newness," the pursuit of freedom—freedom from convention and freedom of expression—is a defining attribute of her fashions. This quest has fueled her ongoing interest in street style, particularly punk: "I've always liked the [punk] spirit in the sense that it's against the run of the mill, the normal way of doing things. . . . Punk is against flattery."
Kawakubo also has a deep respect for history, however, and the dynamic between tradition and transgression is examined in Order/Chaos through her collection 18th-Century Punk. The clothes conflate the pneumatic structures and hyperbolic silhouettes of the 1700s with the leitmotifs of 1970s punk, including fetishistic hardware, harnesses, fastenings, and materials such as plastic in Pepto-Bismol pink. Their anachronistic employment of multicolored floral jacquards (not available until the 1800s), often pieced and collaged together, recalls an earlier punk-inspired collection, Adult Delinquent. At the time of its making, Kawakubo declared, "I am an adult delinquent to the end."
The exhibition concludes with two "objects for the body" from Kawakubo's most recent collection, The Future of Silhouette, made from what the designer describes as "non-fabrics," or non-woven, non-fashion materials. Here, white synthetic wadding recalls her earlier crinoline-like ensembles featured in Then/Now. While the shapes of those garments have their origins in the mid-19th century, however, the forms of these pieces — distorted, malformed hourglasses—have no historical or, for that matter, social or cultural referents. This links them to the eccentric, engorged creations from Body Meets Dress—Dress Meets Body, except that these works notably lack openings for the arms.
Despite the fact that these pieces bind the body physically, they unbind and liberate it culturally. Fashion, by its very nature, is defined by a society's idealized representation of the female form. These two "objects for the body," however, not only dismiss but also contest and subvert accepted canons. Early in her career, Kawakubo explained, "I work around the figure, but I am never limited by what the figure has to be." In her hands, the dressed body is freed from bounded notions of place, period, and purpose, fully occupying and expressing an "art of the in-between."
Gallery views of The Costume Institute's spring 2017 exhibition, Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between, narrated by exhibition curator Andrew Bolton.
© 2017 The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The exhibition is made possible in part by Condé Nast.
Video production credits:
Director and Producer: Kate Farrell
Editors: Dia Felix, Sarah Cowan
Jib and Camera Operator: Kelly Richardson
Lighting Designer: Ned Hallick
Gaffers: Foster McLaughlin, Christopher Yurnet
Production Assistants: Kaelan Burkett, Stephanie Wuertz
Music: Austin Fisher
© 2017 The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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