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The "In-Betweenness" of Fashion and Art


Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons:

Art of the In-Between

at the Met’s Costume Institute

Obviously I am a museum person. Not a fashion person. I mean I love dressing up of course, and learn about fashion, reading fashion magazines and emails about the latest fashion and trends that inundate by mailbox. I find them quite inspiring as they bolster my creativity in a way that make me dress up instead of reverting to my uniform of—yes, unfortunately I do have a uniform—a white top with jeans.

Over the years I have appreciated so much what Anna Wintour, Artistic Director of Condé Nast and Editor-in-Chief of Vogue has done as a Trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 1999, and by making the Met, one of the biggest and most important encyclopedic museums in the world to be a fashionable place through The Costume Institute.

After all the work she put in it was therefore expected that the new wing has reopened as the Anna Wintour Costume Center in 2014 after a two-year renovation. The fact that glamourous people entering the Met Gala on the First Monday in May of each year for the opening of a new exhibition, does so much for increasing the number of museum visitors.

In addition to visits and donations, it is through the Met Gala with it highly priced in seating—which have to be approved—that The Costume Institute, the only curatorial department of the Met that has to raise its owns funds, brings in the money. What I love is that, just as Michelle Obama remarked at the opening of the Anna Wintour Costume Center that while students and other visitors go to see shows about fashion and costumes that they might visit other parts of this great museum and be exposed to art and history.

How wonderful is that? Bringing in more visitors to the museum. Consider the Alexander McQueen:Savage Beauty exhibition curated by Andrew Bolton in 2011 where long lines formed outside the Met with visitors waiting for hours. It is one of the 10 most visited exhibitions in the museum’s history. Because it was the cool thing to do, seeing the must-see show, that people went to the museum.

Everyone who knows me knows that I love the Met. It has a special place in my heart, the explanation of which I shall write about another time; and go visit often. But I had never been to the Costume Institute. I know it sounds terrible. Mostly it was because I didn’t have time left, and then once in 2014 I wanted to but just couldn’t locate it and got distracted by something else. So, when I found out that the Costume Institute’s exhibition opening this year’s Met Gala was Rei Kawakubo I got very excited. The 74-year-old Japanese designer of Comme des Garçons and owner of Dover Street Market—I love the one in London—has designs that I adore. And when I got an entry to the Press Preview, I said I will go, and I am glad I did.

The exhibition design was beautiful, well-thought out and each design by Rei Kawakubo is very artistic, supremely creative. I knew it was not going to be a retrospective of her work and that objects were to be displayed thematically, not chronologically. Approximately 140 womenswear collections of Kawakubo starting from 1980s are displayed in a way to blur the lines, to demonstrate the “in-betweenness” between nine different dualities: Absence/Presence, Design/Not Design, Fashion/Anti-Fashion, Model/Multiple, Then/Now, High/Low, Self/Other, Object/Subject, and Clothes/Not Clothes. More and more in our world we see that the “binary logic” is dissolving and to have this explored in Kawakubo’s oeuvre makes it very “now”.

Also, Ensō, the “open circle” concept of Zen Buddhism is used throughout the exhibition layout. From my reading of the exhibition guide, a quick refresher study in Zen Buddhism, and my own experience of visiting the exhibition, in a very simplified way, Rei Kawakubo’s designs which exist both in the realms of mu (emptiness) and ma (space) are displayed inside these open circular spaces, thus showcasing the in-betweenness. It all makes sense frankly and enthralls you. I felt a part of the exhibition as I had to close in at the opening of the circle and look to see as I observed others do as well. It was intimate yet at the same time distant too. It made you think and ponder.

So. I loved the exhibition design and the designs, the objets. Very artistic. This is how one should go to a museum and observe art. The visitor sees an artwork, but also interacts with it in a way that your reaction to it becomes part of the exhibition too.

After the visit to the exhibition, we moved from the Costume Institute to the Met’s Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court to listen to the remarks first from the outgoing Met director Thomas Campbell, followed by the former US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy who talked about Rei Kawakubo and the impact of the designer in Japan overall, followed by Costume Institute’s Curator in Charge Andrew Bolton who delivered information about the exhibition which I found important.

For example, I loved the head pieces and the wigs which were exceptional and also enhanced the beauty of the designs. We learned they were created and styled by Julien d’Ys.

The walls of the exhibition space were all white and the lighting was such a uniform white-white with florescent tubes that you could focus on the objects without missing out on any details. They were created by Thierry Dreyfus @ Eyesight Group.

