The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Spring 2017 exhibition, Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between, on view through September 4, examines Kawakubo’s fascination with the space between boundaries. And the reviews—both personal and professional—has been unanimously positive. It is, indeed, one of the best examples of fashion being art and art being fashion, without one diminishing the other in any way shape or form.
A thematic exhibition, rather than a traditional retrospective, this is The Costume Institute’s first monographic show on a living designer since the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition in 1983.
Francesca Granata of The Atlantic wrote the following:
“The designer has long been alternately hailed as an innovator and demonized for creating aggressively unattractive clothing that is out-of-step with its time. From cocoon dresses with no waistline to sweaters full of holes to oddly shaped dresses, Kawakubo has been responsible for radical reconsiderations of the silhouette through experimental pattern-making, draping, knotting, and eventually the use of padding. This sense of out-of-step–ness is evident in the Costume Institute’s spring show. Rei Kawakubo / Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between is a cerebral exhibition, serving as a surprisingly timely reminder of the need to embrace bodily differences and vulnerabilities.”
She further went to write, “Throughout the Met show, we see an unapologetically rebellious artist undercutting prevailing mores. A few years ago, the Costume Institute presented a controversial (and poorly understood) show on punk rock in fashion. Though her designs weren’t exactly prevalent in CBGB, Kawakubo (whose garments were included in that exhibit) is in some ways the true inheritor of that mantle, her work constantly pushing back on the grandeur around her.”
Roberta Smith, Chief Art Critic of The New York Times, calls it “a magnificent, challenging show”, further adding in a rave review, “Every year, the Costume Institute makes a different case for art in fashion and for fashion as art, usually in an immersive context and with impressive results. The Kawakubo show takes this argument into radical terrain. It doesn’t focus on art within fashion as did the recent show featuring Charles James’s sinuously sculptural ball gowns, which were functioning garments. Rather, its center is a staggering panoply of mostly quasi-wearable three-dimensional forms that are a kind of hybrid, an art of “the in-between,” driven by Ms. Kawakubo’s insatiable quest for originality, or as she prefers to call it, “newness.” The result is an inspirational show that places Ms. Kawakubo at the forefront of several modernisms — in art and design, Europe and Asia — upending notions of style and gender, conflating past and present and constantly pressing forward with fresh ideas about form, process and meaning.”
Ms. Kawakubo regards her fashions and their environments as a Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art.” This synthesis is reflected in the exhibition, designed as a complete expression of the Comme des Garçons “universe.” It is intended to be a holistic, immersive experience, facilitating a personal engagement with the fashions on display. A pathway is suggested by the numbers in an exhibit booklet, beginning with these red ensembles that reflect Kawakubo’s enduring preoccupation with blurring the boundaries between body and dress. Visitors are encouraged, however, to forge their own paths and experience the exhibition as a voyage of discovery.
The exhibition features approximately 140 examples of Kawakubo’s womenswear designs for Comme des Garçons, dating from the early 1980s to her most recent collection. Objects are organized into nine dominant and recurring aesthetic expressions of interstitiality in Kawakubo’s work: Absence/Presence, Design/Not Design, Fashion/AntiFashion, Model/Multiple, High/Low, Then/Now, Self/Other, Object/Subject, and Clothes/ Not Clothes.
The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall, on The Met Fifth Avenue’s second floor, has been transformed into an open, brightly lit white box with geometric structures. Intended to be a holistic, immersive experience, the space facilitates engagement with the fashions on display. A suggested pathway begins with four ensembles enclosed in a cylinder, reflecting Kawakubo’s enduring interest in blurring the boundaries between body and dress. Visitors, however, are encouraged to forge their own paths and experience the exhibition as a voyage of discovery. The spare space has no text on the walls—instead, at the entrance, visitors receive an exhibition guide with gallery text and object labels.
A publication, Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between, authored by Andrew Bolton with creative direction and design by Fabien Baron and Yuki Iwashiro of Baron & Baron, accompanies the exhibition and is a major collector’s item in and of itself. It features new photography by Nicholas Alan Cope, Inez and Vinoodh, Katerina Jebb, Kazumi Kurigami, Ari Marcopoulos, Craig McDean, Brigitte Niedermair, Paolo Roversi, and Collier Schorr. A rare interview with Rei Kawakubo and a chronology of her career, amplified with quotes from the designer, provide additional insight into her aesthetic and career. Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, the 248-page hardcover book has 205 color illustrations and comes in a slipcase with a pullout poster of a Paolo Roversi photograph that was shot for the publication. It retails for $50.