REI Kawakubo; or When a Garment is Also and Undecipherable Object of Art
Where are the lines dividing fashion from art? The capricious four decades of work from Japanese artist Rei Kawakubo exists within these uncertain boundaries.
Rei Kawakubo (Tokyo, 1942) is that rare creature of fashion, or rather, of anti-fashion. Dark, reserved, uninterested in public life, the creator (who prefers not to be called an “artist”) defies definition and shines as a great antagonist toward the many aesthetic conventions of the world of high fashion. Her creations, which might or might not be called clothing, are essentially conceptual. They establish unusual dialogues with sculpture and other artistic expressions, using the body as a mere skeleton for pieces whose dimensions, textures and shapes are created through fabric and other materials. Fashionable, and yet art too, her pieces don’t resemble anything we know.
In 1973, Kawakubo – who’d studied arts and literature – launched her brand Comme des Garçons, a disruptive concept from the very beginning, and well before being such was fashionable. The clothing pieces challenged all of the conventions of aesthetics and symmetry, deforming (beautifully) the body through lumps and geometric silhouettes. Garments flirt with the absurd and, in general terms, are neither usable nor affordable, though they were never intended to be. In fact, when one of her collections gets praise or enjoys commercial success, Kawakubo is frankly worried. An oracle of the fashion counterculture, she’s a punk of fashion (as in other ways Vivienne Westwood, was an unwitting mother of punk). It’s hardly surprising that Björk, known for her own eccentricity, is one of Kawakubo’s admirers.
Every collection from Comme des Garçons is entirely different from prior collections. Their style, thus, escapes any easy definition. But, broadly, asymmetrical, deconstructive, extravagant, androgynous, and even asexual, are some of the characteristics of many of Kawakubo’s clothes. They’re creations in which it seems the body and the garment are inseparable from one another. The unexpected concepts that unify her collections play with allusion and simultaneously reject it. Having always wanted to do things that’d never been done in fashion, after decades, she’s mastered them.
“Doing something new doesn’t necessarily have to be beautiful in the eyes of the people who look at it. The result of doing something new is beautiful. The fact of doing something new and people being moved by it is what’s beautiful,” Kawakubo said in a recent interview, defining the essence of her work as Japanese minimalism.
A few months ago New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened the exhibition Rei Kawakubo / Comme des Garçons: Art of the In Between, including about 150 pieces. The exhibition used paradoxical concepts to classify the exhibited materials – Absence-Presence, Design-Not Design, Fashion-Anti Fashion, Then-Now, Self-Other, Object-Subject, Clothes-Not Clothes; all are pairs of opposites that describe the ideas confronted in the work. But the fact of the clothes being displayed in a museum, unused, raises valid questions about the utility of clothing and its relationship with art.
Brave and baroque, conceptual and surreal, Kawakubo’s garments live between two worlds as ghosts, as mobile sculptures, half-human, and half-not. As an array of legendary beings, they’re expressions of a timeless and valuable extraterrestrial aesthetic, and new names for beauty.
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