A new beauty in fashion

Outfits (above) by Rei Kawakubo at the exhibition held at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Outfits (above) by Rei Kawakubo at the exhibition held at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Outfits (above) by Rei Kawakubo at the exhibition held at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Outfits (above) by Rei Kawakubo at the exhibition held at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Outfits by Rei Kawakubo (above) at the exhibition held at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Outfits by Rei Kawakubo (above) at the exhibition held at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Many designers want to make women look good, but Comme des Garcons' Rei Kawakubo seems to want to make women look again with her creations

NEW YORK • One Friday afternoon, in a closed-off gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, teams of workers, some in laboratory coats and shoe covers, were circling through a makeshift village of stark white huts, fixing mannequins and laying down guide numbers.

It was the home stretch before the Costume Institute's spring show, Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art Of The In-Between, was set to open and the pieces that Kawakubo has designed over decades for Comme des Garcons, the fashion label she founded in 1969, waited for their final installation.

What she creates is not all even recognisably clothing. The pieces may be elaborately bulbous or bulging; they may or may not make allowances for their wearer's arms, faces or vanity.

Many designers work with the goal of making women look good. Kawakubo, 74, seems to work with the goal of making women look again.

Outfits (top and left) by Rei Kawakubo (above) at the exhibition held at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Furry creation. PHOTO: NYTIMES

She appeared in the Met gallery on April 28, in her constant uniform of fringed bob and black leather motorcycle jacket, a day after arriving from Tokyo, where she lives and where Comme des Garcons has its headquarters.

Officially, she does not speak English, communicating her Delphic instructions via her husband, translator and company president Adrian Joffe, in his 60s, although she understands more than she lets on and, if sufficiently interested or engaged, will lean forward to address an English speaker directly.

Mostly, her silence seems useful and convenient, as it discourages two things she abhors: explanation and interpretation. (She will never offer more insight, publicly, into any of her collections than the enigmatic title she gives each one.)

Serenity tends to be projected on the silent, but in person, she has the tense energy of a coiled spring or a set trap.

She presides over Comme des Garcons, which has grown to encompass several lines and other designers, as a benevolent but unchallengeable autocrat and she can be military in her decisiveness, as Mr Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute's curator in charge, learnt while working on the exhibition.

She designed the exhibition space, working on a full-size prototype in a warehouse in Tokyo, which is as much her sui generis creation as any of the pieces inside.

She is a legend in the world of fashion and the exhibition is a ratification of her stature: The Costume Institute has not devoted an entire show to a single, living designer since Yves Saint Laurent in 1983. Her presence at the opening night gala last Monday was her first appearance at what has long been called "the party of the year".

Since her Paris debut in 1981, she has forged her own path.

Doing something new doesn't necessarily have to be beautiful in the eyes of the people who look at it. The result of doing something new is beautiful. The fact of doing something new and people being moved by it is what's beautiful.

DESIGNER REI KAWAKUBO, whose works include a furry creation from the 2016 Blue Witch Collection

She arrived early to ideas still potent and percolating within the fashion ecosystem: androgyny, artificiality, the pop-up shop, the luxury group (she has encouraged several former assistants, most notably Junya Watanabe, in the creation of their own separate lines under the aegis of Comme des Garcons).

The exhibition, 150 outfits in all, is overpowering.

Kawakubo's designs are outrageous, radical and beautiful, united in their variety by the wild extremity of her commitment to creating newness at every outing. They can be coquettish, as the furred and feathered masses (from the collection she called Blue Witch, spring 2016); or cartoonish, like paper-doll dresses in crayon-coloured felt (2 Dimensions, autumn 2012).

Comme des Garcons breeds passionate acolytes, but sceptics too.

That is how Kawakubo prefers it. Comme des Garcons is about "proposing a new beauty", she said. She does not expect everyone to like Comme des Garcons any more than she expects everyone to wear Comme des Garcons.

"That's the ultimate aim, of course, that's the best," Mr Joffe said, translating for Kawakubo and occasionally adding his opinion as well.

"But really, if everyone came and saw the beauty of it and tried it on and felt amazing, that's the end. If everybody thought it was beautiful, it would be time for Rei to stop. The times we've had standing ovations, when absolutely everybody loved the show, were the times she has worried the most."

Kawakubo's clothes seem to simultaneously invite allusions and refuse them. Mr Bolton, schooled in the history of dress, saw mutant panniers and frocks.

He structured the exhibition around pairs of binary themes - absence/presence, fashion/anti- fashion, high/low, then/now - to show how Kawakubo's work could be both and neither, in between and somewhere else entirely.

"That was a real challenge for me as a curator, to try to free my mind up from imposing historical narratives," he said.

Seated downstairs, dwarfed behind a large library table, Kawakubo emphasised over and over again that the point, and the struggle, was to create something new.

"Doing something new doesn't necessarily have to be beautiful in the eyes of the people who look at it," she said. "The result of doing something new is beautiful. The fact of doing something new and people being moved by it is what's beautiful."

She starts every season from scratch, presenting a gnomic kernel of inspiration to her pattern-makers, and together they flesh out a collection.

But once it is done, she moves mercilessly on to the next and one byproduct of this is that confronting her past work, even in the setting of a museum, is difficult for her - "physically painful", said Mr Bolton. He and Kawakubo came to understand and respect each other, but their collaboration was not without conflict.

I asked Kawakubo what an exhibition she herself curated would have looked like.

"Probably just the last thing I ever made," she said.

The last one thing? She fixed me with a stare. "The only one, yes," she said in English.

Although the exhibition covers 35 years of work, she insisted that it not be conceived as a "retrospective".

Yet, the spectre of mortality hangs over some of her late work.

Beginning with her spring 2014 collection, she declared she would stop making clothing and, in the time since, has turned her attention to more abstract investigations of silhouette, form and function. The collections of recent seasons are not the textbook definition of "saleable".

But Kawakubo is shrewd. The Comme des Garcons company is set up, with its many lines, diffusions and subsidiaries, so that each part can support another. Its total revenues were more than US$280 million (S$390.6 million) last year.

It is because the company does a brisk trade in its more digestible, commercial collections, such as the heart-studded Play line, that Kawakubo is free to be as esoteric as she wants with her most obsessional creations.

I wondered, not for the first time, what she thought of her legacy. I reminded her that we had done one interview before, by mail, four years ago.

I had asked her then how she wanted to be remembered. She had answered: "I want to be forgotten."

Had that feeling changed?

"It is more and more true," she said. "I'm not doing another exhibition, that's for sure."

But then a thought occurred to her and she smiled slightly as she murmured something to Mr Joffe.

"If you write that as she said it," he said, "that this is the last exhibition, she wonders whether more people would come to see it." The woman is a marketing genius, I said, and Kawakubo began to laugh.

"You should say at the end, absolutely, I am a businesswoman," she said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 08, 2017, with the headline 'A new beauty in fashion'. Print Edition | Subscribe