REVIEW: Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between by Andrew Bolton

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Published by: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Distributed by: Yale University Press)

Release Date: May 30, 2017
Genres: Arts & Photography
Pages: 248
Format: Print
Rating: 4 stars
Source: The MET/Yale University Press

Description (Amazon): The great pantheon of fashion designers produces only a handful of creators who are masters of their métier. Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons is one of them. Widely recognized among her contemporaries as the most important and influential designer of the past forty years, she has, since her Paris debut in 1981, defined and transformed the aesthetics of our time. This lavishly illustrated publication examines Kawakubo’s fascination with interstitiality, or the space between boundaries. Existing within and between dualities—whether self/other, object/subject, art/fashion—Kawakubo’s work challenges the rigid divisions that have come to define received notions of identity and fashionability, inviting us to rethink fashion as a site of constant creation, re-creation, and, ultimately, hybridity. Featuring brilliant new photography, and thought-provoking texts by Andrew Bolton, this book expresses the conceptual and challenging aesthetic of this visionary designer. An insightful interview and illustrated chronology of Kawakubo’s career provide additional context.

 

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If you a regular reader of this blog, then you are probably accustomed to posts on literary fiction. Though I sometimes review non-fiction, the topics tend to focus on social issues and politics. That’s why I am excited to share this fascinating book and its subject,  designer Rei Kawakubo.  You may be wondering: Who is Rei Kawakubo? What is Comme des Garçons? What does The MET have to do with all of this?

The most succinct explanation can be found on Wikipedia: “Rei Kawakubo is a Japanese fashion designer based in Tokyo and Paris. She is the founder of Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market. In recognition of the notable design contributions of Kawakubo, an exhibition of her designs entitled ‘Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons, Art of the In-Between opened on May 5, 2017 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City'”

It is important to add that Kawakubo is the first living designer to be celebrated with an exhibition by the museum since Yves Saint Laurent in 1983. This effort was lead by Andrew Bolton, the curator of the Costume Institute. The exhibition features around 140 examples of Kawakubo’s designs for Comme des Garçons, dating from the early 1980s to her most recent collection.

“Since her first show in Paris in 1981, Kawakubo has consistently surprised us and disrupted our expectations. Season after season, collection after collection, she changes our eye by upending perceived notions of conventional beauty.” ~Andrew Bolton

It is so fascinating that Rei Kawakubo’s abstract creations have been celebrated by both fashion and art critics. She mixes high and low fashion, achieving extraordinary commercial success. Her most artistic designs are consistently featured in Paris Fashion Weeks. But you may be more familiar with the iconic cartoon heart which is emblazoned on the Comme des Garçons PLAY clothing line.

“Her fashions not only stand apart from the genealogy of clothing but also resist definition and confound interpretation. They can be read as Zen koans or riddles devised to baffle, bemuse, and bewilder. At the heart of her work are the koan mu (emptiness) and the related notion of ma (space), which coexist in the concept of the “in-between.” This reveals itself as an aesthetic sensibility that establishes an unsettling zone of visual ambiguity and elusiveness.” ~Exhibit Guide Book

When I started reading more on Rei Kawakubo, it was clear to me that she is a complex woman whose work features many seemingly contradictory aspects. The exhibit at The MET, The Art of the In-Between, depicts the nine themes of dualisms present in Kawakubo’s designs:

  • Absence/Presence
  • Design/Not Design
  • Fashion/ Antifashion
  • Model/Multiple
  • High/Low
  • Then/Now
  • Self/ Other
  • Object/Subject
  • Clothes/Not Clothes

“Kawakubo breaks down the imaginary walls between these dualisms, exposing their artificiality and arbitrariness. Her fashions demonstrate that interstices are places of meaningful connection and coexistence as well as revolutionary innovation and transformation, providing Kawakubo with endless possibilities to rethink the female body and feminine identity.” ~ The MET

Through reading the book, I was able to experience the wonder and curiosity of Rei Kawakubo’s creations.

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Blood and Roses, spring/summer 2015; Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photograph by © Paolo Roversi

Andrew Bolton worked with photographers and models to bring the clothing to life. The models danced in her pieces, challenging the traditional notion that art isn’t wearable. This additional step definitely enhanced my reading experience. Instead of seeing pictures of the clothing on mannequins, I saw it in the way Rei Kawakubo had envisioned.

Compare this image from the book:

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18th-century punk, autumn/winter 2016-2017; Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. 

…with this photograph from the museum exhibit

I also loved the insightful quotes from Kawakubo about her artistic process and vision. The opening of the book featured a comprehensive interview, but her words were also scattered throughout, predominantly underneath the photographs of live models. For instance, below the photograph of 18th-century punk is the quote:

“The fact that my clothes shock is genuinely never my intention. I do in fact want to rebel against established ideas. I want to work in an inspiring way and stimulate others.” ~Rei Kawakubo, 1997

While reading, I constantly readjusted my ideas aboutKawakubo’s work. As I flipped page to page, she became more complicated as an artist and as a person.

A few of my favorite quotes are:

“My clothes are for women to wear today. One who is independent. One who is not swayed by what her husband thinks. One who can stand by herself.” ~1982

“I chose Comme des Garçons as a name because I liked the sound. It doesn’t mean much to me, I didn’t intend to promote myself that’s why I didn’t put my name on it” ~Rei Kawakubo, 1992

“For more than forty years that I have been making clothes, I have never thought about fashion. In other words, I have almost no interest in it. What I’ve only ever been interested in is clothes that one has never seen before, that are completely new, and how and in what way they can be expressed. Is that called fashion? I don’t know the answer.” ~Rei Kawakubo, 2014

My favorite collection is Body Meets Dress–Dress Meets Body, which challenged the conventional views of physical beauty. To quote the NYT, the collection, “includes dresses, skirts and jackets in bright, stretch gingham checks that came with enormous goose-down-filled protuberances suggestive of tumors, shoulder pads, pregnant bellies or outside fanny packs — and in all the wrong places.”

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Body Meets Dress–Dress Meets Body, spring/summer 1997; Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photograph by © Paolo Roversi, 1997

For me, the eerie beauty of the photographs speaks volumes. The impact of the work was compounded by Kawakubo’s words.

“I don’t have a definition of beauty. I don’t have an establishment view of what beauty is. My idea of beauty keeps changing.” ~Rei Kawakubo, 1992

“To make a form in which a woman looks pretty in the conventional way is not interesting to me at all.” ~Rei Kawakubo, 1997

“If we made clothes that are easily understood and likely to sell well, there would be no place for Comme des Garçons.” ~Rei Kawakubo, 2005

The book also discuss the 1997 performance by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company:  “Scenario”, which featured dancers who wore the Body Meets Dress–Dress Meets Body collection. I highly recommend watching a video of the performance to fully grasp the beauty of movement despite the limitation posed by the “deformed bodies”.

overall

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between is a gorgeous book that offers a incredibly interesting view of a great visionary and feminist. I gained so much understanding of Rei Kawakubo’s outlook on life as well as her art. I am excited to see what she has in store for her next collection.

This book would be an excellent Christmas gift for any creative individual in your life. If you would like to purchase the book, please click here to support the Metropolitan Museum.

I would also like to thank the lovely folks at The MET/Yale University Press who sent me the book to review.

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