"Where do your arms go?" a guest asked, looking at a fashion display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Rei Kawakubo / Comme des Garcons: Art of the In-Between exhibition. It wasn't a question without merit: titled simply, 9.6.1, in the "Fact / Fiction" section of the show, the oversized, green and blue construction had no obvious holes for arms, which might seem important, given that it falls under the scope of fashion. But that piece, as do many of the pieces not only in the exhibit but in Kawakubo's archive, pushes against the tight constraints of what fashion is, employing the techniques of conceptual art.
As is custom for a Costume Institute exhibition, Art of the In-Between debuted in grand style on the first Monday of May, with the Met Gala. There, Gala chair Katy Perry walked the red carpet in an ornate, red veiled John Galliano creation from Maison Margiela. Later, Rihanna made an appearance as a confection of sorts, tiny red, pink and lilac circles collaging to turn the Bajan star into a ball of color. Both looks were appropriate—as was that of Helen Lasichanh, wife of Pharrell, whose look, too, lacked arm holes.
Perry's could have easily been a reference to Kawakubo's work. Look 6.2.7 in the exhibit, from the "Birth / Marriage / Death" section, appears to be a more couture version of the same look rendered in all black. Here, though, the veil-turned-gown comes bedecked with small, child-sized versions of dresses, as opposed to Perry's crystals, no doubt representing birth, while the veil stood for marriage, and the black, death. Rihanna's look itself is a part of the exhibit itself, appearing in one of the final vignettes.
Kawakubo represents the second living designer to get a Costume Institute exhibition in her honor, preceded only by Yves Saint Laurent, but the reason is quite evident upon entry to the gallery. Display 2.1 sits close to the entrance, itself created by Kawakubo instructing her team to find inspiration in a piece of paper she had balled up and set on their desks. This turned into an oversized, paper bag-colored look, fabric twisting and crinkling like forgotten packing paper as embellishment. This is how an artist approaches clothing.
For the conceptual pieces, which contort and mold the body into a variety of amorphous shapes, the environment is completely pared down: looks are presented in vignettes, oftentimes secluded in alcoves, sometimes even in shadows. These alcoves not only keep distance from the viewer and the work but also, in ways, change the experience. There is something to be said for waiting your turn to see the various looks sequestered in sections 3 and 4, "Fashion / Antifashion" and "Model / Multiple," respectively. There is a clinical feel to the environment, something more akin to a retail space as the works lack context beyond the exhibition guides that can be picked up upon entry. But perhaps a museum-as-retail environment facsimile is the radical idea Kawakubo wanted.
Kawakubo, in fact, was not a classical trained designer. Her approach to fashion came through art, fighting with, changing, and molding the body through clothes, down feathers, and stretch fabrics, most notably in her "Body Meets Dress—Dress Meets Body" collection, popularly referred to as the "Lumps and Bumps" collection. Her explorations often landed in between genres, between menswear and womenswear, between fashion and anti-fashion, and this is what Kawakubo, in collaboration with the Costume Institute's head curator, Andrew Bolton, now put on display.
In look 6.2.2, a dress appears as a trompe l'oeil. The dress itself is modern, but it has details of dresses from eras past printed onto it. Lace tiers melt into drawings of another tier, tricking the eye. And with this kind of intricacy to the actual work, a background of white may be all that's needed.
Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between is on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through September 4, 2017.