Rei Kawakubo, the Nearly Silent Oracle of Fashion

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Rei Kawakubo, the Nearly Silent Oracle of Fashion

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On Friday afternoon, in a closed-off gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, teams of workers, some in lab coats and shoe covers, were circling through a makeshift village of stark white huts, fixing mannequins and laying down guide numbers. It was the homestretch before the Costume Institute’s spring show, “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between,” was set to open, and the pieces that Ms. Kawakubo has designed over decades for Comme des Garçons, the fashion label she founded in 1969, waited for their final installation.

It is usually a safe assumption that the Costume Institute’s exhibitions will be filled with garments, but what Ms. Kawakubo creates is not all even recognizably clothing. The pieces may be elaborately bulbous or bulging; tatty or fraying; they may or may not make allowances for their wearer’s arms, or faces, or vanity.

Many designers work with the goal of making women look good. Ms. Kawakubo seems to work with the goal of making women look again.

Ms. Kawakubo appeared in the Met gallery on Friday, in her constant uniform of fringed bob and black leather motorcycle jacket, a day after arriving from Tokyo, where she lives and where Comme des Garçons has its headquarters.

Officially, Ms. Kawakubo does not speak English, communicating her Delphic instructions via her husband, translator and company president, Adrian Joffe, though she understands more than she lets on, and if sufficiently interested or engaged, will lean forward to address an English speaker directly. Mostly, her silence seems useful and convenient, as it discourages two things she abhors: explanation and interpretation. (She will never offer more insight, publicly, into any of her collections than the enigmatic title she gives each one.)

We tend to project serenity upon the silent, but in person, Ms. Kawakubo has the tense energy of a coiled spring, or a set trap. She presides over Comme des Garçons, which has grown to encompass several lines and several other designers, as a benevolent but unchallengeable autocrat, and she can be military in her decisiveness, as Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s curator in charge, learned while working on the exhibition.

Ms. Kawakubo designed the exhibition space, working on a full-size prototype in a warehouse in Tokyo, which is as much her sui generis creation as any of the pieces inside.

The plan was for her to walk through the Met space with me, but upon arriving at the museum, she decided against it. And though Mr. Joffe offered a few words in Japanese when I asked for negotiation, it was clear that her decision would be law. So I spun through the gallery myself, with Mr. Joffe and Mr. Bolton in tow, to take the measure of Ms. Kawakubo’s achievement before we were to speak in a chilly conference room downstairs.

Ms. Kawakubo is a legend in the world of fashion, and the exhibition is a ratification of her unique stature: The Costume Institute has not devoted an entire show to a single, living designer since Yves Saint Laurent in 1983. (And Ms. Kawakubo’s presence at the opening night gala on Monday will be her first appearance at what has long been called “the party of the year.”)

For decades, at least since her Paris debut in 1981, Ms. Kawakubo has forged her own path, a durable antagonist of established norms and received wisdoms. She has gone into and out of favor over the years, but she has been at the forefront of important developments in fashion all along. She arrived early to ideas still potent and percolating within the fashion ecosystem: androgyny, artificiality, the pop-up shop, the luxury group (she has encouraged several former assistants, most notably Junya Watanabe, in the creation of their own separate lines under the aegis of Comme des Garçons).

“What’s inspiring is that for her, the body and the dress body have no limits,” Mr. Bolton said. “That’s what I grew to really appreciate.”

The exhibition, 150 outfits in all, is overpowering. Ms. Kawakubo’s designs are outrageous, radical and beautiful, united in their variety by the wild extremity of her commitment to creating newness at every outing. They can be coquettish, as the furred and feathered masses (from the collection she called “Blue Witch,” spring 2016), or cartoonish, like paper-doll dresses in crayon-colored felt (“2 Dimensions,” fall 2012).

They can be fragile, like the hole-pocked sweaters (“Holes,” fall 1982) that are the oldest pieces gathered here, or tough, like a jagged skirt and top in what looks like leather but is in fact rayon and polyurethane (“Tomorrow’s Black,” spring 2009). In some cases, like a series of looks that pair tutus with biker jackets, they can be all of the above (“Ballerina Motorbike,” spring 2005).

