Inside Rei Kawakubo’s Fashion Wonderland at the Met Museum

If you want to see fashion and shape taken to their limits, check out the Met’s Costume Institute exhibition celebrating Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo.

Paolo Roversi; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

There’s a bit of a vibe of the treasure hunt or game of eye-spy when you find yourself peering through artfully designed holes and around odd corners to view Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo’s astonishing designs for the Comme des Garçons label.

For those unfamiliar with her work, the Metropolitan Museum’s “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between” exhibition honoring her career at the Met’s Costume Institute is a challenging introduction.

For starters, the exhibition space is an architectural maze of mostly circular white walls displaying 150 of Kawakubo’s avant-garde designs for Comme des Garçons, from her mostly black (and then-unpopular) early 1980s collections to her Fall 2017 “the future of silhouette”collection, which was made with industrial materials rather than textiles.

The exhibition makes beautiful sense when articulated by Bolton, who noted that Rei’s clothes have “often been described as indecipherable” because—in his view—they exist in that in-between space that the exhibition sets out to explore: “an unsettling zone of oscillating visual ambiguity and elusiveness.”

All of these big words and high concepts aside, the designs on display are indeed fantastic: abstract shapes and three-dimensional structures in her Spring/Summer 2014 “Not Making Clothing” collection, for instance, or the bubblegum pink and blue gingham separates in her 1997 “Body Meets Dress—Dress Meets Body” collection, dubbed her “lumps and bumps” collection by critics for its references to tumors and hunchbacks.

If the crowded space allows, you may spend some minutes staring in happy wonder and confusion at Kawakubo’s designs, which occupy a space between architecture and fashion, form, and function.

These are not dresses that you will commonly see in shops, high or low end. They are, quite literally, creations. A white wedding-like dress has a ruffled neck of apparent flowers. Another black dress flares out, and in its heart and an even darker black cut-out shape. Arms are cut short or little puffballs.

They can seem cartoonishly shaped, but the cut is serious. Some shoulders come with holsters on their front, a black hat looks ready to fly off the head. Two fitted dresses come with flared, puffy panels. Another dark blue dress is an explosion of ruffles, with a mass of black material leaking beautifully from its front, the entire get-up set off by a red fuzz of a wig (the hats and wigs are something else in this show).

There are no directions on the walls to guide visitors through this maze— no wall texts to help them make sense of Kawakubo’s magnificent designs and navigate the trajectory of her career.

Absent traditional visual explanations on the walls, visitors must constantly refer to a physical pamphlet handed out at the beginning of the exhibition, as if trying to decode the key to a treasure hunt. Adding to the confusion are the 300 blinding fluorescent tubes that light the exhibition from overhead.

It is fitting that an exhibition devoted to Kawakubo—the first living designer to be honored with a retrospective at the Met since 1983—be spacially, visually, and intellectually challenging. (As museum director Thomas Campbell acknowledged Monday morning, the exhibition is “unlike anything we’ve done here before.”)

Since founding Comme des Garçons in 1969, the Japanese designer has consistently challenged and upended beauty and body ideals, gender norms, and other fashion paradigms, including the distinction between fashion and art. For anyone not schooled in Kawakubo’s art, her cerebral designs need explanation—and the Met’s new exhibition doesn’t provide much beyond a dense pamphlet.

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But Kawakubo would not have had it any other way. While other designers often cite the “inspiration” for their collections during fashion shows, Kawakubo has always insisted that her clothes speak for themselves. So when she began working with the Met’s Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton a year ago, the two decided that the exhibition’s walls would be devoid of text.

The hope was that this would facilitate intimate engagement between Kawakubo’s designs and the exhibition’s visitors. As Bolton explained on Monday morning, the printed pamphlet “outlies a suggested pathway” through the exhibition, “but visitors are encouraged to forge their own paths and experience the exhibition as a voyage of discovery.”

It was hard enough for regular visitors to avoid literally bumping into each other during Monday’s press preview, between reading our pamphlets and observing the designs. Imagine the chaos at tonight’s Met Gala, then, when Katy Perry, Pharrell Williams and other celebrities descend on the cramped exhibition and inevitably step on or brush up against each other’s elaborate and intricate costumes—be they long dress trains or other protrusions riffing on Kawakubo’s signature oversized silhouettes. What could be a regular grey suit, for instance, comes kitted out with what looks like its own inner flotation device.

Elsewhere, a mass of black lace and whirls is funeral garb at its most dramatic and mysterious. Another all-white outfit looks like a pile of tied and cinched laundry bags or pillowcases, topped off with a unique fascinator.

Or observe another outfit that comprises a black veil, which is the peak of a circular form—literally an O-shape—within which explodes a volcano of white lace and ruffles. This is fashion taken to its limits—but wonderful, practically speaking, for all shapes and sizes. Who wouldn’t love to be encased in one of Kawakubo’s huge, dramatic black hoods atop a regular-ish jacket?

There are no shortcuts around the show: the exhibition is dense and convoluted, even though it is architecturally organized in a way that feels more cramped than Costume Institute exhibitions in recent years.

The exhibition examines Kawakubo’s “art of the in-between” in nine recurring expressions of in-betweenness throughout her collections: Absence/Presence; Design/Not Design; Fashion/Antifashion; Model/Multiple; High/Low; Then/Now; Self/Other; Object/Subject; and Clothes/Not Clothes.

“Through her fashions, Rei breaks down the false walls between these dualisms, exposing their artificiality and arbitrariness,” Bolton explained during Monday’s press preview. “As her clothes demonstrate, in between spaces are sites not only of meaningful connection and coexistence but also of transformation, offering endless possibilities for creation, recreation, and hybridity.”

Not all the clothes on display are baffling—and they have such ingenuity and heart behind them, so what if they look almost too eccentric to be wearable—but they are wearable, for the brave, and those not taking public transport. Of the more conventional looks on display, you may come across a whimsical teaming of plaids and tartan, and relatively—relatively—conservative red belted shirt and tartan skirt.

If ever there was an exhibit that breaks down barriers between art and fashion, this is it. Indeed, Kawakubo never cared much about the function aspect of fashion. As the designer put it herself in 2012: “When I hear ‘where could you wear that?’ or ‘it’s not very wearable,’ or ‘who would wear that?’ to me it’s just a sign that someone missed the point.”

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue in New York City from May 4 to September 4, 2017.