On the first Monday of May 2017, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will present its highly anticipated spring Costume Institute exhibit and gala. The event features fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, who is the first living designer highlighted in the show since Yves Saint-Laurent in 1983. Thanks to her artistic yet business-like approach, Kawakubo has become an influential individual in the fashion world. Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s curator in charge, said:“By inviting us to rethink fashion as a site of constant creation, recreation and hybridity, she has defined the aesthetics of our time.”
But who is this impressive and somewhat elusive Kawakubo? She is the founder of Comme des Garcons, owner of Dover Street Market and pioneer of the “anti-fashion” movement. Born in Japan in 1942, Kawakubo began her career with the establishment of the now popular company Comme des Garcons. The aesthetic of the brand often involves limited colour palettes, deconstructed garments and austere designs, which at the time of the company’s founding greatly challenged preconceived notions of beauty and fashion.
At her 1980s debut show in Paris, Kawakubo’s all-black line was deemed “Hiroshima Chic” by critics who thought her unexpected and conceptual designs were too challenging and avant-garde. Since then, however, these designs have become increasingly popular. Dover Street Market, a multi-level fashion retail store and gallery-like market, is a testament to Kawakubo’s tactical business mindset.
Her increasing influence in the fashion industry is the result of her ability to seamlessly combine business and fashion, two concepts that are often at odds with each other. Dover Street Market, along with the expansion of Comme des Garcons, has allowed Kawakubo to bridge the gap. Kawakubo is the perfect inspiration for this year’s exhibition and Met Gala. She continues to push the envelope in ways that have never been done before, making her a fearless risk taker and determined business woman.
Her two most infamous collections, Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress 1997 and 2012 Autumn/Winter, are definitive examples of Kawakubo’s esoteric and conceptual design. These collections redefine fashion today and impact what it could be in the future by using themes that stem from single words or phrases, as well as unexpected and challenging concepts.
Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress, which is also known as the “lumps and bumps” show, was often criticised for its tube-like dresses. These dresses were sculpted with lumpen filler to create a new silhouette, and the design pushed boundaries so far that Kawakubo almost instantly became recognised as one of the most influential figures in the fashion industry.
Though this show in particular received copious amounts of criticism, Kawakubo’s unconventional and somewhat bizarre ideas left a lasting impression on designers and stylists alike. Again in 2012, she redrew the norms of the industry with her two-dimensional Autumn/Winter collection. Through this collection, Kawakubo hoped to comment on how the state of fashion has become increasingly inconsequential to the industry as a whole.
This theme is the same one the Met exhibit wishes to convey to its audience. The show promises to give viewers a personal, up-close experience with the garments by eliminating all barriers between pieces and observers. By doing this, the designs become more hands-on. Kawakubo believes this is exceedingly important, especially when dealing with various forms of art and expression.
What differentiates Kawakubo’s exhibition from Yves Saint-Laurent’s is the objective; with Yves Saint-Laurent, the goal was simply to show off the talent and dexterity of the designer. The goal of Kawakubo’s show, on the other hand, is to highlight both what she wants to achieve and what she has already accomplished. One of Kawakubo’s goals is to make fashion a way of communicating beliefs and thoughts to her audience. She hopes that fashion can become a method of conveying emotions in an abstract way.
What makes Kawakubo’s up coming exhibit even more unusual is the fact that she often shies away from publicity in order to allow her work to speak for itself. However, the Met Gala is a highly publicised event that is catapulting Kawakubo into the spotlight in a way she has never experienced before. The media coverage this show receives will give her work the time, space and publicity needed to be bolder and more innovative than ever before.