The presence of Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief of American Vogue, and Andrew Bolton, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, at the Comme des Garçons show in Paris proved that Rei Kawakubo will be the subject of the next fashion exhibition at the annual Met Ball in May 2017.
The Japanese designer, who turns 74 next week, will be the first living designer to have a dedicated exhibition since Yves Saint Laurent’s retrospective in 1983. And although there is as yet no official announcement, a source in New York familiar with the situation says that an initial agreement has already been signed.
The importance of the choice can be understood since the recent cinematic release of the documentary, The First Monday in May, showing the power of the collaboration between Bolton and Wintour. Previous subjects have included a study of China in relation to the decorative arts (China: Through the Looking Glass); and a show devoted to the late Alexander McQueen (Savage Beauty), both of which drew record numbers of visitors to the Met, which has pride of place on New York’s “Museum Mile” on the city’s Upper East Side.
With her new Spring/Summer 2017 show, Kawakubo could not have made a more powerful statement about her unique position in the fashion universe. The title she gave it, according Adrian Joffe, her partner and the President and Chief Executive of Comme, was “Invisible Clothes”. Presumably this must be read as a play on the idea that “real” clothes were not part of this season’s collection, which featured enormous garments developed from the CDG oeuvre. So although there was a red plaid dress, a staple from Kawakubo since she first played with the Punk aesthetic, its body unfolded into a vast pair of wings, so that it did not resemble the reality of clothing.
This is by no means the first time that the designer has put indecipherable garments on the runway, made perhaps of fluff or tied parcels of folded materials. She has tackled uncomfortable subjects: two years ago, for example, was “the ceremony of separation”, featuring models passing each other silently on the runway, crossing from life to death.
But this show was particularly poignant for the beauty of the garments that unfolded to create a wall of fabric from the initial body lines. There was something strangely touching about these objects, made perhaps for protection, especially when the cloth rose up the neck to ear level, with the hair and face decorated with tangles of shiny plastic. Yet down below, these monster creations arrived on little ankle boots, white or black, like some reference to Courrèges in the 1960s.
Kawakubo never looks back, only forward to the future. Yet there was something elegiac about the music — a re-imagining of Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs — as the models opened their “wings”. There was always an engorged shape, square or in one case a full circle emanating from a short, cute dress with white frills at the hem.
Was this about protection in turbulent times? Maybe. But mostly the effect of the big, blown-up silhouettes was not gloomy but joyous, as on a large panel of white on black and dots.
There is no designer today whose work is more worthy of exploration at museum level. But to be sure we will not be seeing the very private Kawakubo, who rarely comes out even for a bow, walking with the celebrities on the Met’s red carpet stairs in May 2017.