In the 1980s in the New York art world and other cultural spheres, black was the new black, and the designer most responsible for this state of affairs was Rei Kawakubo. Born in Japan in 1942, Ms. Kawakubo studied fine arts and aesthetics in college and segued into clothing design with no more formal training than having worked briefly as a freelance stylist. She later said she “wanted to do more,” and she did.
In 1969, Ms. Kawakubo introduced her first women’s wear designs under the Comme des Garçons label — which translates as Like Some Boys — in Tokyo, with ready-to-wear collections presented there from 1975 to 1999. She made her Paris runway debut in 1981, and her clothes soon were available in New York, first in a small boutique at Henri Bendel, then in 1983 at her own big, minimalist concrete-on-concrete store, on Wooster Street near Prince, when the SoHo gallery scene was at its height.
The black garb became a running art-world joke, but for many of us the clothes were a revelation, exhilarating and empowering in their intelligence, unstructured ease and worldliness. Combining aspects of men’s wear, traditional Japanese garments and the early modern designs of Madeleine Vionnet and Paul Poiret with punkish holes (and the occasional third sleeve), they were in sync with a time of expanding feminism, appropriation aesthetics and increasingly visible art by women.
But the 1980s were only the beginning. Since then, few designers have pushed clothes to such social, sculptural and even architectural extremes, and now her spirit of defiance is on bold display in “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between,” a magnificent, challenging show that is the latest offering from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s justifiably famed Costume Institute. Like me, you may miss the ’80s era in this show, but there is too much else going on to feel deprived. The stripped-down presentation of some 120 often strange, extravagant (and sometimes black) garments rifles through the history of clothes and art, combines fabrics in unimagined ways and confounds expectation. Consider it one of several surveys needed to fully account for Ms. Kawakubo’s multifaceted achievement.
Every year, the Costume Institute makes a different case for art in fashion and for fashion as art, usually in an immersive context and with impressive results. The Kawakubo show takes this argument into radical terrain. It doesn’t focus on art within fashion as did the recent show featuring Charles James’s sinuously sculptural ball gowns, which were functioning garments. Rather, its center is a staggering panoply of mostly quasi-wearable three-dimensional forms that are a kind of hybrid, an art of “the in-between,” driven by Ms. Kawakubo’s insatiable quest for originality, or as she prefers to call it, “newness.” The result is an inspirational show that places Ms. Kawakubo at the forefront of several modernisms — in art and design, Europe and Asia — upending notions of style and gender, conflating past and present and constantly pressing forward with fresh ideas about form, process and meaning.
In the institute’s retracing of nearly 40 years of clothes — half of which are from the last three years — she turns decisively from fashion and from women’s bodies toward art and abstraction — function be damned. This direction is signaled from the beginning in a large Humpty-Dumpty sphere of crumpled brown paper resembling one of Claes Oldenburg’s early sculptures. It is a dress from the Future of Silhouette Collection of 2017-18.
But actually the first sign of this turn came much earlier, as proved by the notorious Body Meets Dress — Dress Meets Body Collection of 1997. Colloquially known as “lumps and bumps,” it includes dresses, skirts and jackets in bright, stretch gingham checks that came with enormous goose-down-filled protuberances suggestive of tumors, shoulder pads, pregnant bellies or outside fanny packs — and in all the wrong places. Though they affected movement, their balance of body, wearability and abstraction is extraordinary, especially if you watch a video of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company using them as costumes in a performance of the 1997 dance “Scenario.” The installation corroborates the importance of this collection by prominently displaying 10 examples.
This is the Costume Institute’s first exhibition devoted to a living artist since its 1983 Yves Saint Laurent show. It was organized by Andrew Bolton, the institute’s curator in charge, working with the designer and her team. This was not easy, as revealed in the candid interview between Mr. Bolton and his quarry in the outstanding catalog. Whether you call Ms. Kawakubo an artist or a designer, she is an impresario of the first rank with a clear vision, the will to back it up and a sharp business sense balanced by an instinct for collaboration. Comme de Garçons now encompasses many design and product lines, some by others whose names share the label. “I realize clothes have to be worn and sold to a certain number of people,” she said in 1984. “That’s the difference between being a painter or sculptor and a clothing designer.”
