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Rei Kawakubo
Commes des Garcons
Art of the In-Between

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
May 4 through September 4, 2017



Rei Kawakubo

By Carter B. Horsley

Rei Kawakubo is not a household name, but she is a veritable force of nature in the fashion world and the subject of a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is a jumbo melange of geometric enclosures, a la Gehry, and Pandora's rejects, which is to say, spectacular and mind- and body-boggling. 

To make matters even more confusing, the sumptuous and large catalogue does not correspond easily to the exhibition, which has about 20 sections that are somewhat clarified by a hefty pamphlet that contains the map shown below.

Exhibition Plan
Plan of Exhibition

The pamphlet notes that the designer "has consistently defined and redefined the aesthetics of our time," adding that "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.'"

In his foreword to the catalogue, Thomas R. Campbell, the museum's director, noted that since her Paris debut in 1981, the designer "has blurred the divide between art and fashion and transformed customary notions of beauty, identity, and the body."

The catalogue begins with the following quote by the designer:

"I have never thought about fashion.  In other words, I have almost no interest in it.  What I've only ever been interested in is clothes that one has never seen before, that are completely new, and how and in what way they can be expressed.  Is that called fashion? I don't know the answer."

The designer's fashion creations are quite remarkable, unusual and generally fascinating, and are greatly enhanced by the "headware" in many instances that is not shown in the catalogue.Se

Flute 52

Pleated outfit from the "Clustering Beauty" spring/summer collection 1998

For the "Clustering Beauty" 1998 collection, the designer noted that "there is a certain beauty in the unfinished" adding that "it allows the garment to project itself into the future."

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Outfit on the left is from the designer's 2016-7 "18th Century Punk" autumn/winter collection

In the catallogue the designer has the following 2016 comment on the outfit shown above at the left: "I suppose there was punk spirit in every age.  [When I was designing my autumn/dinter 2016-2017 collection] I was thinking that there had to be women in the 18th century who wanted to live strongly.  So I designed what I imagined this type of woman  would have worn, and called it "18th Century Punk." 

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"18th Century Punk" fashions from the 2016-7 autumn/winter collection.  The catalogue image on the right is more exciting than the manekin group on the left

For the very animated catalogue photograph on the right, the catalogue provides the following 1997 quote from the designer:  "The act that my clothes shock is geniunely never my intention.  I do in fact want to rebel against established ideas.  I want to work in an inspiring way and stimulate others."

Abstract Excellence 44

Detail from the designer's "Abstract Excellence" spring/summer 2004 collection

In the catalogue, the designer said of the "Abstract Excellence" collection that its focus was "designing from shapeless, abstract, intangible forms, not taking into account the body," adding that "the best way to express the collection is the skirt."

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Outfits from the designer's "Blood and Roses" spring/summer 2015 collection

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Outfits from the designer's "Blood and Roses" spring/summer 2015 collection

The designer's quotation for the outfit at the left is "[Blood is] the state of being alive."

The designer's 2010 quotation for the outfit on the right is: "One cannot fight the battle without freedom.  I think the best way to find that battle, which equals the unyielding spirit, is in the realm of creation.  That's exactly why freedom and the spirit of defiance is the source...of my energy.

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Several designs from the designer's "Not Making Clothing" spring/summer 2014 collection

In 2007, the designer is quoted in the catalogue as stating that "Being curious is something that adults often forget how to be."

Her caption of the pink confection that seems to tuck a large floral animal under a skirt, far right, is "in a sense, they are not clothes, they are children's clothes, childish clothes."  The blue and red concoction on the right is from the designer's "2 Dimensions" autumn/winter 2012 collection and the designer's comment on it is "The absence of concept is the concept itself."

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Several dresses from the designer's "Cubisme" show for spring/summer 2007

In 2006, the designer is quoted as stating that "To me [the circle] is the purest form of design in existence" and "it's very simple, and it's beautiful." 

The catalogue entry for this section includes the following commentary by Adrian Joffe, CEO of the designer's company:

"She never gave herself any ethnic boundaries, nor let them interfere with her work.  From the beginning, she dispensed with any preconceived notions about western and eastern social mores and cultures, as all these things were irrelevant to her world....She deliberately casts away all questions of upbringing, nationality,  sociology and the like.  So many times it comes from just a feeling, an emotion, not a concrete reference."

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Outfits from the designer's "Ceremony of Separation" autumn/winter 2015-6 collection

The designer's 2000 comment in the catalogue under a photograph of the outfit on the left: "I amnot making any statements.  It is for others to interpret what I create.  I only want to continue creating work that is intrinsically strong.  It is not intended to spur change in society or the world.  I have no agenda.  Creativity is simply a central aspect of my life."

The designer's 2015 comment in the catalogue under a photograph of the outfit on the right: "[The show] had nothing to with politics or wars.  It's about something deeper, some horror solidly anchored in me."

Click here to order the 248-page catalogue from for $35.65, 29 percent off its $50 list price.

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