Rei Kawakubo is a 74-year-old Japanese designer who has been making monochromatic, boiled, overstuffed, unraveling, surreal clothes since she began her label, Comme des Garçons, in 1969. In the ’80s, an era of triangular fluorescent shoulders and moussed bangs, she sent widow’s weeds trailing down the runway. In the ’90s, her clothes grew tumors that resembled bustles, blurring the lines between illness and beauty, what to look at and what to look away from. While her stores stock simple cotton poplin shirts as well as more challenging lumpen jackets and her runway shows present one-off sculptures, the through-line is a thoughtful rejection of should and a strong feeling of perhaps. The name of her label, which translates to “Like the Boys,” is a quiet, defiant shrug.
Over the decades, Kawakubo has returned to certain proportions and themes. A Peter Pan collar. An A-line skirt. A uniform. A cocoon. Her variations on these natural and childlike shapes present a distilled and dreamy version of dress. When I think of her clothes, my mind fishes up an image I saw over 20 years ago in a magazine: Two women stood in a dirt road. One wore a dress that struck me as utterly unflattering, until it didn’t. Then it struck me as beautiful. Innocent. The shape of a doll’s dress. The skirt hit midcalf, flat shoes, legs sturdy. In that moment, I understood the difference between being looked at and looking at yourself. Squarely and generously. The difference between sartorial safety and statement.
Kawakubo’s clothes don’t move from day to evening. They don’t flatter. They don’t slim. They don’t fit perfectly or offer comfort or reassurance. But then, given a beat, they do all of the above. They are not simply clothes: They are ideas. They are feelings. Kawakubo once said that her collections begin as “nonverbal, abstract images inside of me.”
In May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute will present an exhibition of Kawakubo’s work — the first show of a living fashion designer since an Yves Saint Laurent exhibit in 1983. It will bring together nearly 40 years of her baffling and beautiful designs for a wonderfully awkward parade.
On a recent spring day, Erik Madigan Heck photographed six pieces from Kawakubo’s fall 2017 collection — called “Future of Silhouette” — on the Dutch model Saskia de Brauw. The clothes are made from raw material that Kawakubo calls “nonfabrics”: what appeared to be cauterized rubber, rug pads, cotton batting, stuffing and duct tape. The hairstylist and artist Julien d’Ys’s headpieces, which also appeared in the runway show, were made of pot scrubbers from a Paris supermarket.
When I arrived at the studio where the shoot took place, the garments were still sealed in enormous FedEx boxes, crated like Count Dracula for their voyage from Tokyo. They emerged with help from a white-gloved team and were hung on rolling racks.
In a YouTube video I watched of the Paris catwalk show, the pieces looked like foil balls, lint bunnies, craft paper and wool felt. In person, they still did. But close up, they were meticulously and gorgeously constructed; their rough-hewed, blunted exteriors encased in thoughtful and ergonomic scaffolding, buttresses of padded wiring, canvas boning, industrial-strength crinolines.
Kawakubo reluctantly titles her collections after they are designed: “Mud-Dyed” (spring 1985); “Ultrasimple” (spring 1993); “Abstract Excellence” (spring 2004); “Bad Taste” (fall 2008); “2 Dimensions” (fall 2012). She claims she just does this for journalists, preferring observers to come to their own conclusions. I found myself nicknaming the six pieces: Bubble Bath, Calamari, Linty, Jiffy Pop, Vase and Red.
Since her spring 2014 collection, “Not Making Clothing,” Kawakubo has stopped showing conventionally wearable ensembles on the runway, and her collections have become more extreme, unwieldy and conceptual. This later work illustrates the version of clothes that are inside our heads and hearts and bodies: the contradictions, the indecisions and the architecture of the subconscious. Looking at Kawakubo’s Rorschach-like new creations, I’m led through a free association of my own memories and emotions.
Above: A white suit, belted at the waist, appears contained, but a babble of valves and blisters erupts at both ends in herpetic chaos. We are organic and alive, reactive.
At least once every couple of days, I think about Isaac Newton and his equal and opposite reactions. Or the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s suggestion that one’s excesses are proportional to one’s poverties.
In 2008, I saw Fiona Shaw as Winnie in the Samuel Beckett play “Happy Days.” Her Winnie was a cheerful wife who in the first act was buried up to her waist, then in the second act up to her neck, in a mound of dirt. She prattled on to her husband and dug around in her black matelassé purse. “So little to say, so little to do, and the fear so great,” she chirps.
This garment is a land mine of artistic references. There is a photograph of the artist Louise Bourgeois, taken in 1975. She is standing in front of her New York City stoop, wearing a latex cast of her bubbling sculpture “Avenza” from the late ’60s. Its clusters presage Kawakubo’s nippled creation, and the similarity is reassuring and funny, like mother-and-daughter matching outfits. Speaking of these organic forms, Bourgeois said, “If you hold a naked child against your naked breast, it is not the end of softness, it is the beginning of softness, it is life itself.”
Like Beckett and Bourgeois, Kawakubo maps the empty spaces within us. Pulling the self inside out and outside in. Palettes of mud, pillowcases of doorknobs, bags of ice.
Above: A volcanic froth is barely, inadequately contained by a tough rubber carapace. Softest polyester stuffing spills out from black armor. It’s a leather jacket thrown over a bubble bath. This could describe a few people I know.
