Challenging fashion: Comme des Garçons at the Met

Since I was a child, growing up in the 1980’s, I have admiringly followed the work and career of Rei Kawakubo. When I was too young to know what, precisely, avant-garde fashion was, I sensed that this designer was doing something special, unique, and somehow, important.

From the pages of W and Vogue, I pieced together an education in the adornment and presentation of the female body as idealized and imagined, often by male designers creating for the pleasure of male gazes. Kawakubo was starkly different in every way: female, Japanese, trained in fine art but not in fashion, and wholly original in her rejection of simplistic prettiness and conventional beauty. Her work lit a fire of possibility in my mind.

Snapshots from Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. Photo by Irene Kaoru.

The Costume Institute exhibition featuring Kawakubo’s womenswear for Comme des Garçons at the Metropolitan Museum is called “Art of the In-Between.” Fitting with this title, the show presents over 120 examples of Kawakubo’s work in groups of textually defined dualities. These are: Absence/Presence, Design/Not Design, Fashion/Anti-Fashion, Model/Multiple, Then/Now, High/Low, Self/Other, Object/Subject, and Clothes/Not Clothes. Under each heading, we are offered a selection of sculptural fashion objects (it seems wrong and incomplete to call them “outfits” or “clothes”) with an essay exploring the items in the suggested context. These essays seek to place the items in a chronological or conceptual context, but often raise more questions than they answer. (See them in the exhibition guide, here as a PDF.)

Kawakubo’s pursuit of Newness

The clothes on display are unfailingly challenging. Kawakubo is rightly known for being unusual, and seeing clothes from such a long and accomplished career all together at one time is nothing short of breathtaking. Individually, the pieces are strange, arresting, or humorous. Together, they show decades of work focused on dismantling received ideas of form, construction, gender presentation, movement and identity. They ask us to reconsider what we think we know about the purpose of adornment, about the human form, what clothing can and should be, and what is “attractive” or what a “shirt” or “dress” or “suit” can be.

Snapshots from Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. Photo by Irene Kaoru.

There are no “givens” in Kawakubo’s explorations of fashion. There is seemingly no particular boundary between sculpture and clothing. Materials, form and purpose all exist to be examined and deconstructed. As a designer, she has spent her multi-decade career in pursuit of “Newness” and in doing so, has challenged or outright refuted prevailing notions of beauty and functionality with her creations. The space she occupies between fine art, sculpture and fashion, combined with her relentless pursuit of the avant-garde, makes Kawakubo the ideal subject for a Costume Institute exhibition.

Many visitors, it seems, do not agree. While eavesdropping on visitor conversations during my second lap through the exhibit last month, I noticed that the designs frustrate and even anger some people. My guess is that this is because the work is so confrontational and unlike most “fashion.” For me, the anger I witnessed at the Met serves as a stronger reason to enjoy and respect the work.

Snapshots from Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. Photo by Irene Kaoru.

Rarely does fashion evoke such passionate response and debate. All the more reason for Kawakubo to be given the honor of being the first living fashion designer to have a solo show at the Met since the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition in 1983. “There are very few designers working today who can really hold their own in an art context, but Rei is one of them,” Andrew Bolton, curator for the Costume Institute, said last year in a New York Times article. “She has changed the course of fashion by offering new possibilities for its very meaning.”

Snapshots from Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. Photo by Irene Kaoru.

Kawakubo in the context of past exhibits

In considering the importance of this Kawakubo show, it’s helpful to recall what we’ve seen in past Costume Institute exhibits. In the past, these fashion-focused shows have hopped back and forth over the beauty line, playing with meaning and shifting aesthetics in their exhibition choices.

In the 2014 show Charles James: Beyond Fashion, the Institute gave us fashion as architecture and sculpture but also as a means of constructing Western femininity. In 2016’s Manus x Machina, the Institute gave us fashion as a stage for the question of whether high tech innovation could impress or compete with the work of skilled human hands. It was undoubtedly a beautiful and fun exhibit full of inspiring items, though my reaction to this central question was and still remains, Who cares? Is that important?

In both cases, the ultimate purpose of these shows seemed to be to prompt visitors to ooh and ahh over both human and technological achievements in creating aesthetically pleasing and conventionally impressive clothes. In contrast, the current Kawakubo show prompts visitors to ask larger questions about what fashion can or should be, what our expectations of beauty say about us, or what our garments could say if freed from aesthetic constraints.

We were also given fashion as daring sculpture in the blockbuster exhibit, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, in 2011. While McQueen was extraordinarily talented and certainly pushed boundaries with respect to choice of materials and creation of clothing as fantasy, he didn’t tend to stray from accepted notions of the ideal feminine form – elongated silhouettes, exaggerated high heels, slender waists and so on. Wearing McQueen’s clothing might feel like a luxury, a privilege, and might feel like wearing the world’s sexiest armor, but I can’t imagine it ever feeling like being liberated from the pressure and constriction of being a feminine sex object, the way wearing any piece of Comme de Garçons feels.

The impact of Art of In-Between

Art of the In-Between marks a daring and important moment for the Costume Institute. I don’t know if Art of the In-Between will achieve the blockbuster crowd-pleasing status of these previous exhibitions. I do know that it doesn’t matter. Cultural institutions exist, in part, to give us newness, and to present us with that newness even if we don’t all want it or understand it. With this show, no matter how many visitors ultimately attend and no matter what they say, The Costume Institute has achieved something rare, exciting and worthwhile.


See Kawakubo’s work up close in this 360 video from the exhibit, via the New York Times.

I have always pursued a new way of thinking about design…by denying established values, conventions, and what is generally accepted as the norm. –Rei Kawakubo.

Further reading

All images in this post are my own snapshots taken while visiting Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between.