Currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the “Art of the In-Between”. The exhibition is a look into creator of Commes des Garcons, Rei Kawakubo’s inspirations and work. Rei founded Commes des Garcons (French for “like some boys”) in 1969. Rei’s expression of fashion is one of disruption. Her designs are what we in the industry call Avant Garde. They are unconventional and challenges what society accepts as fashion.
Much of her work revolves around two notions, koan mu (emptiness) and ma (space). The exhibition explores nine translations of in-betweenness through Rei’s collections and explores the emptiness in conventional clothing. The architectural displays and circular path that visitors walk through to view the exhibition are inspired “Mu” and “Ma” the Zen Buddhism symbolizim for emptiness and space. Ma also translates to void and volume. Ma is both something with and without shape, much like Rei’s voluminous designs.
2.Design/ Not Design
Rei doesn’t have a formal design education, her self education allowed her to explore how to design unconventionally. Many times her inspiration comes from a word or abstract image. Many of her collections are inspired by fusion, imbalance, the unfinished, elimination and design without design. These templates for her work are also rooted in the Zen Buddhist principle wabi-sabi.
During the late 1970’s and early 80’s Rei moved away from her traditionally Japanese inspired collections. Her need to design something with strength led her to become a modern archetypal designer. Her goal was one of originality or ” newness” and has been what defines all of her collections. Fashion/ Antifashion showcases Rei’s early 80s collections. The color story of predominately black expresses the thought of mu (emptiness) while the shapeless and oversized garments express ma (space).
Rei has also explored the contrast of original work and the replicas that are made. In Model/ Multiple Rei’s collection Abstract Excellence the pieces take on these differences. The repetition of clothes not only represents replicas but uniformity. Her pieces in this collection have very little differences.This showcases the rift between original art and designs and knockoffs. Many of these techniques have been used in the fashion industry and are being used today in fast fashion.
The collection “Motorbike Ballerina” expresses the ties between elitist and pop culture. High society forms of dressing like a tutu and a low society form like a biker jacket are combined. Street style takes on high end fashion and the collection explores how society see’s both.
In the collection “Bad Taste” Rei explores what bad taste is. Style associated with punk which are made with cheaper fabrics like polyester are combined with high end tulle for tutus. Her goal was to shine a light on what upper society sees as good taste. While combining those exact forms of bad taste with what society might view as good taste.
In the collections Modern Sweetness, Sweeter Than Sweet, Body Meets Dress-Dress Meets Body, Inside Decoration and White Drama Rei travels through both modern and historical fashion. As a designer her work has been constantly influenced by fashion history. It can be seen in these collections that consists of silhouettes that are from the 19th century.
In her collections Broken Bride, White Drama and Ceremony Rei explores the movement of time through life experiences. Birth, marriage and death are expressed through what Rei and much of society think about these time periods. The traditions we believe in during these periods of living are expressed both in ways we recognize and don’t.
Self/ Other explores what fashion looks like when boundaries are crossed. This part of the exhibition showcases how Rei’s work blurs the lines between East/ West, Male/ Female and Child/ Adult. East and West displays what eastern and western cultures clash in fashion. Male/ Female fuses what we typically recocnize as male attire with womenswear. While Child/ Adult focuses on what age appropriate dressing while using the Japanese cultural aspects of Kawaii (cuteness). A form of dressing made popular by the Japanese youth who use playful aspects in their dressing.
Object/ Subject focuses on the form of our bodies and drasticly changing the way it looks and how we think about it. In this part of the exhibition the collection Body Meets Dress- Dress- Meets Body challenges that notion. The looks include extreme padding challenging what society thinks is a beautiful body. These deformed looks contrast with the traditional cuts of fabric and prints of gingham. The line between dress or the object and subject the body are blurred.
9.Clothes/ Not Clothes
Once again Rei felt the need for reinvention and in 2014 left behind the the notion of newness in presute of making “objects for bodies’. In the ninth installation the collection is broken down in to nine categories. In Clothes/ Not Clothes Rei introduced forms that have never been introduced to fashion. The collection is a constant rif on what can be worn and what is simply expressional pieces. They have similarities but also have considerable differences.