Her clothes can have a sly wit, but they can also flirt with the absurd. Ms. Kawakubo rarely stoops to flatter in any traditional sense. (Critics saw tumors and deformities in her padded “Body Meets Dress — Dress Meets Body” collection for spring 1997; Merce Cunningham saw beauty and requested others for a dance piece.)

Comme des Garçons breeds passionate acolytes, whose mantra is “Comme” as yogis’ is “om,” but skeptics and doubters, too. “These clothes, honestly, are walking pieces of art,” said Katy Perry, who modeled them for the cover of Vogue, and who is one of the co-chairs of the gala. She also said, “Let me know when ‘Zoolander 3’ starts shooting.”

That is how Ms. Kawakubo prefers it. Comme des Garçons is about “proposing a new beauty,” she said. She does not expect everyone to like Comme des Garçons any more than she expects everyone to wear Comme des Garçons.

“That’s the ultimate aim, of course, that’s the best,” Mr. Joffe said, translating for Ms. Kawakubo, and occasionally adding his own opinion as well. “But really, if everyone came and saw the beauty of it and tried it on and felt amazing, that’s the end. If everybody thought it was beautiful, it would be time for Rei to stop. The times we’ve had standing ovations, when absolutely everybody loved the show, were the times she has worried the most.” (More than one collection deemed too readily understandable was withheld from the show.)

Ms. Kawakubo’s clothes seem to simultaneously invite allusions and refuse them. One of the Met’s curators of 20th-century art popped into the exhibition, Mr. Bolton said, and saw an echo of Diane Arbus. Mr. Bolton himself, schooled in the history of dress, saw mutant panniers and frocks.

“But what’s more interesting is, if or if not that’s the reference, it was obliterated,” said Mr. Bolton, who structured the exhibition around pairs of binary themes — absence/presence, fashion/antifashion, high/low, then/now — to show how Ms. Kawakubo’s work could be both and neither, in between and somewhere else entirely. “That was a real challenge for me as a curator, to try to free my mind up from imposing historical narratives,” he said.

“Unlike what most journalists do,” said Mr. Joffe, arching an eyebrow. “They can’t resist a reference, can they?”

Seated downstairs, dwarfed behind a large library table, Ms. Kawakubo emphasized over and over again that the point, and the struggle, was to create something new. Everything else is secondary.

“Doing something new doesn’t necessarily have to be beautiful in the eyes of the people who look at it,” she said. “The result of doing something new is beautiful. The fact of doing something new and people being moved by it is what’s beautiful.”

She starts every season from scratch, presenting a gnomic kernel of inspiration to her patternmakers, and together they flesh out a collection. But once it is done, Ms. Kawakubo moves mercilessly on to the next, and one byproduct of this is that confronting her past work, even in the setting of a museum, is difficult for her — “physically painful,” Mr. Bolton said. He and Ms. Kawakubo came to understand and respect each another, but their collaboration was not without conflict.

I asked Ms. Kawakubo what an exhibition she herself curated would have looked like.

“Probably just the last thing I ever made,” she said.

The last one thing?

She fixed me with a stare. “The only one, yes,” she said in English.

Having done the show makes looking forward more difficult, Mr. Joffe said, as Ms. Kawakubo spoke rapidly to him in a soft, steady stream, barely lifting her voice or shifting her tone, and circled her hands over the tabletop, a chunky watch disappearing up her leather sleeve.

“She’s often talked about the burden of experience, that the more she does, the harder it is to do something she hasn’t done before,” Mr. Joffe said. “But before it was just memory. Now it’s in front of her face, all the things she’s done — she feels it might be harder now to carry on.”

Though it covers 35 years of work, she insisted the exhibition not be conceived as a “retrospective.” For a designer obsessed by the new, not much separates the museum from the mausoleum.

