In fashion, there are designers; those who methodically churn out pretty, wearable clothes to much commercial success season after season, and there are artists; those who exist on the fringe, challenging the eye to see the endless canvass that can be shaped around the human form, sometimes through the medium of clothing, other times with wearable art that, to the untrained eye, can be inexplicable in its stark contrast to the rest of the fashion industry. It is these artists who proudly blur the line between fashion and art, making statements and presenting shows that are more closely related to performances. Rei Kawakubo, founder and creative force behind Japanese brand Comme des Garçon, is an artist, and this month she will be honored with the highest praise known to the fashion or art industry, her own exhibition curated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “Art of the In-Between”, to be ushered in by the annual Met Ball on the now infamous First Monday in May.
Rei Kawakubo never studied fashion. She never intentionally set out to corner a market and create a global brand bringing in revenue of $280 million per year, but that is the testament, and the legacy, of her creative power. In 1967, Kawakubo was a freelance stylist, struggling to find pieces that interested her. Out of creative necessity, she began to design and produce her own clothing, and after two years created her own label, calling it Comme des Garçon, a name which has since been revealed to have derived from a Francoise Hardy song titled “Tous les Garçons et les Filles” (all the boys and girls). Throughout the 70’s Kawakubo’s fame continued to rise in Japan, as her unconventional designs and punk inspired aesthetic resonated with the Japanese youth, so that by the time she showed her first collection in Paris in 1981, Comme des Garçon was already a success.
Practically anything considered “modern”, “avant garde” or “experimental” these days in popular fashion can be traced back to a Comme des Garçon collection. When Kawakubo showed a collection with holes in all the garments she called it “new lace”. When people struggled to find use or purpose for hanging appendages and extra sleeves it was explained that they are just there to dangle. She showed that fashion wasn't always beautiful with advertisements showing unconventional body shapes, forcing people out of their comfort zone. She set up rogue Comme des Garçon shops in different cities, long before the pop-up shop was the norm. She has reimagined the wedding dress, the school girl uniform, even lingerie, creating uncomfortable silhouettes that may not sell out on the floor at Barney’s, but certainly illicit imagination and thought, the greatest gift an artist can give.
Kawakubo’s Met retrospective marks only the second time in the Costume Institute’s history that a living designer will be honored, making her not only the topic, but also a collaborator. She has had direct, hands on influence with the layout of the collection, as well as a say in the works being presented. Like all things in Kawakubo’s long and successful career, she is taking an unconventional approach, one that is cloaked in self doubt and fear, but is ultimately revered for its creative power.
Written by LIZ KRAMSKY
Visual editor OLGA SOROKINA