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The enduring enigma of Rei Kawakubo

The genius of the Japanese designer comes alive at the ongoing exhibition, Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garons: Art Of The In-Between at New York's Metropolitan Museum

‘Clothes/Not Clothes: War/Peace’ from the Rei Kawakubo exhibit at the MET, New York. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
‘Clothes/Not Clothes: War/Peace’ from the Rei Kawakubo exhibit at the MET, New York. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

You walk into a red dress wrapped around an oddly bulging body—like a mother holding a baby on her waist, with the two swaddled up together in bright red nylon—and you wonder why this misshapen figure, so far removed from the ideal of feminine beauty, is so strikingly lovely, and, indeed, strangely moving. That pretty much sets the tone for the eccentric Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo’s exhibition, which has been running at New York’s Metropolitan Museum since May—Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art Of The In-Between. It puts you into a Zen-like contemplative mode, making you ponder the very notion of beauty, of femininity, of fashion, and, for that matter, the purpose of clothing itself. It is unsettling, and yet, the experience is deeply fulfilling.

Kawakubo has been a fearless revolutionary for nearly half a century—she founded Commes des Garçons (“like some boys") way back in 1969—treading a path that is all her own, and one that is exasperatingly hard to define. In fact, it is this hard-to-pin-down quality that is at the heart of the exhibition, the idea of “in-betweenness" around which the exhibits are organized, where contrary ideas such as Absence/Presence, or Clothes/Not Clothes, or Object/Subject are explored. For example, the aforementioned red dress from her 1997 Spring/Summer collection, titled Body Meets Dress—Dress Meets Body, gives you the illusion of a body with bulbous protuberances—the collection was nicknamed “Lumps & Bumps" by the press and was, according to Kawakubo, an attempt “to design bodies … instead of clothes".

The fact that she has had no formal training in fashion may be a blessing, allowing her to experiment unfettered. Her creative process is unusual—she likens it to working on a Zen koan, a riddle, wherein she gives her pattern-makers a mere word or thought, which they are expected to interpret into a design. For example, she gave a crumpled piece of brown paper to her team, tasking them with translating its inherent qualities into a dress. The end result is the stunning brown paper dress which is part of her Future Of Silhouettes collection (Autumn/Winter 2017-18)—think of it as an overblown paper balloon, with twisted paper segments adorning its rumpled exterior. The effect is breathtaking, not least because there is a lyrical sense of poetry in the midst of extreme quirkiness. I have never seen anything like it.

And that is precisely her aim. “All my effort is oriented towards giving form to clothes that have never been seen before," she is quoted as saying in her exhibition catalogue. What do you say of two black dresses joined together with a zip, or a dress carrying another dress on its back—both part of her No Theme (Multiple Personalities/Psychological Fear) collection (Spring/Summer 2011). Or a merry pink floral dress which incorporates a stuffed teddy bear within its folds from the Not Making Clothing collection (Spring/Summer 2014). Or a lacy black coat which on closer inspection reveals little children’s frocks embedded on its exterior, this one from her Ceremony Of Separation collection (Autumn/Winter 2015-16). This tendency to attach smaller objects to a dress is another of her leitmotifs.

Dealing in absolute opposites is another frequent theme. She can put a black leather jacket on a fluffy white tutu, as she does in her Ballerina Motorbike collection (Spring/Summer 2005), an attempt to reconcile the high culture of ballet with that of bikers—she called it “Harley-Davidson loves Margot Fonteyn". In her 18th-Century Punk collection (Autumn/Winter 2016-17), she tries to pitch her love for history against the street style of punk—the results are a visual treat, as in the jumpsuit of rich quilted floral jacquards from a bygone era coming together with a punk-appropriate arm harness of red PVC.

Her ability to stir raw emotions took me by surprise. Perhaps the most poignant moment for me was a white dress comprising several tied bundles, some big, some small, holding God alone knows what. It was from her Ceremony Of Separation collection, and as I stood in front of it, I felt an inexplicable sense of despair. It looked like someone had bundled up all her possessions, placed them on her body, and was starting a long lonely journey. And yet, the dress was exquisite, pristine white muslin bundles coming together to form an extraordinary silhouette.

This is only the second time that the Met has done an exhibition for a living designer. The last time was more than three decades ago—Yves Saint Laurent in 1983. What a fitting tribute to Kawakubo’s genius.

Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

The writer tweets at @RadhaChadha

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