Ms. Kawakubo says she does not trust words, but the catalog nearly overflows with quotes from many past interviews, providing an invaluable window onto the doubts, self-criticism, assurance and incessant thinking of the creative and by definition not always consistent mind. She claims not to pay much attention to sartorial conventions or history. Maybe, but somehow she has assimilated them so thoroughly they are second nature, and her work is dense with references that fuel its intense conceptual and emotional thrust.
Take, for example, the satin top and skirt from the Blood and Roses Collection of 2015: Its ruffles and pleats don’t adorn hems or sleeves or necklines; they wind into dense concentric circles resembling eccentric fire hoses. She returns repeatedly to 18th- and 19th-century European designs and fabrics, as evidenced by her wonderful use of tartans and repeated evocations of bustles, corsets and widow’s weeds, sometimes carried to startling extremes. One small mountain of black satin, velvet and lace from the 2015-16 Ceremony of Separation Collection is festooned with black child-size dresses and bonnets. It seems at first mawkish, then possibly part of an unfamiliar 19th-century grieving ritual or, for that matter, a sculpture by Kiki Smith. Other styles or artists or artifacts Ms. Kawakubo’s work can summon include Jean Arp, Mariano Fortuny, Russian Constructivism, the great performance artist Leigh Bowery, Dada and a fluted Greek column.
The swings in sensibility can almost be disorienting. In the first half of the show, Ms. Kawakubo goes from minimalist variations on raw-seamed canvas skirts in the Abstract Excellence Collection (2004), to the tutus and leather jackets of the 2005 Ballerina Motorbike Collection, to a flowered dress with a stuffed flowered teddy bear on its front, from the Not Making Clothing Collection of 2014.
Blessedly, the show’s Kawakubo-style immersion maintains clarity. The garments nestle in and around an intriguing, blazingly white “village” of boxy or cylindrical structures free of added extras, excepting the Merce Cunningham video. (A handout brochure provides the only information about the clothes.) The main counterpoint is provided by the wigs, headgear and, upon occasion, odd sculptures atop the mannequins. All have been made by the inimitable Julien d’Ys from things like snarls of plastic thread, vintage musical scores or steel wool, as well as fake hair in bright red or yellow or peroxide blond.
The setting has a playful instability appropriate to the clothing’s unceasing change and piled-on references. Some of the architectural forms evoke proscenium stages; others have small cylindrical rooms with funnel tops. There’s a modernist glass house and a vaulted roof reminiscent of Louis Kahn’s great Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Built at actual size by the Comme des Garçons team in Tokyo and adjusted to Mr. Bolton’s needs, this setting demands focus: Look, look, look at these clothes, their fabrics, colors, shapes, shocks, quotations, details, exaggerations and parodies.
This show is propelled by Ms. Kawakubo’s protean drive, her willingness to experiment and to ignore norms — that constant search for “newness.” Among the increasingly spectacular fare in the final chambers and corridors are dresses made from tied hobo satchels in white muslin or black lace; combinations of blue fake astrakhan and peacock feathers; and several mergings of samurai armor and 18th-century floral textiles, like the ensemble Rihanna wore to the Costume Institute’s spring gala on Monday.
As the clothes turn into autonomous objects, you may worry that these women can’t move their arms. They’ve been reduced to mannequins, if walking ones.
But maybe we should forget about clothing. Is it possible to see Ms. Kawakubo’s work in the context of artists involved with fabrics, utility and the body, for example Louise Bourgeois’s stuffed-fabric figures; Yayoi Kusama’s environments; Lynda Benglis’s poured latex foam; Jessi Reaves’s cobblings of furniture into usable sculpture as art? I’m not so sure. With the art of the in-between, these questions reman tantalizingly open. What is beyond doubt, however, is that the combination of the astonishing garments, installation design and catalog — along with the ambition coursing through them — forms a juggernaut that anyone interested in the culture of our time should experience. Artists most of all.