The last living designer who was the subject of a monographic exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art was Yves Saint Laurent, in 1983. At the time, if you were to ask any fashion journalist who they considered to be the most important and influential designer at that particular moment, the response – unanimously – would have been Saint Laurent. If you were to pose the same question today, the response could very well be Rei Kawakubo.
Since her Paris debut in 1981, Kawakubo has consistently defined and redefined the aesthetics of our time. Season after season, she changes our eye by upending received notions of conventional beauty and by disrupting the defining characteristics of the fashionable body.
For Kawakubo, however, her clothes are simply expressions of her endless search for originality or what she calls “newness”. The search began in 1979, two years before her Paris debut. “I felt I should be doing something more directional, more powerful,” she declared to The New York Times. “I decided to start from zero, from nothing, to do things that have not been done before, things with a strong image.” Ever since, “to start from zero” has become a constant of Kawakubo’s design process, a kind of mantra that results in fashions that not only stand apart from the genealogy of clothing but also resist and confound interpretation.
Kawakubo doesn’t like to define or explain her clothes beyond the short titles she gives her collections. However, unlike the titles many artists give their work, usually to clarify its meaning, those Kawakubo gives seem to obfuscate meaning. At best, they provide a code to be deciphered. At worst, they serve as a red herring designed to divert, distract and ultimately bewilder.
Kawakubo’s titles, like the collections themselves, can be read as Zen koans or riddles, devised to expose the futility of interpretation. In Zen philosophy, koans are designed to confound the intellect by rendering analytical reasoning impossible. The most famous koan is mu, which roughly translates as emptiness. As a concept, it’s thoroughly integrated into Zen arts such as poetry and painting. It’s also central to the work of Kawakubo, who as early as 1985 declared in Interview magazine: “The void is important”. Its significance to Kawakubo’s fashions may best be explained by an anecdote.
In her first interview with Kawakubo, conducted in 1996, fashion journalist Susannah Frankel asked Kawakubo to explain her then current collection, Body Meets Dress – Dress Meets Body. Frankel’s description of Kawakubo’s response has attained the status of fashion folklore.
“Kawakubo sat down silently, drew a circle in black ink on a scrap of white paper, then promptly disappeared.” Understandably, Frankel interpreted Kawakubo’s response as a demonstration of the collection’s indecipherability. In fact, through the symbol of a circle, Kawakubo was expressing the essential meaning not just of Body Meets Dress – Dress Meets Body, but of every collection: emptiness.
The concept of emptiness, mu, cannot be fully appreciated without the related concept of ma, which roughly translates as space. In Kawakubo’s work, these concepts coalesce in the notion of the interstitial, the space between entities or boundaries. This in-between space reveals itself in Kawakubo’s fashions as an aesthetic sensibility, establishing a discomfiting zone of visual ambiguity and engendering an art of the in-between.
The exhibition at The Met in May will examine eight recurring aesthetic expressions of “in-betweenness” in Kawakubo’s collections: fashion/anti-fashion; design/not design; model/multiple; then/now; high/low; self/other; object/subject; and clothes/not clothes. In her work, Kawakubo breaks down the false walls between these dualisms, exposing their artificiality and arbitrariness. As her fashions demonstrate, in-between spaces are sites not only of meaningful connection and coexistence, but also of revolutionary innovation and transformation, providing Kawakubo with endless possibilities for creation and re-creation.
The first section of the exhibition, called Fashion/Anti-fashion, focuses on Kawakubo’s early 1980s collections, which elicited strong reactions from critics when they were shown in Paris, owing to their repudiation of many presumptive canons of Western fashion. These collections are significant for introducing the concepts of mu or emptiness, expressed through Kawakubo’s monochromatic – principally black – palette, and ma or space, expressed through outsize, loose-fitting garments that created a void between skin and fabric, and between body and clothes.
The concepts of mu and ma converge in one of Kawakubo’s most iconic designs from this period: a black sweater pierced with holes from her fall 1982 collection which Kawakubo described as her “lace” sweater. This sweater is also notable for the combined effects of wabi and sabi, concepts explored in the section called Design/Not Design.
