The Met Salutes Rei Kawakubo

July 12, 2017


We planned to see the Kawakubo exhibit on May 25th so I decided to prep for it by reading a write-up on the web titled “A Sneak Peek at the Met’s Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons Show” by Matthew Schneier that appeared in The New York Times on March 6th. “The Met exhibit has definitely been a talking point of the Paris Fashion Week,” Schneier wrote.

He went on to describe the fashion designer’s New York exhibit (appearing from May 4th to September 4th) and noted that, “Kawakubo, at age 74, is the first living designer to be so recognized at the Met since Yves Saint Laurent in 1983.”

When I reached the fourth paragraph of his report I did a double take. The author described Kawakubo’s work as “confounding and the explanations she occasionally gives are GNOMIC at best.” I think I have a fairly decent command of the English language, but that one got me, so I proceeded to look it up. The definition is: “An adjective used to describe something spoken or written that is short, mysterious and not easily understood.”

Her first show was in Paris in 1981 and, according to Schneier “she works between fashion and commerce. Those who look at her latest collection and see misshapen, unwearable oddities might be surprised to learn her creations actually sell – very well.”

I continued my research by reading an article in Vogue, May, 2017 by Lynn Yaeger, titled “Break the Silence: On the Eve of a Major Comme des Garçons Retrospective at the Met’s Costume Institute, the Notoriously Reclusive Rei Kawakubo Speaks Out.”

This writer begins by describing the designer’s fall 2017 show “on a rain-soaked March afternoon in Paris” and goes on to say, “Since 2013, Kawakubo has ditched the conventional catwalk in favor of a kind of avant-garde parade – closer perhaps to performance art than a fashion show.” The result she notes “elicits a wide range of emotions – from wild applause, even tears, to bewilderment bordering on annoyance.”

In an interview over tea in the Salon Proust at the Ritz, the author writes that Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute, explained the influence of Kawakubo. “It’s huge, but sometimes it’s subtle. It’s not about copying her; it’s the purity of her vision.”

This author scored points with me because she related that, “I have been enamored of Comme des Garçons from the time I first saw it, at the original Barneys on Seventeenth Street, more than 30 years ago. It was a navy wool schoolgirl smock that stole my heart and it cost $260 – at a time when I was making $135 a week. I told a credit union that my refrigerator broke, got the money, and bought the dress. I thought it would change my life and it did.”

I love this heartfelt tale. However, I still have to give my honest impression of this show.

This Met exhibit has 150 Comme ensembles and I couldn’t relate to any of them. I became increasingly irritable and frustrated. Sensing my crankiness, my pal said, “The design of this exhibit is very well done.” “I’m here for fashion, not architecture,” I replied.

My tolerant friend wisely pretended not to hear.

After thirty minutes all I wanted to do was leave. I have attended many fashion events in New York City: Yves St. Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Jacqueline de Ribes, Isaac Mizrahi and the spectacular Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty in 2011 and I have never, repeat never felt the way I felt about this exhibit.

“Maybe that’s part of the problem,” said my friend. “The McQueen show set the bar so high that we compare his exhibit to everything we see.”

Do I feel guilty about my reaction? Yes, partly. Especially after reading that the designer describes her work this way: “it’s so hard to do what I do – working dawn to midnight every day for the last 40 years.”

But I’m not going to weaken and say that I liked certain aspects of her exhibit because I did not. I disliked all of it. Intensely.   

Shaun Nelson-Henrick

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