Form/ Function features the collection Not Making Clothing. Continuing her search of objects for the body she created the piece as if she were not a designer. The pieces are structured, three dimensional and don’t form to the body naturally. The cuts and forms are similar to a dolls whose clothing is too big. The pieces seem cut and pasted together and don’t look as if they should go together. (Picture above)
9.2 Abstraction/ Representation
The collection “invisible clothes” in 9.2 challenges the thought of the body being dominate over clothing. Recognizable forms of clothes like an arm are obscured through the voluminus shapes. In doing so body and the form of the dress become one. There is not a clarity of what is body and what is dress. The goal is to see clothes not as clothes but as a form of the body.
In Beautiful/ Grotesque Rei’s collections ” Holes” and ” Monster”showcase how Rei’s 1980’s collections were criticized by Western society as grotesque. Although to Rei they were simply different forms of beauty. The collection “Monster” delves into humanity, fear and going beyond what we see as common sense. Rei once again goes against ordinary fashion by creating pieces that are big and can be perceived as both beautiful and ugly. The knots and twist of the garments are meant to expand what people see as beauty.
War/ Peace showcases the collections ” Flowering Clothes” and “Blood and Roses”. These collections are Rei’s response to the unjust events in society. Her reactions to what is happening around us is never literal, but symbolic. Her reactions and knowledge of history inspired her to create these collections. Throughout history the symbol of the rose has been used to represent both good and bad. ” Flowering Clothes” focuses on the positive connotations associated with roses. The pieces are inspired by the strength, happiness and positivity of a rose. “Blood and Roses” focuses on the dark significance a rose can have. It’s inspired by the historical use of a rose in war, political and religious clashes. In “Blood and Roses” Rei used both expressional and literal expressions of the topic with the color of bold red.
When one looks at Rei’s clothes they must understand that she is not an intellectual designer but an emotional one. Her own feelings inspire the collections, even those of fear and doubt. Her collections are a look into her intense emotions and spirituality. Life/Loss expands on the collection in Then/ Now with theme of transition. In Life/ Loss the concepts of the memory of a subject and memorialization of something are explored.
Life/ Loss presents the collection ” Ceremony of Separation” which brings to the forefront the feelings of pain of losing someone and the beautiful ceremonies we put on to say good bye. The dresses in this collection are translations of traditional mourning dresses. The clothes are sad but extravagant with delicate lace representing how fragile life is. This collection is similar to her earlier collection “Square” where the clothes are made of one square of fabric and express the ritual of pilgrimage. The “Square” and “Ceremony of Separation” collections both explore the traditional outlets of expression during these points in life.
Fact/ Fiction demonstrates Rei’s expressions through storytelling. The collections ” Blue Witch”, “Lilith”, “Dark Romance”and “Witch”. The collections are filled with strong silhouettes and mix menswear with womenswear. Although the traditional forms in menswear are distorted. In all three collections menswear becomes a feminine piece like a skirt. The collections are pieces of dismantled and distorted, mashed together women and men’s wear. They are also expressions of the fictional topics, witches and storybooks.
When Rei formed “Comme des Garcons” her goals were “newness” and independence. She pursued independence of conventional subjects and expression. This search lead her to appreciate street style and the punk culture. Both going against the grain of tradition and what society thinks is fashion. In “Order/ Chaos” combines history and the theme of transition. The collection “18th- Century Punk” uses the traditional silhouettes of the 1700’s combined with 1970’s punk aesthetics. The pieced together collection recalls the collection “Adult Delinquent” which was also inspired by the punk movement.
9.8 Bound/ Unbound
In Bound/ Unbound the collection “The Future of the Silhouette” made not of clothes necessarily but of objects for the body is on display. Here fabric is replaced by synthetic wadding that is constructed around the body. They take inspiration from the collection used in Then/ Now without the historical references. The pieces are distorted hourglass forms that become parts of the body like that of the Body Meets Dress- Dress Meets Body collection. The pieces are binding to the body without arm holes, pressing against the notion of what accepted beauty is. The goal is not to give a body purpose, place or period in which to be but to simply exist between these aspects of life.
Rei’s work will not instantly make you think of fashion, but of expressionism. Once you are able to understand what she is expressing , you will be able to understand and see the fashion in it. Much of it is not meant to be worn but translate and affect how society thinks and feels about what’s acceptable in fashion and beauty. It is a story of the “art of the in-between.”
The exhibition Rei Kawakubo: Commes des Garcons/ Art of the In- Between is on display at the Met until September 4th. I enjoyed learning more about this fascinating designer and hope you do to. Her take on fashion and its emotional connections are what I relate to most. Let me know if you visit the exhibition and what your thoughts are. Pay attention to my Instagram for more pictures throughout the week.