Inevitably, a show like this is a lifetime-achievement award, with the ushering off the stage such awards imply. Ms. Kawakubo, however, at 74, is in no way interested in departing. The company is so entirely fused with her that when I asked whether there was any part of her that was not Comme des Garçons, she said she did not understand the question.

Yet she has considered the future of Comme des Garçons after her. “It can’t be the same,” she said, “but it can be.” The specter of mortality hangs over some of her late work. Beginning with her spring 2014 collection, she declared she would stop making clothing, and in the time since, has turned her attention to more abstract investigations of silhouette, form and function. The collections of recent seasons are not the textbook definition of “wearable” or “salable.”

But Ms. Kawakubo is shrewd. The Comme des Garçons company is set up, with its many lines, diffusions and subsidiaries, so that each part can support another. (The company’s total revenues were over $280 million last year, including its Dover Street Market multibrand stores; the Met will have its own Comme gift shop set up, with exclusive products, like a Nike sneaker with a gold-welded CDG logo and a new version of the iconic holey sweater from 1982, Ms. Kawakubo’s “lace.”)

Her spirit and her values guide the entire Comme des Garçons enterprise, but not all newness is created equal. And it is because the company does a brisk trade in its more digestible, commercial collections, like the heart-studded Play line, its wallets and its fragrances, that Ms. Kawakubo is free to be as esoteric as she wants with her most obsessional creations, the runway collection she shows for the main Comme des Garçons line.

It is a measure of her cult appeal that even Ms. Kawakubo’s not-clothes are desirable to her most ardent fans, and unlike many other labels, which show fantasy on the runway but reality in the shops, Comme des Garçons sells its showpieces too — to its founder’s occasional irritation.

“She gets really upset because she doesn’t want to make them,” Mr. Joffe said. “They’re so difficult.”

But if they are artworks — if Ms. Perry is right — Ms. Kawakubo is adamant that she is not an artist. “There are very few designers working today whose body of work could sustain itself in the context of an art museum,” Mr. Bolton had said earlier, but Ms. Kawakubo considers herself a businesswoman first and foremost. I noted that she had long maintained this, but in recent interviews this certainty seemed to be wavering, and she appeared closer to agreeing that perhaps she was an artist after all.

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Mr. Joffe nodded and smiled, but when he relayed this to Ms. Kawakubo, she grew agitated and began speaking rapidly. “She said it’s my fault for translating badly,” he said. “She’s not an artist.” She gestured to my notebook, that I should write this down. “Please make sure,” she said.

If not an artist, then a punk. “Punk is very important,” she said. “The spirit of punk is being against the establishment. That’s how you can start from zero to make something new — you don’t accept the existing order of things.”

I pointed out that she was currently enshrined in the temple of the establishment, the Met.

“The fact of being here is rebellious,” Mr. Joffe said. “The fact of her being here is punk enough. Of course there’s going to be people saying we sold out, why are we on the cover of Vogue? But it’s not the point.” Ms. Kawakubo nodded.

Perhaps the point is the work, and, if I may suggest it, the legacy. Comme des Garçons’ influence has been felt in fashion for decades, and not always in the obvious ways of imitation and homage. Ms. Kawakubo has raised the stock of exposed seams, asymmetry, synthetic fabrics and the color black, but more than that she has kept her own course with a steadfastness and a single-mindedness that others have absorbed, and begun a conversation whose thread others have taken up.

I wondered, not for the first time, what she thought of her legacy. I reminded her that we had done one interview before, by mail, four years ago. I had asked her then how she wanted to be remembered. She had answered, “I want to be forgotten.” Had that feeling changed?

“It is more and more true,” she said. “I’m not doing another exhibition, that’s for sure.”

There is a bleakness to her uncompromising worldview that can be startling, even uncomfortable. But then a thought occurred to her, and she smiled slightly as she turned and murmured something to Mr. Joffe.

“If you write that as she said it,” he said, “that this is the last exhibition, she wonders whether more people would come to see it.”

The woman is a marketing genius, I said, and Ms. Kawakubo began to laugh.

“You should say at the end, absolutely, I am a businesswoman,” she said.

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