At a certain point in my late 30s, I sought out quilted things. Quilted jackets, quilted boots, quilted trousers, quilted quilts. I found a long pink coat from the ’80s with duffel buttons, a Bill Blass parka that resembled a sectioned bar of milk chocolate, a Norma Kamali bomber with puffy linebacker shoulders. A huge comforter in muted taupes, stitched in a grid of rainbow curves.
I’d had a baby the year before. My body was different, bigger in places, smaller in others. I was happier with how I looked. I liked looking older. But as my baby grew, my fears grew. I wanted to be buffered, padded. I wanted more room between outside and inside. For her. For us.
Being a mother made me more punk, more angry, righteous, foul-mouthed than I had ever been. It also made me more vulnerable. Visiting a lake one summer, I drove to an auto-body shop and bought a rubber inner tube for $5. I inflated it, got inside and pushed off the dock. This made me near-perfectly happy.
Above: A reptile of lint stirs and rears its head. Inside, the lining is black, there is no zipper, the body is swallowed whole. I think of boa constrictors, of great whites, of barrels going over Niagara Falls. And of ectoplasm.
In spirit photographs from the turn of the 20th century, ectoplasm appears to be made of wool, cotton or paper. In the course of a séance, a medium would produce it from his or her mouth, nose or navel, and it would then, ideally, form the figure of a lost loved one. The spirit photographs are truly weird, and also laughable. Gobs of cheesecloth stream from the face of someone in a trance state. Ragged balls of fabric form potato-like clumps stuck to a neck.
I want to believe in ectoplasm, in the figuration of love from the transmission of spirit. I want there to be a physical spontaneous supernatural sneeze of form. Life after death.
I want a paranormal dress.
Above: An exploded metallic popcorn kernel. I approach and am reflected, distorted in its crinkly, convex foil surfaces. It is all outer space. The model’s fingers barely poke out of the “sleeves.” Inside, the space is lined in smooth, undyed cotton.
This is a persona I bring to cocktail parties. The figure I see in my head, caricatured from the inside out, trying to connect but only reflecting and being reflected. Foiling. It feels like my inability to retain what is said to me in the face of my self-absorption. Waking up in the night cringing at small talk, blurted inanities, perceived slights.
But it’s like a croquembouche of exposure and erasure. As a child, I had a nightmare whenever I had a fever. In it, I was miniature, enveloped in a large mass. It was suffocating and bulbous, this mass. Sometimes I saw it as if it were part of a cartoon panel: It filled the panel and ballooned out of it. I was a speck, and then less than a speck. It was a horrible dream. Sometimes I catch corners of it, when I am near sleep, or when I am overheated. I wonder if it is about being in the womb or the birth canal. Is it prenatal, or is it about love and death, outer space and deep space, sea anemone and siren?
What does Kawakubo dream?
Above: A man sweeps his hands in an hourglass shape to describe a woman’s figure. Inside the piece, there is little space; it is hot when the model steps out of it. There is room for one elbow but not the other.
A designer’s female dummies are called Judy (males are called James). These come in different sizes and proportions, their silhouettes changing with the times — with the trends of idealized bodies. Is the dummy a canvas or a narrator? I wonder if, in this design, Kawakubo is writing auto-fiction, externalizing the experience of herself as a designer with her Judys.
I have two Comme des Garçons dresses that I bought secondhand. One is stiff white cotton, like a nurse’s uniform but wider, with translucent strips down the sides and a Peter Pan collar. The other is ivory cotton voile with a panel of green silk velvet wrapping halfway around the belly and ending in a long, gaping seam. I wore this once to a dinner. I had been concealing my pregnancy because a subchorionic hematoma made miscarriage likely. My friend saw the dress and raised an eyebrow.
My daughter is 4 now. Kawakubo’s designs remind me of my daughter’s peculiarities of dress. The sash has to be tied in the front. The trim on the sleeves can’t be blue. Seams are unbearable, and tags need to be cut out. She likes to wear the same dress every day. She doesn’t look in the mirror to see how she appears, so I think about how her choices must make her feel. Her body is not an image yet, not a projection or a pose — it’s a boundary.
Above: A red couch upturned to fit through a doorway, or to barricade it. It has no arms but is not armless. It stands at attention and slouches into its pockets. Royal Guard and Charlie Chaplin.
Kawakubo’s palettes are minimal and pure. A perfect strawberry red. Bubble-gum pink. Years and years of black, and deep naval, navy blue.
I’ve always had a kind of synesthesia for clothes: Sweaters have to be red. Collars have to be white. Trousers, blue. My school pictures show missing teeth and variations of pigtails, but the collars are always white, the sweaters are always red.
Sometimes I pull a sweater over my head and wait a moment before pushing my arms through the sleeves. I’m looking for a German word for the comfort, relief even, of not putting your arms through the armholes. It’s a form of self-soothing, generating something like the anxiety-reducing squeeze box developed by the animal scientist Temple Grandin, who has written about her autism. It calms my sensitivity.
When I get out of a pool after a swim, I pull a towel over my shoulders, binding my arms to my sides at the elbow in a swaddle. Again there is this moment of blissful containment.
Fashion media often insist on “What We Want Now,” a forecast of desire and perhaps the economic or political climate. But Kawakubo’s clothes erase the reality of my body within clothes. Hers remind me of innocence: not childishness, but the innocence that we have when we are 4 and we don’t know what we look like but know what we want to wear and why.
My daughter wakes yelling from her afternoon nap.
“Shhhh.” I wrap her up and hold her. “It’s only a nightmare.”
“Don’t look at me,” my daughter says, in her dress.
Then she takes off all her clothes.