Brave new fashions

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  • Rei Kawakubo (Japanese, born 1942) for Comme des Garçons (Japanese, founded 1969), 18th-Century Punk, autumn/winter 2016–17; Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photograph by © Paolo Roversi; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

  • Gallery View, Clothes/Not Clothes: War/Peace. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

  • Gallery View, Object/Subject. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

  • Rei Kawakubo (Japanese, born 1942) for Comme des Garçons, (Japanese, founded 1969), Blue Witch, spring/summer 2016; Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photograph by © Paolo Roversi; Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

  • Gallery View, (from left) Bound/Unbound, Order/Chaos. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rei Kawakubo’s avant-garde outfits at The Costume Institute challenge our notions of style and beauty


She doesn’t consider herself a fashion designer. She says she’s “just an artisan” who produces clothing. She likes the term “worker.”

“For [the] 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,” Rei Kawakubo, 74, said in 2014. “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.”

Her garments for Comme des Garçons (“Like the Boys”), the label she founded in 1969, are not fashionable, either, in the traditional sense. More like sculptural objects than clothing, especially in recent years, they are bursting with imperfection — tears, frayed edges, exposed seams, wild asymmetries — and outlandish embellishments such as baby dresses and teddy bears.

The works are concrete manifestations of Zen “koans” or riddles, meant to defy description. The show’s subtitle, “Art of the In-Between,” refers to the esoteric concept of “in-betweenness,” where the koan “mu” (emptiness) and its kin, “ma” (space), coexist. Kawakubo’s designs live in the spaces between the show’s nine opposing themes: Absence/Presence; Design/Not Design; Fashion/Antifashion; Model/Multiple; Clothes/Not Clothes; and so forth.

These spaces “[offer] endless possibilities for creation, re-creation, and hybridity,” Andrew Bolton, curator-in-charge of The Met’s Costume Institute, said at a preview of the spring exhibit of some 140 garments by the avant-garde designer, dating from her Paris debut in 1981 to the present.

Born and based in Tokyo, this disrupter doesn’t care about femininity or traditional notions of beauty. What she cares about is projecting strength and power in her designs — and going where no clothes-maker has ever gone before. She’s an innovator with a punk sensibility. A bomb-thrower.

“Rei doesn’t like to explain her work. She prefers her clothes to speak for themselves,” Bolton said. She distrusts words. So much so that there is virtually no text in the show, aside from some titles and numbers on the floor — and a booklet you can grab at the entrance for guidance.

“We wanted people to engage with Rei’s fashions on a more personal and intimate level,” the curator said.

Caroline Kennedy, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, paid eloquent tribute to the designer, her friend, at the preview: “Rei’s work is beautiful. It transcends age and gender, it reconnects us with silence, it makes us look more carefully at the things we take for granted.”

The design of the exhibition is as unconventional as the clothes. The walls are pure white, and the mannequins appear in geometric structures that, in an aerial view, look like a collection of stadium bowls, silos and boxy spaces — the architecture of a small community in a galaxy far, far away.

“There is no prescribed route through the exhibition,” Bolton said, noting that the collections are not presented in chronological order. A walk-through feels very free and liberating, if somewhat disorienting — like the outfits themselves.

Kawakubo is only the second living designer to be given a solo show at the costume museum; Yves Saint Laurent was the first in 1983. Bolton praised her ability to think abstractly. She comes up with the idea for a piece, and the patternmakers on her staff have the job of translating the concept into an actual garment.

As one patternmaker said in 1990, per the show’s catalog: “Once [Kawakubo] gave us a piece of crumpled paper and said she wanted a pattern for a garment that would have something of that quality.”

The inspiration comes from within — not from other designers and typically not from history or a particular culture or place, she claims. “The concept could be anger, energy or an aspiration to make something strangely shaped,” she has said. Self-taught, she’s guided by intuition and instinct; her designs are distinctly non-political and convey no social messages.

The fashions conceal rather than reveal the female form and, by implication, take issue with male designers who create sexy, flesh-baring looks. The clothes are over-the-top strange and weird, which is how Kawakubo likes it because she is constantly in search of “newness.”

Fabric is wrapped around bodies — draped, knotted, bunched and padded. Her seminal 1997 collection, “Body Meets Dress — Dress Meets Body,” boasts down-filled bustles and other protrusions in gingham. A harbinger of future disruption, it was dubbed “lumps and bumps” by the critics.

In 2014, Kawakubo abandoned making clothes altogether, opting instead to create “objects for the body” that take on a life of their own. The results, labeled Clothes/Not Clothes, mark the fulfillment of her mission to create “forms that have never before existed in fashion.”

Akin to sculpture and performance art, the pieces “exist as purely aesthetic and abstract expressions,” the booklet states. The collections “Blood and Roses” (2015), “Blue Witch” (2016) and “18th-Century Punk” (2016-17) typify the new direction.

“Kawabuko confronts expectations of fashion and subverts them,” Bolton said. “She is one of the bravest designers out there.”

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