Since founding Comme des Garçons ("like some boys") in 1969, the Tokyo-based designer Rei Kawakubo (born 1942) has consistently defined and redefined the aesthetics of our time. Season after season, collection after collection, she upends conventional notions of beauty and disrupts accepted characteristics of the fashionable body. Her fashions not only stand apart from the genealogy of clothing but also resist definition and confound interpretation. They can be read as Zen koans or riddles devised to baffle, bemuse, and bewilder. At the heart of her work are the koan mu (emptiness) and the related notion of ma (space), which coexist in the concept of the "in-between." This reveals itself as an aesthetic sensibility that establishes an unsettling zone of visual ambiguity and elusiveness.
Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between examines nine expressions of "in-betweenness" in Kawakubo's collections: Absence/Presence; Design/Not Design; Fashion/ Antifashion; Model/Multiple; High/Low; Then/Now; Self/ Other; Object/Subject; and Clothes/Not Clothes. It reveals how her designs occupy the spaces between these dualities—which have come to be seen as natural rather than social or cultural—and how they resolve and dissolve binary logic. Defying easy classification themselves, her clothes expose the artificiality, arbitrariness, and "emptiness" of conventional dichotomies. Kawakubo's art of the "in-between" generates meaningful mediations and connections as well as revolutionary innovations and transformations, offering endless possibilities for creation and re-creation.
The concept of "in-betweenness" is reflected in the design of this exhibition—a collaboration between Kawakubo and The Met. Mu (emptiness) is suggested through the architectural leitmotif of the circle, which in Zen Buddhism symbolizes the void, and ma (space) is evoked through the interplay of structural forms. Ma expresses void as well as volume, a thing with and without shape—not defined by concrete boundaries. Amplified by the stark whiteness of the gallery surfaces, the visual effect is one of both absence and presence.
Kawakubo regards her fashions and their environments as a Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total work of art." This synthesis is reflected in the exhibition, designed as a complete expression of the Comme des Garçons "universe." It is intended to be a holistic, immersive experience, facilitating a personal engagement with the fashions on display.
Design/Not Design explores Kawakubo's intuitive approach to garment making. Having received no formal fashion training, Kawakubo pursues spontaneous and experimental techniques and methods of construction. Usually, her creative process begins with a single word or an abstract image conveyed to her patternmakers. She once presented a crumpled piece of paper to her team and requested a pattern that expressed similar qualities—as seen in a dress of brown paper shaped and twisted around the body from her collection The Future of Silhouette.
The ensembles in this section highlight strategies that recur in Kawakubo's collections—fusion, imbalance, the unfinished, elimination, and design without design. These modes of expression, all rooted in a Zen Buddhist aesthetic principle known as wabi-sabi, converge in an outfit of ripped and patchworked white cotton jersey from her collection Patchworks and X; a dress with 15 layers of rawedged, unbleached cotton from Clustering Beauty; ensembles of flattened, layered, and stitched cotton canvas toiles from Crush; and garments featuring exposed and reconfigured pattern pieces from Adult Punk, Fusion, and Adult Delinquent.
In 1979 Kawakubo became "dissatisfied" with her collections, which, to that point, had been infused with Japanese folkloric influences. As she explained: "I felt I should be doing something more directional, more powerful . . . I decided to start from zero, from nothing, to do things that had not been done before, things with a strong image." This rupture, the first of two in her career, established Kawakubo as the archetypal modernist designer, whose pursuit of originality (or what she calls "newness") became the defining characteristic of every subsequent collection.
Fashion/Antifashion focuses on Kawakubo's early 1980s collections, which elicited extreme reactions from critics when they were shown in Paris, owing to their repudiation of many prevailing canons of Western fashion. In terms of Kawakubo's aesthetic of "in-betweenness," these works are significant for introducing the concepts of mu (emptiness), expressed through the monochromatic—principally black—color palette, and ma (space), embodied in the outsize, shapeless, loose-fitting garments that create excess space between skin and fabric, body and clothing.
Beyond her pursuit of "newness," Kawakubo exhibits several other preoccupations of avant-garde modernism. Perhaps the most notable is the tension between originality and reproduction, which is explored in Model/Multiple through the collection Abstract Excellence. Commenting on it at the time, Kawakubo explained: "[My focus was] designing from shapeless, abstract, intangible forms, not taking into account the body. The best item to express the collection is the skirt."
