Published in print 8/11/17 - NR Mag Volume 6
Rei Kawakubo, the visionary and creative genius behind cult label, Comme des Garçons, is the only living designer other than Yves Saint Laurent to be honored in a monograph show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. The exhibition opened to the public on May 4th, three days after the 71st Met Gala was held. I have gone back to the MET five times to see Kawakubo’s work, each time hoping that I’d leave with but a small understanding, an inkling of a revelation, something that would urge me to take out a notebook and pen. But if I’m being honest, I’d tell you that any understanding was either feigned or forced. Many of those who entered Comme des Garçons’s world of couture on the museum’s second floor find themselves at a loss, unable to navigate a space where direction meant going where the wind took you and ending up wherever emotion left you.
You don’t find the exhibit easily. Having to seek it out, you travel through different artistic time periods and geographies each with a story to tell. The artifacts occupying these wings sometimes speak to you but most times you travel through an environment that feels sterile. An almost florescent glow on the second floor of the famed museum lights the way and you are here. In the absence of informational plaques on the walls deciphering Kawakubo’s cryptic, visual language, numbers and short phrases instead line the floor in front of mannequins bearing the weight of Kawakubo’s world.
To understand the clothes is to understand Kawakubo herself. There is no separation between the two and the exhibit’s title expresses this dichotomy through irony. “The Art of the In-Between” is more so Kawakubo’s own emotional mediation than a retrospective of Comme Des Garçons, the label. This is Kawakubo assuming her place in the world as a cultural pillar whilst simultaneously vowing to never do something like this again. The dualities she explores throughout the exhibit reveal themselves as her own personal struggles in understanding the human condition, specifically our independence from and dependence on one another.
For all the countless times that I have sat down to write this piece, I have been met with frustration. The pen only began to move when I realized I wasn’t here to write a review or make sense of the exhibit for you. The fact that I am still at a loss for words only confirms that the exhibition was a success. Talking to people about the exhibit has yielded mixed results but whatever the takeaway, everyone’s opinion was dressed in their own individualism. That being said, all I can give you is my own interpretation and in turn my own story. Kawakubo forces us to use our experiences to understand her own as her design process roots itself in emotion.
People say that New York is home to those who don’t have one. It’s a place that turns away no one and remains unfazed by difference, all find themselves at the crossroads of self and other. As someone who recently came back to New York after choosing to leave it, I found myself having to get reacquainted with not only the names of avenues and streets but also with myself. Sitting with the quiet moments, like waiting for the train on an empty platform, walking home under the glow of indigo hour alone in a city home to 8 million people, I am content, even happy. But the feeling that something is lacking often taps me on the shoulder as I wait for a break in traffic. No new text messages, spotty weekend plans, we eat, bathe, run and fall asleep alone as the sounds of the city fill the void around us with feelings uncharted. City dwellers are silently practicing the art of the in between, experimenting with wholeness in the form of we, and entirety, in the form of I. Asking myself why it was that I wanted to return I arrived at a conclusion: freedom.
Three years ago, Kawakubo said that, “nothing new can come out of a situation without suffering.” I recently purchased a book called, “The Lonely City” by Olivia Laing and thought this might be a way to come to terms with my state of flux, changes abounding and deafening solitude that came with moving here. I remember stopping in front of the billowing yet bound dress of white cotton muslin from Comme des Garçons’ Autumn/winter 2015-16 collection. Titled “Ceremony of Separation”, what I saw was a mannequin dressed in my own emotions.
Interpreted as mourning attire, the garments are “tinged with sadness and despair” juxtaposed by “majestic and monumental silhouettes”. Kawakubo is making a commentary on loss itself. An emotion that consumes as much as it is an agent for change, her quest for originality and newness have ruptured her career multiple times, yielding to moments of inadequacy and necessitated transitions. But it’s not just loss, it’s change that we fear as we often equate one with the other. Unable to see the result of change without hindsight, we are burdened with the task of trusting ourselves. These bulbous, pillow like structures are both a manifestation of that weight and an expression of it. During these revolutionary periods in her career it becomes clear that Comme des Garçons foremost is an extension of Kawakubo, the brand grows and feels as she does.
