All Photos: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Rei Kawakubo loves a puzzle. In an interview, she once compared her work to Zen koans—the unsolvable riddles Buddhist teachers present to their students. That struck a chord with Andrew Bolton, the chief curator of the Costume Institute, who has been working with Kawakubo for more than a year on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between” exhibition, which opens to the public on May 4. “You’re not meant to decipher koans,” Bolton explains. “The idea is that you finally realize they’re nonsensical and you realize the limitations of your intellect. Then you free your mind, and by freeing your mind, you get to another point.” He pauses. “It’s amazing. And that’s basically what Rei’s work is about, Zen koans.”
The unknowable truth of Rei Kawakubo’s genius is not an easy exhibition topic. But Bolton makes it clear he’s not trying to “demystify” the reclusive Japanese designer’s work. “The indecipherability is what is powerful about it . . . you don’t want to take the magic away,” he says. “She’s 74 years old and no other designer is as challenging or as brave as Rei. People keep asking me, ‘Why did you choose Rei as the second living designer?’ It’s like, just look at the clothes. They speak for themselves.”
What’s also clear: This is not a retrospective. The show aims to explore the notion of in-betweenness in Kawakubo’s oeuvre at Comme des Garçons’s high fashion womenswear enterprise. Menswear and other brands under the CDG label are not included.
Instead, visitors are treated to a tightly curated edit of Kawakubo’s CDG career broken into categories like Past/Future, Model/Multiple, and Self/Other. In the catalog, Bolton describes two seismic shifts in Kawakubo’s work that helped shape the exhibition. The first was in 1979, when she moved her collections to Paris, where she has shown twice yearly since. The second was in 2014, when she vowed to stop making clothes. The center and right parts of the gallery are the pre-2014 space, where collections sit together, exploring some of the more digestible aspects of Kawakubo’s oeuvre: mixing menswear and womenswear, Japanese tradition with Western dress, and 19th-century silhouettes with modernist construction. The most arresting display here is 1997’s Body Meets Dress—Dress Meets Body collection, which is set in a large funnel-like space with a video of Merce Cunningham’s dancers performing in the clothing by viewers’ feet. Certain shows, like the much-loved Curiosity collection of Fall 2007, were omitted at Kawakubo’s insistence. Many pre-’80s collections are also omitted per the designer’s request.
The post-2014 section faces completely away from the entrance. To follow Kawakubo’s recent trains of thought you have to give yourself over to the maze. “The first half the gallery is much more open and in a way traditional. This is more closed,” says Bolton. “This is a more intimate space where you discover things. All the themes she’s used throughout her career are here, just in purer form.” This section, called Clothes/Not Clothes, is full of confrontational arrangements. The experience is riveting, not just for the clothing itself, but for the fact that much of it is presented with few barriers between the guests and the garments. “This is Rei; she was the one who really pushed this. I didn’t care about people touching them—I should care about that, our conservator cares about that!” Bolton says with a smirk. “I was more concerned about the fact that I always love giving prominence and hierarchy to the art. She wanted it to be more democratic.” The exhibition closes with Spring 2017’s bulbous white dresses and an array of 18th-century punk looks in vibrant pink.
In truth, Kawakubo’s clothes have to do a lot of heavy lifting in the exhibition space. Not only are they encased in white cylinders, cones, and arches that will compete for viewers’ attention, but the exhibition is entirely without wall text. “Rei doesn’t like her work to be interpreted or explained,” Bolton says. “It’s just white, so people can come in and look at the work subjectively and not read my interpretation of it. They can make their own interpretation, and if they want to, they can look at the guide.”
Selling the public on an exhibition of a reclusive Japanese designer who refuses to explain her work and creates dresses the size of a Fiat might seem like a fool’s errand. But that’s where Bolton’s own genius comes in. His career at the Met has been marked by tackling complex ideas through clothing. Take last year’s “Manus x Machina,” a subject so dense even the press didn’t really know what to make of it when it was announced. The exhibition ended up being a call to arms for fashion as an art, something that exalted the craft to new heights.
When asked why he chooses the challenge of making a heady theme accessible to the masses that descend upon the Met, Bolton demurs: “I think that I try to come up with an idea that might seem relevant for the time being. With Rei, I just felt it was time. I think what it is with Rei is that she’s taught us that the body has no bounds and that fashion itself is boundless, limitless. She’s not only the most influential and important, she’s also the most inspiring designer for that reason. I find her brave, I find her vision unique, and she’s always gone her own way.”
Perhaps Bolton’s signal gift as a curator is that he’s able to embark on the noble quests of educating guests, championing fashion, and celebrating the creative forces behind garments, all the while exalting beauty. He creates scenes where clothing looks sublime and has meaning. That’s a trait he shares with Kawakubo. “I’m a punk at heart, too,” he says, “so I love that idea of somebody who always rebels.”