The Met Gala is fashion’s most important party and fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art benefiting the Costume Institute and the launch of the new spring exhibit on the first Monday in May each year. The red-carpet portion of the event is a stunner, turning out A-list celebrities, models and musicians; fashion designers; and invited patrons spending upwards of $30,000 for a ticket.
The reason this gala is a must-see is because it provides a bevy of superstars dressed in the theme of the Costume Institute’s newest exhibit and this year’s theme did not disappoint. The new spring 2017 exhibit, called Rei Kawakubo / Comme des Garcons: Art of the In-Between, is a retrospective dedicated to 74-year-old Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo. In 1969, she founded the avant-garde modernism label Comme des Garcons – French for “like some boys”. For more than 40 years, the brand has attracted a global following and her designs have inspired other creators, artists and designers alike.
While in New York this past week, I visited this new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, open May 1 through September 4, 2017. The exhibit features 140 womenswear ensembles dating from the 1980s to her most recent designs. The collection depicts how Rei Kawakubo challenged the conventional notions of beauty and fashion. Her designs conversely feminine and masculine, highly eccentric, and radically chic create the perfect blend of art and fashion. It’s easy to understand why she is known as one of fashions most revered creative visionaries.
Each gallery within the exhibit illustrates the “in-betweenness” or the space between boundaries of Rei Kawakubo’s designs exploring themes including: absence/presence, design/not design, fashion/anti-fashion, model/multiple, the/now, high/low, self/other, object/subject and clothes/not clothes. The design/not design gallery explores Kawakubo’s intuitive approach to garment making. Having received no formal fashion training, Kawakubo’s creative process, experimental techniques and method of construction culminate in original art-as-fashion creations.
Some of my favorite examples from the exhibit were from Kawakubo’s Motorbike Ballerina collection from 2005. These ensembles combined leather jackets and tutus which Kawakubo described as “Harley-Davidson loves Margot Fonteyn” in reference to the American motorcycle manufacturer and the British ballerina. The ensembles are meant to blend the “high” culture of ballet with the “low” subculture of bikers.
Similarly, her collection from Spring/Summer in 1997 “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body” was a series of body-con dresses stuffed with padded lumps that many fashion critics compared to tumors. The silhouette was not popular at the time but the designs were about her vision for the future of female silhouettes.
If you equate fashion to wearability, then Rei Kawakubo’s designs are not fashion. As she says, “When I hear ‘where could you wear that?’ or ‘it’s not very wearable,’ or ‘who would wear that?’ to me it’s just a sign that someone missed the point.” But if you understand that fashion is art, then Rei Kawakubo is the master artist whose originality is meant to defy the norms about what clothing and the body should look like.
Fashion has no limits. Fashion is over the top. Fashion is provocative. Fashion is art. And in this case, fashion is truly in the eye of the beholder.