It was also here that I ended up observing a lot of the people, the fashion reporters, listened to their talks among themselves and then ended up talking to a fashion blogger, and then a freelance fashion writer. Both young. (One of them kept talking about how last year she ended up getting a seat later in the program and ended up sitting behind a pillar and not seeing anything. Never mind that what she meant by the pillar was a 17th Century Italian Marble Sculpture on its pedestal). And I realized these young women were really not impressed by the exhibition. I asked them what it was they didn’t like. And they both said, that Kawakubo's designs on display were not wearable, salable, or that they were not beautifying, enhancing women’s bodies. Now, I do understand, and appreciate fashion as a huge industry. But it is also important in that there are choices in fashion, as they are part of the freedom to choose, to be allowed to dress however you want. (Consider the Zhongshan suit of Mao Zedong in China, and how everybody wore the same clothes. You all wear the same; individuality is not allowed under authoritarianism).

Fashion is a great part of the economy. If I ask you to name Italian industrial brands you know of, you will most definitely include renowned fashion designers. Fashion is part of our lives. So many people earn their living through it. If we were to wear the same clothes all the time, we just wouldn’t buy that many new clothes I guess.

And a similar type of existence happens in the art world too among Artists, Galleries, Collectors and Museums. They all are interconnected and support one another. So going back to what one of these young women said, that Rei Kawakubo’s designs are not wearable, I’d say perhaps, but so many designs in the exhibition reminded me of things I had in my closet, that were not by Comme des Garçons, but clearly were inspired by it.

One of them also didn’t like it that there were no extended object labels, meaning no information was given. When I reminded her that this was because Kawakubo herself was not much of a talker and that the the exhibition followed her example, but that exhibition guides containing information was provided, she said she liked to be spoon-fed information.

One complained that there was no music. As if this is a fashion show. But in a way, I do agree with her in terms of exhibition making, that a certain type of dynamic element must be added for all—art and costume—museum exhibitions to become relevant and entice more visitors especially from millennials. I mean we do need movement. We are all multi-tasking. I am doing a million things at the same time just like everybody else is now. An exhibition I immensely enjoyed and stayed for a lot longer than I had expected was last year’s Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest at the New Museum. It had very long lines outside of the museum, and it was very crowded. The museum was filled with mostly young people of all backgrounds and I think the reason I and everybody else enjoyed this fantastic experience of this exhibition was because the art was dynamic—visual movement—that also had music. We all need all our senses to be stimulated, and at the same time.

As for the designs of Rei Kawakubo not enhancing the female body? I don’t know. I am more with people in art museums, and the art world than the fashion world. Consider this: If you are going to visit art galleries in Chelsea, you will come across the fantastic Comme des Garçons store. And perhaps these designs are more for people in the art world to wear. That Rei Kawakubo is a great designer to be featured in an art museum because of her designs, and because of the showing of the artistry, creativity, not being completely in the fashion world yet be part of it –all in your own terms not in a way as dictated by demand—is also because she is appreciated in the art world already. Her designs, and the story woven with the exhibition with her designs are completely fitting an art museum. I felt throughout the visit that the Costume Institute was presenting proof that fashion was a part of the art world too.

I also thought about how fashion, or rather how we dress really didn’t change much of recent history. And by that I mean the clothes we wear are supposed to be beautifying. And I wondered if this perhaps was how Art was before Modern Art, when art was beautiful in the classical sense, and simply representational, very realistic. Considering guests to this year's Met Gala were asked to dress avant-garde is perhaps to present, and in an encyclopedic museum that is classical in general, that maybe a change is coming. And who knows maybe this exhibition, Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between will one day be seen in the world of Fashion, as The International Exhibition of Modern Art which came to be known as the Armory Show of 1913 is seen in Art History, where New Yorkers were introduced to the shocking "avant-garde" works of European artists like Duchamp, Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh and Gauguin for the first time in one setting before the exhibition traveled to Chicago and Boston. Before then, all accepted Art was done by great artists with incredible talent who painted say, a landscape, a nude, portrait, a still life, instead now you had abstraction, experimentation, impressionism, cubism and fauvism ushering in the era of modernism for all. I don't know. Perhaps from now on more who are outside the art world too will want to wear art, showcase their individuality, and express themselves, not necessarily to make it beautiful in the classical sense but use Fashion as a declaration, using creativity, and becoming a work of Art themselves.

Not keeping separate, not staying in-between, but merging Fashion and Art.

#TheMet #CostumeInstitute #ReiKawakubo #CommedeGarcons #AnnaWintour #ArtandFashion #Vogue

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