I got hired for my first “real job” a week before I moved to New York. I was riding shotgun in my father’s white Toyota Tacoma, the Doobie Brothers were probably playing from the stereo and I refreshed my email inbox to find notice that I would be going back to a job. I don’t know who was more relieved, me or my dad. But everything was about to change wasn’t it?
In New York we wear our experiences on our sleeves not intentionally but inevitably. Kawakubo invites this vulnerability. It is informative to others of our capabilities and personalities, and to ourselves of the space between who we are, who others thought we were and who we wanted to be. I look the dream in the eye everyday. I am unable to run away from it, unable to go home unless I hope to walk 5,000 miles on land and water. The biggest revolutions and important battles take place within.
I was jaded to Hawaii’s beauty until I left it but I still find awe in New York. It’s a feeling that I don’t ever want to go away because it fills me up when I’m alone. I don’t have to fight the magic here just yet. My roommates sometimes complain about the Subway, they know they’re not happy here, it has become like a paper bag to them. They have crumpled it but have to look with new eyes to see that the wrinkles define their path and constitute character.
Making sense of emotional abstractions, in Design/Not Design Kawakubo’s brilliance takes the form of intuition. Perhaps the purest form of freedom, and the most organic, here Kawakubo teaches city dwellers to make magic out of the quotidian using the Zen Buddhist concept of wabi-sabi to do so. She asks us to adopt a worldview that denotes beauty to be imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.
The dress of brown paper bag from her latest AW17-18 collection was born out of banality turned inspiration. After crumpling a sheet of paper, Kawakubo presented it to her team “requesting a pattern that expressed similar qualities.” Asking them to analyze what we otherwise take for granted, Kawakubo’s creative process leaves room for interpretation, ambiguity and emotional input. Through its folds and creases, the paper bag is given new life although its composition didn’t change. We find similar creases when we look down at our palms.
They were selling plastic coated paper-bag, Comme des Garçons totes in the exhibit’s gift shop for $80. I’ve seen more than a handful of folks walking around with these to-be collector’s items around Manhattan.What’s funny is that the more you use them, the more wrinkled they get. The silver colored text that bears Kawakubo’s label (which is why the bag was such an enticing buy, alongside the fact that there’s no mention of the MET exhibit on it either) slowly becomes illegible based on the shape of what you’re carrying in your bag. The bag truly becomes your own, bearing the crumpled lines of your experience.
But how long does the dream last? The scariest part of being in New York for me is not knowing how long I’ll be here for. Since I have been here, I have found myself. As cheesy as that sounds, no other place has allowed or forced me to hold my own hand, not out of fear but because we, all parts of me, are victorious. A quote that has always stuck with me comes from the Tumblr archives, “there’s nothing scarier than getting everything that you want, for it is then that you have everything to lose.” How do I keep this feeling at bay?
In an interview with the New York Times days before the exhibit opened to the public, Kawakubo expressed her desire to be “forgotten” and I wondered if she was going through the same thing. The collections she dislikes the most are those which everyone seems to understand. Each new collection represents her continuous strivings to carve out a space for her independence, putting distance between who the world thinks she is and who she should be. The radicalization of her clothing is a mirror for her own afflictions and for the public to see it as a beautiful source of inspiration that “makes sense”, we can maybe begin to empathize with Kawakubo’s dismay. For her to then present her life’s work and in doing so, her current understanding of self, to the public in a large scale exhibition at the MET we see Kawakubo being brave, assuming her role as one of the world’s most influential designers. This is her in-between, keeping her independence alive whilst letting us all in to her world. Us not knowing what to make of it is perhaps all she hoped for.