Rei Kawakubo, Oracle of the Fashion World

SLIDESHOW: Many features of fashion such as asymmetry, overblown silhouettes, unfinished edges and even a monochromatic colour palette were pioneered or promoted by Rei Kawakubo.

The enigmatic Japanese founder of Comme des Garçons is the first living designer to be given a solo show at The Met’s Costume Institute since 1983.

“I have always pursued a new way of thinking about design... by denying established values, conventions, and what is generally accepted as the norm,” says Rei Kawakubo, the iconic Japanese designer. “And the modes of expression that have always been most important to me are fusion... imbalance... unfinished... elimination... and absence of intent."

This week The Met Gala, the high point of New York’s social calendar, paid tribute to the work of Kawakubo, only the second living designer, after Yves Saint Laurent, to be so honoured by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between is an exhibition of 35 years of her oeuvre. To mark this exhibition, the Met was transformed with hot pink, burgundy and white roses and pink lights for its famed fundraiser. It is the Costume Institute’s major fundraiser that makes exhibitions and acquisitions possible. This year’s gala raised over US$12 million and the beneficiaries will be the masses who annually visit the museum.

Considered the Oscars of the east, the gala had over 550 attendees and the dress code was ‘avant-garde’. Rihanna, Tracee Ellis Ross and some other brave risk takers were in dramatic Comme des Garçons, as well as Caroline Kennedy, former ambassador to Japan, who knows the designer well. She observed: “I think there is something about the uncompromising originality of her work, her commitment to excellence, her attention to detail, and the closeness of her team that embody the sensibility of Japan. Celebrating playfulness within a rigid formality is one of the great Japanese feats and Rei does it better than anyone.”

Kawakubo’s designs for CdG have captured the imagination of the world — they not only free one from the restrictions of fashion but give permission to break all rules and take risks. In fact, Kawakubo’s craft is what shines through the decades, and this museum show features 130 examples of her designs from the early 1980s to her latest collection. They examine expressions of ‘in-betweenness’ in her work including absence/presence, fashion/anti-fashion, high/low, self/other and other such dualities, and make you question your own biases about taste and gender.

As Andrew Bolton, curator of the show, says: “Her fashions not only stand apart from the genealogy of clothing but resist definition and confound interpretation." Andrew Bolton worked closely with Kawakubo in creating the Art of the In-Between. Kawakubo’s work is perfect in its imperfections, immaculate in its quality. The couture seems to be timeless in a fast-changing world and, indeed, that’s saying a lot in our throwaway culture. People hoard their CdG treasures — they are a comfort zone, a shelter, an adventure, a Zen riddle — whatever you want them to be.

So is Kawakubo’s work fashion, art, sculpture or a blend of them all? “For me, there was no question that Rei’s fashions belonged in an art museum,” says Bolton. “The history of fashion has yielded only a handful of designers who are not only masters of their métier, but who have also defined and redefined the aesthetics of their time. Rei is one of them.”

As he points out, many features of fashion such as asymmetry, overblown silhouettes, unfinished edges and even a monochromatic colour palette were all pioneered or promoted by her. Our fashion idiom owes a lot to Kawakubo’s unconventional way of thinking and passion for birthing new concepts. Bolton adds: “Rei has changed the course of late 20th and early 21st century fashion. If she didn’t already exist, we’d have to invent her.”

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