In total, the collection features 34 skirts, several of which are displayed here. Through the conceits of seriality and repetition, the designer created the illusion of uniformity and standardization. However, subtle changes in color, fabric, and shape (the last achieved through slight shifts in the placement and direction of seams) mark each skirt as individual and distinctive. A meditation on variations of a single form, the collection represents a powerful statement on the unstable connection between unique artwork and mass-produced commodity.
High/Low examines the ambiguous relationship between elite and popular culture—another modernist preoccupation—through Kawakubo's collection Motorbike Ballerina. The ensembles combine tutus and leather jackets in an attempt to reconcile the "high" culture of ballet with the "low" subculture of bikers or "greasers." Kawakubo described the collection as "Harley-Davidson loves Margot Fonteyn," a reference to the American motorcycle manufacturer and the British prima ballerina.
The aesthetic language of street style has long fascinated Kawakubo. She often deploys it in parodic explorations of taste, as in the collection Bad Taste, which incorporates punk and fetish styles. Using textiles thought to be cheap, kitschy, and vulgar, such as nylon and polyester, the designer upends received notions of good taste and exposes inherent prejudices and bourgeois posturings in the precincts of elite culture.
Kawakubo's experiments with "in-betweenness" relate to the unfolding of modernism as an ongoing project. This idea is explored in Then/Now, which focuses on the designer's relationship to time through the collections Modern Sweetness, Sweeter Than Sweet, Body Meets Dress—Dress Meets Body, Inside Decoration, and White Drama. Over the course of her career, Kawakubo has plumbed fashion history for inspiration. She has an affinity for the overblown silhouettes of the 19th century, achieved through bustles and crinolines. In her hands, however, the silhouettes are so radically and profoundly reconfigured as to eradicate history.
Kawakubo's fashions impose an intense immediacy, stridently emphasizing the here and now. She brings into doubt both the logic of temporal continuity and the presumptive rhythm of life—birth, marriage, death—as seen in the Broken Bride, White Drama, and Ceremony of Separation collections. These fashions advocate a level of personal freedom that can only be attained in the intervals between a society's life-stage traditions, thus subverting the ideologies encoded in the birth-marriage-death continuum.
Self/Other highlights Kawakubo's exploration of hybrid identities that blur the boundaries of conventional definitions of culture, gender, and age. The works featured in the East/West and Male/Female subsections combine Eastern and Western and masculine and feminine clothing traditions. Historically, these are loosely defined by wrapping and draping in relation to Eastern and feminine garments and by tailoring with respect to Western and masculine garments.
The fashions in Male/Female also fuse types of clothing typically associated with men and women—such as trousers and skirts—into one outfit. The creation of hybrid identities through fusion is further surveyed in Child/Adult, which focuses on ensembles that not only challenge the rules of age-appropriate dressing but also engage the concept of kawaii (cuteness)—a key aspect of Japanese popular culture defined by playfulness and performativity. The notion of kawaii is taken to its extreme in a pink floral dress featuring an oversize stuffed teddy bear camouflaged within its frills and folds.
Object/Subject considers hybrid bodies. Its focus is Kawakubo's collection Body Meets Dress—Dress Meets Body, which proposes a radical rethinking of the human form through down-padded garments of stretch nylon and polyurethane in a range of colors and patterns—including girlish bubblegum pink and powder blue gingham. Most of the paddings are arranged asymmetrically, creating bulbous swellings that present an illusion of dysmorphia and subvert the traditional language of the fashionable body (small waist, slim hips, pert bottom, flat stomach, and small, high breasts).
References to tumors and hunchbacks abound in reviews of the collection, which critics christened "lumps and bumps"—a moniker that suggests a body diseased, deformed, or monstrous. Morphologically, the collection blurs the boundaries between dress and body, object and subject. This effect is heightened in movement, a fact exploited by choreographer Merce Cunningham in the 40-minute dance Scenario, a collaboration with Kawakubo that premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on October 14, 1997. Kawakubo explained, "When the natural movements of dance are repelled and refuted, you get new forms."
Kawakubo's revolutionary experiments with "in-betweenness" are taken to their logical conclusion in Clothes/Not Clothes. Its eight subsections present examples from the designer's most recent collections, all produced following the second rupture in her career. In 2014 Kawakubo became frustrated with her design process, which she felt hindered her pursuit of "newness." Adopting a radical method of creation with the intention of "not making clothes," she aspired to translate her ideas directly into forms, or "objects for the body."
