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Blogs/ Now at The Met/ Preparing for Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between

Preparing for Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between

A group of mannequins in various states of dress before installation

Dressed mannequins in The Costume Institute’s Installation Studio. All photos by The Costume Institute

The Costume Institute's Instagram account tells some of the backstory of Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between—on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through September 4, 2017—but here's a firsthand account of what was required to get 140 forms dressed and styled so they can spend four months on view by hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world.

Curator in Charge Andrew Bolton chose most of the objects in the show from Kawakubo's archive in Tokyo. When boxes from the first shipping crates arrived in the Conservation Lab, the excitement was palpable. The opening of each box elicited sighs of joy and gasps of delight as we caught our first look at what many of us had only previously seen in photos.

After the curatorial and conservation staff unpacked and tagged the clothes with tracking numbers, the conservators wrote condition reports and photographed each item to record flaws or problems that might impact safe handling and dressing.

A conservator photographs an object

Assistant Conservator Cassandra Gero performs a condition report in the Conservation Lab.

The objects then traveled down the hall to the installation studio for dressing (which happens to be our favorite part of exhibition preparation). Seeing how the objects look when dressed on a mannequin and figuring out how to perfectly fit the clothes to show the designer's true intentions is a rewarding part of our work. It also helps us give the curator a sense of how each look can either stand on its own or work together with other objects, and is critical to anticipating the final placement of objects in the galleries.

After the successful use of dress forms last year in Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology, Andrew Bolton decided to use them again.

Undressed mannequins in an empty gallery

An army of forms wait to be dressed.

With a different morphology than full-body fiberglass mannequins, these forms are easy to use, thanks to collapsible shoulders and adjustable heights. The linen-covered papier-mâché bodies and neutral personality are an ideal canvas for Kawakubo's avant-garde work. Extravagant and otherworldly head treatments by Julien d'Ys, who has collaborated with Kawakubo on her runway shows for many years, required the use of matching heads for many of the forms.

We began dressing ensembles on March 27, a process that continued for five weeks. Kawakubo's clothes appear difficult to dress due to their unusual silhouettes; however, we discovered that seemingly unwearable clothes had exceptional construction similar to the highest levels of couture. In many cases, dressing only required choosing the right size mannequin, preparing it with an archival barrier fabric, slipping the dress on, and zipping it up.

Oversized shapes were supported with built-in boning and underpinnings, similar to historical Western fashion. The biggest challenge was dressing unusual shapes or single looks composed of multiple garments, such as those from Invisible Clothes (spring/summer 2017). Made of navy and black twill and velveteen, these required two dressers to lift because multiple layers sandwiched together made them incredibly heavy. In fact, some are so heavy that they could break a hanger if one is not careful!

Conservators work to secure a Rei Kawakubo object

Conservation staff unpack an oversized object.

Others had extra sets of sleeves (which happen not to be meant for arms) and oversized fluted trim. Some were so complicated that stores sold them with diagrams, so that customers could understand how to put them on properly. For example, looks from Dark Romance (autumn/winter 2004–5) consisted of one jacket worn traditionally with another jacket worn around the hips like a skirt. Kawakubo intentionally offset hook and eye closures to create the desired asymmetry for which she is known.

Comme des Garçons's atelier staff, known as patterners, arrived a week before the show opened to dress the most complicated ensembles, including those from Body Meets Dress–Dress Meets Body (spring/summer 1997)—also known as the "Lumps and Bumps" collection—and Square (autumn/winter 2003–4). The careful and deliberate arrangement of down-feather pads and layers of elastomeric polyurethane folds in the former, and the tying of bundles of fabric in the latter, required attention from the artisans involved in their original creation. We loved watching the CDG staff in action, and were happy to see their expert hands at work.

Once dressing was complete, we transported the mannequins from our work space on the ground level of the north end of the Museum to the exhibition's gallery on the second floor of the south end of the museum—a distance of three city blocks!

Bright lighting designed for the gallery pushed our boundaries, as fashion exhibitions normally require low light levels to preserve the fabrics on display. For this exhibition, however, Kawakubo wanted garments from her archive shown in bright, flat light without shadows. To achieve this, the exhibition's lighting designer, Thierry Dreyfus, created a scheme that included more than 300 UV-filtered fluorescent tubes with a color temperature of 6000 K. Also, many dress forms stood directly on the floor rather than on pedestals or platforms, thus "democratizing" the space by diminishing the physical distance between viewer and object. Judicious placement of barrier "hurdles," tape, and alarms allowed visitors to view objects at eye level, while reassuring us that the art would be protected.

Installation of objects in the Rei Kawakubo exhibition

Costume Institute staff install Kawakubo's works in the exhibition galleries.

After months of planning and executing the conservation and dressing program for the exhibition, final touches were completed in the galleries just 36 hours ahead of the May 1 press preview and Met Gala—the first time we've ever been ready this far ahead of schedule. Over the course of the exhibition's run, we regularly check the condition of each look. As you can see on our Instagram account, this includes regular dusting and inspection.

When the show closes on September 4, we start deinstalling, undressing, condition checking, and repacking the objects for their journey back to the Comme des Garçons archive in Paris and the Kyoto Costume Institute in Japan. In the meantime, we love seeing these sculptural forms delight visitors from around the world every day.

Gallery view of 'Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between'

Installation view of the Object/Subject gallery in Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between

Related Links

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between, on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through September 4, 2017

The Met Store: Purchase the exhibition catalogue.

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