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You've Seen The Met Ball Pictures, Now Challenge Yourself With Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between

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A panoramic view of Rei Kawakubo/Comme Des Garçons: Art of the In-Between taken at the press preview on May 1, 2017

There's nothing to flood the press with extravagant images like the Met Ball week. It is a guarantee of at least two or three days of debate over whether Madonna looked good or ridiculous in her Moschino, or whether Katy Perry's elaborate Maison Margiela get-up was too much even for the most extravagant fashion party. Then there's the ongoing assessment of the fashion credibility of various Kardashians. After all the dust settles from that, there is a design exhibition to be seen, and in this case, Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between, which opens today, is one of the most challenging that the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has staged in years —on nearly every level.

As a designer, Rei Kawakubo has been at the forefront of promoting Japanese fashion since she launched her label Comme des Garçons in the early 1980s alongside a wave of designers that also included Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto among others. More than any other label, Comme des Garçons has been dedicated to pushing the boundaries of fashion in every way from materials and colors to actually distorting the way the shape of the human body is represented.  

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Gallery View, Clothes/Not Clothes © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

At the same time, as a brand, Comme des Garçons has steadily grown as a commercial enterprise, offering more accessible interpretations of the designer's aesthetic under a plethora of related diffusion labels, but only the most adventurous designs are represented in the exhibition. While some selections still bear little resemblance to the kinds of conventional clothes that most people wear, it's not hard to see the famous black wool sweaters consisting mostly of holes from 1982 (seen in the center of the gallery view at right) and draw a parallel to the current craze for "destroyed" denim jeans full of carefully curated ladders, tears and distressing. Kawakubo's aesthetic has tricked down and influenced fashion in subtle ways that are often totally unrecognizable to mainstream customers, and the exhibition may serve to clarify the importance of her avant-garde designs which, out of context, have often drawn derision and confusion from the mainstream. For this reason, the exhibition is arranged thematically with sections titled  Absence / Presence, Design / Not Design, Fashion / Anti-Fashion, Model / Multiple, High / Low, Then / Now, Self / Other, Object / Subject and Clothes / Not Clothes. Some have up to eight subsections with equally contradictory titles, but if you think they are inscrutable, then that is the desired effect. In keeping with Kawakubo's dedication to challenging the norms fashion, the exhibition design itself upends many museum conventions that visitors may, and should find unnerving. There are no statements on the walls introducing the various sections, and no information cards beside the objects describing their provenance and offering curatorial notes. Instead, visitors are expected to follow an expanded booklet that provides a map and legend to the show and its complex, mazelike structure. Visitors will be expected to refer to their papers, matching items to their numbered descriptions, constantly trading focus from the works on display to their booklets as they move through a series of often tightly enclosed spaces where objects are frequently placed for viewing in secluded nooks and structures that require peering around corners and into crevices. It is quite the opposite to the airy, open arrangements we have seen in some recent Costume Institute shows that offered maximum viewability. This is not a show to breeze through casually, but it may be more rewarding to keep the brochure in your bag and focus on the clothes as one takes in the show. Even better, visitors on a speedy mood might spring for the $50 exhibition catalogue which delves deeper into the Comme des Garçons aesthetic philosophy alongside spectacular photography both new and archival. (Hey, it comes with a free poster, too!) While this is one show that would have greatly benefitted from a recorded tour, there does not appear to be one available.

The other notable aspect of the exhibition is that it is the first at the Costume Institute since the Yves Saint Laurent show 1983 to focus on a single designer who continues to live and work with a going business. Why did it take 35 years for the Met to honor another living designer? The reasons stem from past concerns that the museum was being used as a promotional tool for big fashion businesses and their corporate partners. While that concern remains, it created a situation where no other curatorial department was forced to wait for an artist to actually die before they could stage a monographic exhibition. It appears that the museum and its board are realizing that the policy was not only morbid, but pointless, as many important (and dead) designers have names that continue on in business. Dior, Versace, McQueen and Chanel, to name a few have been eligible for honor with exhibitions of their work since the policy was imposed even as their companies continued to operate, but, until now, worthy designers like Rei Kawakubo among many others, were not eligible as they continued living. Hopefully, the current exhibition signals an end to the policy rather than an exception, opening up the possibility of honoring other important living designers in the future. 

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between opens today and runs through September 4 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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