The "objects for the body" featured in Clothes/Not Clothes represent Kawakubo's most profound and transgressive realizations of "forms that have never before existed in fashion." Examples of earlier clothes that presage themes and motifs explored in the designer's recent collections are presented alongside their "not clothes" counterparts. While the former insist on their viability as apparel, the latter exist as purely aesthetic and abstract expressions. They share formal qualities with sculpture as well as conceptual and performance artworks, but Kawakubo has always preferred the epithet "worker" to "artist." Even so, she recently has begun to consider fashion as art, opening up yet another in-between space—Fashion/Art.
Form/Function features Not Making Clothing, the first collection Kawakubo produced in response to her aspiration to design "objects for the body." The title is a statement of intent, a declaration of her determination to favor pure form. In terms of process, she sought to abandon her previous design experience and create from the viewpoint of a naive child or untrained artist. She explained, "I wished there was a new psychedelic drug that allowed me to see the world differently, through the eyes of an outsider."
These designs break with traditional fashions in their relationship to the human figure. Abstract shapes and three-dimensional structures stand apart from the body, and eccentric silhouettes and exaggerated proportions—reminiscent of doll clothing—threaten to obscure and overwhelm the figure. While there is a definite fissure between Not Making Clothing and her preceding work, there are notable aesthetic, technical, and thematic similarities, as is apparent from the ensemble from her 2009 collection Tomorrow's Black. In addition to the color black, it has a similar body-obscuring silhouette, achieved through the piecing together of irregular and outsize pattern pieces.
Abstraction/Representation features Invisible Clothes, which Kawakubo considers "the clearest and most extreme version of Comme des Garçons." The abstract, sculptural qualities of the ensembles are emblematic of her indifference to the "representational" characteristics of clothing. Several of the garments comprise multiple versions merged together, an idea also evident in the 2011 collection No Theme (Multiple Personalities, Psychological Fear). Unlike the earlier pieces, however, the more recent ones disrupt and dissolve any hierarchy between body and dress.
The garments included in Invisible Clothes challenge the dominance of the body by obscuring, displacing, and in some instances eliminating figural elements such as the sleeve, bodice, neckline, and waistline. As the figure recedes into volume and planarity or dematerializes through fragmentation, body and dress become interdependent and indistinguishable. Of these designs, Kawakubo noted: "If you say clothes are to be worn, then perhaps they are not really clothes. . . . They are not art, but they don’t have to be clothes, either."
Kawakubo's notions of beauty have rarely conformed to accepted standards. The expressions of mu, ma, and wabi-sabi in her early 1980s collections, unfamiliar to most Western audiences, were interpreted by some observers as grotesque or offensive. An iconic black sweater pierced with holes from 1982 exemplifies what many critics called Kawakubo's "ugly aesthetic." She dubbed it her "lace" sweater, clarifying: "To me they're not tears. Those are openings that give the fabric another dimension. The cutout might be considered another form of lace."
A similar "ugly aesthetic" is evident in the more recent collection MONSTER, whose title refers to "the craziness of humanity, the fear we all have, the feeling of going beyond common sense, the absence of ordinariness, expressed by something extremely big, by something that could be ugly or beautiful." The garments confine and constrict the figure in twisted and knotted tubes of dark knitted wool. Like the "lace" sweater, these uncanny and unsettling forms both contest and expand the accepted limits of beauty.
For Kawakubo, creation is linked to defiance and a frustration with the status quo: "Many times a theme for a collection arises from a feeling of anger or indignation at conditions in society. The origin of an idea is found in not being satisfied with what exists already." At the same time, she has said, "I have no desire to make my own designs into messages addressing the issues of our world." When it comes to the zeitgeist, she tends to engage with it symbolically and conceptually.
A prime example is the role of flowers—a recurring motif for the designer—which is explored in War/Peace through two collections: Flowering Clothes and its later "not clothes" counterpart, Blood and Roses. While the former focuses on flowers as positive symbols of energy, strength, and happiness, the latter mines their darker, more somber, and disturbing connotations. It addresses the historical significance of roses as "connected with blood and wars . . . political conflict, religious strife, and power struggles." Roses and blood appear in both literal and abstract form, and both are represented through the color palette—an unvarying, uncompromising poppy red.
