Rei Kawakubo moves in the in-between: Comme des Garcons exhibition at Met defies easy classification

Ryuzo Suzuki/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Dresses with “lumps and bumps” on display at “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art of the In-Between” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

By Yoko Tanimoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterNEW YORK — As founder of the Comme des Garcons fashion label, Rei Kawakubo has challenged conventional notions of clothing with her unmatched aesthetic sensibility. This is particularly exemplified in the about 140 examples on display at the current exhibition on the designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Starting May 4 and running through Sept. 4, the exhibition — titled “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art of the In-Between” — is the first solo show featuring a Japanese fashion designer at the New York museum. Per the title, the event has multiple themes in each section of the exhibit to showcase how the 74-year-old designer has discovered value in the space between various conflicting notions and redefined what is beautiful.

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  • Ryuzo Suzuki/The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A cutout dress titled “2 Dimensions,” right, and the piece “Not Making Clothing” in a floral motif with a stuffed ornament, left

  • © Peter Lindbergh

    A black wool knit sweater with small and large holes

  • Ryuzo Suzuki/The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Rei Kawakubo, right, with Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, center, and former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, attends a ceremony on May 1.

  • Ryuzo Suzuki/The Yomiuri Shimbun

On display is one section titled “Object/Subject,” a collection of garments titled “Body Meets Dress — Dress Meets Body.” The clothing has unusual deformations, with protrusions padded with goose down in the abdomen or lower back areas. Later described as dresses with “lumps and bumps” for these swelling parts, the clothing comes from a desire to blur the boundaries between a dress and the body, questioning notions of what constitutes a beautiful body or beautiful clothing. The dresses provoked many discussions when presented in 1996 over whether they should even be categorized as clothing.

In the “Beautiful/Grotesque” section, visitors will see black wool knit sweaters with small and large holes, which shocked fashion journalists in the West who were unfamiliar with such designs when they were presented in 1982. Kawakubo dubbed them her “lace” sweaters, saying: “To me, they’re not tears. The cutout might be considered another form of lace.”

In the subsection “Child/Adult,” a pink and blue felt dress from her autumn/winter 2012-13 collection that looks like it’s a cutout serves as a bellwether for Kawakubo challenging the rules of age-appropriate dress.

In 2013, Kawakubo announced she would make “something that is not clothes.” Since then, she has created items that seemingly resemble objets d’art, with a brown paper dress titled “The Future of Silhouette” as her latest piece.

She founded the Comme des Garcons label in 1969. The label’s eponymous company, established in 1973, currently has about 20 brands and sells products at about 220 stores in Japan and about 300 stores in about 30 other countries.

Kawakubo made her debut at Paris Fashion Week in the 1980s with Yohji Yamamoto and other contemporaries, boosting the presence of Japanese designers in the global fashion community. She was awarded the French government’s l’Ordre National du Merite in 2004.

Kawakubo’s style of transcending the boundaries of art and fashion has also resonated with designers overseas.

“I think Rei has an extraordinarily unique vision and voice,” American designer Marc Jacobs said. “I don’t just look at it as design for the sake of design.”

The exhibit’s entire venue is brightly illuminated — a rare approach for fashion exhibitions, which usually show works in glass cases in dim lighting.

Kawakubo personally designed the uniquely shaped white booths at the exhibit to display her works. They allow visitors to come to near touching distance to her designs. “I hope visitors scrutinize my works from up close to appreciate their power,” Kawakubo said.

Fashion designer who strives to forget her successes

By Izumi Miyachi / Yomiuri Shimbun Deputy Managing Editor

The following is excerpted from an interview with Kawakubo in New York.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: How do you feel about this exhibition?

Rei Kawakubo: I accepted the offer to hold this exhibition on the condition that I can perfectly present the philosophy of Comme des Garcons at the conservative and traditional Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, at first, things did not go smoothly. First and foremost, I didn’t want to make it a retrospective exhibition.

In the end, we agreed I would design the interior of the exhibition space as I wanted and leave all the other issues to the museum. I feel it is particularly significant that two conflicting entities worked together.

Q: While you’ve been asked by many museums to hold exhibitions, what is the meaning of holding one at this time?

Kawakubo: I wondered after I’m gone how people would organize exhibitions and other events for me. So I had the idea that I would hold a sample exhibition now, and hopefully people would follow the same approach of showing my works when designing events in the future. This is why this exhibition is taking place now. To put it simply, I’m not young anymore.

Q: How can you continue to create something new?

Kawakubo: It’s tough, actually. When I took out clothes from storage for this exhibition and started placing them out one at a time, I became anxious about what I should make next. Therefore, even if I have something I considered successful, I never use it as a starting point to think [about what I’ll make] next. Instead, I try to forget about it.

Q: What kind of impact do you think your exhibition will make?

Kawakubo: I hope people who don’t know Comme des Garcons or have never come to our shops will feel something. I’m happy even if you think, “Hm, this clothing is a bit odd.”

Honestly speaking, however, it’s scary for me if everyone appreciates [my clothes] because it means I need to be more cutting-edge. If everyone understands something, it is no longer novel.

To learn more about the exhibition, visit:


Slide show
Special exhibition: Rei Kawakubo / Comme des Garcons: Art of the In-Between

[Released on May 17, 2017]

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