Wabi and sabi are aesthetic principles rooted in Zen Buddhism and are closely associated with the art of the tea ceremony. Wabi denotes decay and transience, while sabi denotes poverty and simplicity. In Kawakubo’s work, these concepts are expressed through the visual language of asymmetry, irregularity and imperfection. She likes to draw attention to the mechanics of her garments in order to highlight the importance of the unfinished. This emphasis has led many critics to label Kawakubo a postmodernist, but they mistake her exposure of the techniques of a garment’s construction as deconstruction. Kawakubo, in fact, is the archetypal modernist designer, a status that’s perhaps most ardently expressed in her constant search for originality.
Kawakubo shares several other preoccupations of avant-garde modernism, specifically the tensions between originality and reproduction and between elite and popular culture. The former is explored in the Model/Multiple section through Kawakubo’s spring 2004 collection, entitled Abstract Excellence. Featuring 34 skirts, each slightly different from the next, it was a powerful statement on the unstable connection between the unique artwork and the mass- produced commodity.
The ambiguous relationship between elite and popular culture is examined in the High/Low section through two of Kawakubo’s collections: her spring 2005 collection, entitled Ballerina Motorbike; and her fall 2008 collection, Bad Taste. In the former, Kawakubo combined tutus and leather jackets in an attempt to reconcile the high culture of ballet with the low subculture of bikers. Kawakubo described the collection as “Harley-Davidson loves Margot Fonteyn”. In her Bad Taste collection, Kawakubo used textiles thought to be cheap, kitsch and vulgar, such as nylon and polyester, to upend received notions of good taste, and expose the prejudices and bourgeois posturing inherent within the precincts of elite culture.
Kawakubo’s revolutionary experiments in in-betweenness exemplify themselves in the unfolding of modernity as an ongoing project. This idea is explored in the Then/Now section, which examines Kawakubo’s relationship to time, and features a variety of collections, including her spring 2012 collection, entitled White Drama. Over the course of her career Kawakubo has from time to time looked to fashion history for inspiration.
She has an affinity for the overblown silhouettes of the 19th century. In Kawakubo’s hands, however, these silhouettes are so radically and so profoundly reconfigured that history is effectively eradicated. Her clothes impose an intense immediacy, emphasising the here and now, and subverting the logic of temporal continuity.
For Kawakubo, in-between spaces are not only sites for creation and re-creation, but also for hybridity and hybridisation, concepts examined in the Self/Other and Object/Subject sections.
The former explores hybrid identities through the dualities of East and West, male and female, child and adult, and the latter explores hybrid bodies through the Body Meets Dress – Dress Meets Body collection. This collection proposed a radical rethinking of the body through down-padded garments in stretch nylon. Most of the padding was arranged asymmetrically, creating bulbous swellings that subverted the traditional language of the fashionable body.
References to tumours and hunchbacks abounded in reviews of the collection, which critics dubbed “lumps and bumps” – a moniker that suggests a body that’s diseased, deformed and, ultimately, monstrous. Morphologically, Kawakubo’s collection blurred the boundaries not only between body and dress but, more significantly, between subject and object.
Hybridity is the natural and inevitable outcomes of Kawakubo’s revolutionary experimentation with in-betweenness. These are taken to their logical conclusion in the final section of the exhibition, Clothes/Not Clothes. Focusing on Kawakubo’s last eight collections, the garments presented in this section are her most radical and profound realisations of forms that have never before existed in fashion. Unlike the clothes in her previous collections, which, despite their confrontational novelty, insisted on their viability as apparel, these clothes are divorced from the delimiting requisites of utility and functionality, and exist as purely aesthetic and conceptual expressions. The clothes featured in Clothes/Not Clothes share qualities with sculpture as well as works of conceptual or performance art. Yet Kawakubo has always denied her status as an artist, preferring to call herself a “clothes maker”. Recently, however, while still rejecting the label of artist, Kawakubo has begun to consider fashion as art. This thought has opened up a new in-between space for Kawakubo: fashion/art. While it’s still virgin territory for Kawakubo, at least on the level of self-awareness, she has long occupied and explored another in-between space – fashion/commerce.
From the outset of her career, Kawakubo always viewed the creation of fashion and the business of fashion as a unified project. If, as Andy Warhol proposed, “business art is the step after art”, Kawakubo is its fashion manifestation. In this respect, Kawakubo is an enigma, since her artistic practice remains legible and assertive, even in the context of its commerciality. Ultimately, it’s within this elastic zone between fashion/commerce that Kawakubo’s art of the in-between occupies and most powerfully expresses itself.