While Kawakubo has been described as an "intellectual" designer, she insists that her work deals with her "feelings, instincts, doubts, and fears." Her collections contain deeply personal and self-reflective narratives imbued with intense emotions and profound spirituality. These expressive dimensions are explored in Life/Loss, which elaborates on the themes of transition and temporality examined in Then/Now, extending them through the concepts of memory and memorialization.
It focuses on the collection Ceremony of Separation, whose title refers to the ways in which "the beauty and power of ceremony can alleviate the pain of separating, for the one departing as well as for the one saying goodbye." Tinged with sadness and despair, the garments—with their majestic and monumental silhouettes—can be interpreted as ponderous expressions of mourning dress. Rendered in delicate black, white, and gold lace, they represent a poignant meditation on the fragility of life and the finality of death. Several ensembles are composed of wrapped bundles, reminiscent of the earlier collection Square, in which every garment is constructed from a single piece of square fabric. Like their "not clothes" descendants, these precursors represent meditations on ritualistic practice, in this case the tradition of pilgrimage.
Fact/Fiction addresses Kawakubo's storytelling tendencies through selections from three thematically linked collections—Blue Witch and its predecessors Lilith (named for a murderous demoness from Babylonian mythology) and Dark Romance, Witch. While the designer regards witches as strong, powerful, and often misunderstood, she resists interpretations of the garments as feminist statements. "I am not a feminist," she has said. Nor is she a fantasist: "I don't have much in the way of daydreams or fanciful imagination. I'm actually a realist."
The ensembles, however, are unmistakably empowering and otherworldly in their forms and silhouettes. Early pieces take the rigidity and severity of men's formal wear and dismantle them through the surrealist strategy of unexpected displacements. In Lilith a jacket is relocated to the lower half of the body, while in Dark Romance garments are twisted out of alignment and skirts reveal vestigial sleeves. Blue Witch heightens this surrealism through distortions of scale that create a storybook-like sense of disorientation and destabilization.
When Kawakubo established Comme des Garçons in 1973, her sole purpose was personal autonomy. "Independence has always been of greatest importance to me," she has stated. Like the search for "newness," the pursuit of freedom—freedom from convention and freedom of expression—is a defining attribute of her fashions. This quest has fueled her ongoing interest in street style, particularly punk: "I've always liked the [punk] spirit in the sense that it's against the run of the mill, the normal way of doing things. . . . Punk is against flattery."
Kawakubo also has a deep respect for history, however, and the dynamic between tradition and transgression is examined in Order/Chaos through her collection 18th-Century Punk. The clothes conflate the pneumatic structures and hyperbolic silhouettes of the 1700s with the leitmotifs of 1970s punk, including fetishistic hardware, harnesses, fastenings, and materials such as plastic in Pepto-Bismol pink. Their anachronistic employment of multicolored floral jacquards (not available until the 1800s), often pieced and collaged together, recalls an earlier punk-inspired collection, Adult Delinquent. At the time of its making, Kawakubo declared, "I am an adult delinquent to the end."
The exhibition concludes with two "objects for the body" from Kawakubo's most recent collection, The Future of Silhouette, made from what the designer describes as "non-fabrics," or non-woven, non-fashion materials. Here, white synthetic wadding recalls her earlier crinoline-like ensembles featured in Then/Now. While the shapes of those garments have their origins in the mid-19th century, however, the forms of these pieces — distorted, malformed hourglasses—have no historical or, for that matter, social or cultural referents. This links them to the eccentric, engorged creations from Body Meets Dress—Dress Meets Body, except that these works notably lack openings for the arms.
Despite the fact that these pieces bind the body physically, they unbind and liberate it culturally. Fashion, by its very nature, is defined by a society's idealized representation of the female form. These two "objects for the body," however, not only dismiss but also contest and subvert accepted canons. Early in her career, Kawakubo explained, "I work around the figure, but I am never limited by what the figure has to be." In her hands, the dressed body is freed from bounded notions of place, period, and purpose, fully occupying and expressing an "art of the in-between."
Rei Kawakubo (Japanese, born 1942) for Comme des Garçons (Japanese, founded 1969). Body Meets Dress–Dress Meets Body, spring/summer 1997; Courtesy of Comme des Garçons. Photograph by © Paolo Roversi