Rei Kawabuko/Comme des Garçons : The Art of the In-Between
One of the highlights of living in New York is the city’s incredible cultural vibrancy. I came out of this year’s Met Museum’s exhibit on Japanese designer Rei Kawabuko completely enthralled!
Fashion as Representation
Fashion exists in the “in-between”: in-between functionality and aesthetics, in-between object and representation. Though not all fashion is art, this in-betwinness is what connects fashion to art.
Rei Kawabuko’s work is indeed art by definition: her pieces subvert the primary purpose of a garment (functionality), in order to create emotion and get us to engage in reflection. She reframes the garment’s symbiotic relationship to the body to push us to reflect on the meaning of identity in all its facets (intimate, personal, cultural, national, intellectual, etc...)
Indeed, beyond their mere functionality, clothes are intimately tied to identity. They are both a way to create the “I” and a vector through which we present ourselves to others. They are a link between self and world. As such, they can either be a true reflection of the self or an armor, a mask. Most often, they are both at the same time.
At first glance Kawabuko’s clothes act as a literal barrier between the body and the world. They don’t follow the natural contours of the body. They encase and reshape it with exaggerated bumps and bulges, layers upon layers of fabrics, or embedded objects. They are bold, imposing, they pack a punch. But in fact, Kawabuko’s pieces seek to reveal the inner self to the outside: the body is subsumed and loses its centrality to become the bearer of a world of meaning represented by the clothes. Abstract and intimate concepts such as emotions (loss, pain, joy, anger, pride, vulnerability…) and beliefs are made visible and literally embodied in the clothes. The garment’s function becomes purely representation.
Thus, the individual is turned inside out, as the body disappears under the clothes and the inner self is revealed by them.
The clothes encase and reshape the body to reveal the inner self: the body loses its centrality to become the bearer of a world of meaning represented by the clothes.
Questioning “False Dualisms”
Andrew Bolton, the show’s curator arranged the exhibit around nine “recurring expressions of in-betweenness”: Absence/Presence; Design/Not Design; Fashion/Anti-fashion; Model/Multiple; High/Low; Then/Now; Self/Other; Object/Subject; Clothes/Not Clothes. This allows for a fascinating exploration of some of the designer’s arguments as she seeks to “break down the false walls between these dualisms, exposing their artificiality and arbitrariness”.
However, though it is clearly not the intent, this choice risks boxing Kawabuko’s work in a Western frame of reference that can be limiting. Indeed, these "dualisms" are conspicuously occidental and by now, cliché. Bolton mentions the Japanese duality "emptiness" / "space", as central to Kawabuko's work and it indeed seems conducive to a more fruitful reflection. Furthermore, the very idea that in-betweenness resides in the interstice within a binary (High/Low, Then/Now etc...) rather than a greater multiple is itself reductive.
Architecture as Metaphor
The physical landscape of the exhibit is brilliantly designed, with large scale geometric shapes in monochromatic white. Some of the clothes are installed in narrow “niches” while others are presented in more open areas. But all are set in the in-between spaces of the architecture, a clever echo to the central argument of the exhibit. It also makes for an astute parallel to the interplay between the self, represented by the clothes, and the world, represented by the architecture.
This is a brilliant show : it is visually and intellectually stimulating. It reminds you why art matters, and why living in New York is so special.