Met puts spotlight on Kawakubo

Comme des Garcons founder is the second living designer to hold a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

NEW YORK • Rei Kawakubo, the founder and designer of Japanese fashion label Comme des Garcons, will become only the second living designer after Yves Saint Laurent in 1983 to have a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the museum announced last Friday.

The announcement confirms rumours first reported by WWD in August and fanned during Paris Fashion Week this month when Mr Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Met's Costume Institute, was spotted in the front row of the Comme des Garcons show next to Ms Anna Wintour, the co-chairwoman of the annual Costume Institute gala and a trustee of the museum.

But while the announcement may have been expected, that does not make it any less radical, potentially game-changing or risky for the museum.

"There are very few designers working today who can really hold their own in an art context, but Rei is one of them," Mr Bolton said. "She has changed the course of fashion by offering new possibilities for its very meaning."

This is a woman, after all, who once explained the idea behind a show in 2014 by saying, "I was trying not to make clothes," and who described her most recent collection as "invisible clothes".

One of Rei Kawakubo’s designs, which will be featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. PHOTO: NYTIMES

A woman who made an entire ready-to-wear line seemingly out of sleeves (the title was Witch), another about a skirt - in more than 35 iterations (they will be part of the Met show) - and one about the emergence of the flat-pack world. A woman who undermined all conventional assumptions about beauty and the body.

But while earlier in her career, her runway clothes may have resembled actual clothes (her 2005 Broken Bride wedding show, which she characterised as about "anti-conservatism", featured achingly romantic confections of desiccated tulle and lace), and her shows often move viewers to tears, they rarely make them think, "Hey, I wish I could wear that to my next job interview/anniversary/party/date."

Indeed, Kawakubo, a cult figure among style followers and a perennial name on "most influential designer" lists, is in many ways the embodiment of inaccessible fashion: fashion as idea; fashion as exploration.

What she is not, however, is a household name who can automatically draw the record crowds of Mr Bolton's previous Costume Institute shows: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (661,509); last year's China: Through The Looking Glass (815,000); or this year's Manus x Machina (752,995).

At a time when the museum is trying to cut its budget deficit and recently announced potential layoffs, holding such a show in one of its largest spaces, the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall, is a notable statement.

Kawakubo, 74, has built a thriving business on a number of more wearable lines (Comme des Garcons Play, a "non-fashion" line of basics that has a heart with eyes as a logo, and Comme des Garcons Shirt, which is pretty self-explanatory). But she is known for her more abstruse constructions and those will be showcased at the Met.

This differentiates her work from most of what has been highlighted in recent Costume Institute blockbusters such as China, which connected fashion to the popular conversation - the rise of the East - in part by displaying lots of very pretty clothes.

More often than not, those clothes were sourced from major heritage brands, which then became co-hosts of the opening gala, helped sponsor the show and used the opportunity to dress many boldface-name guests at the party. Whose images then became core parts of their marketing campaigns.

Yet "pretty" is not a word Kawakubo has much interest in. Nor is "party". (She has never attended a Met gala.) Nor is "celebrity". Comme des Garcons ad campaigns have featured a bird, fish, fruit and a comic strip, but never a famous actor and the brand has no official "face".

Ms Wintour, who orchestrates the gala and has been so instrumental in fundraising that in 2014 the museum renamed a set of galleries and offices after her, attends Comme des Garcons shows only sporadically. Before last month, she had not been to one in a number of years, according to the label.

But Mr Bolton said Ms Wintour was immediately supportive when he broached the idea of a Kawakubo exhibition. She may not wear Comme des Garcons, he noted, but she understands "the contribution Rei has made and her importance to fashion".

So, next May, she will be at the top of the Met stairs right next to Kawakubo to welcome guests to the gala celebrating the exhibition, alongside Pharrell Williams and Katy Perry, the celebrity hosts. They were chosen because Williams collaborated with Comme des Garcons on a perfume called Girl in 2014, and because... well, Perry is known for taking risks with her clothing.

Mr Bolton wants attendees at the gala to do the same.

"I hope everyone dresses themselves," Mr Bolton said, referring to the tendency of guests to act as walking billboards for brands. "I hope there will be a lot of avant-garde fashion. I would love for mistakes to happen."

He had been thinking about featuring Kawakubo ever since he joined the museum in 2002 and discovered there was an unofficial policy in place, established after the YSL show with its related charges of commercialism, to avoid monographs on living designers.

He wanted to challenge the idea and demonstrate that "fashion is a living art". Indeed, he has been collecting Comme des Garcons pieces for the museum's permanent collection at the rate of one or two a year for the last five years.

Instead of a single sponsor, the exhibition and the gala will be underwritten by "supporters", including Apple, H&M, Farfetch, Conde Nast and Valentino.

"We are in a period where fashion, and designers, are increasingly regarded as disposable," Mr Bolton said.

"I wanted to focus on someone who has been singularly dedicated to a creative vision, to remind everyone of how valuable that is."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2016, with the headline 'Met puts spotlight on Kawakubo'. Print Edition | Subscribe