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Rei Kawakubo and the Met’s Impossible Task

The Comme des Garçons founder’s fight against the expected will be hard to capture through curation.

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There are some moments in your life that you witness rather than experience, as if some God or loving creature knew you would want all angles for the future retellings. The feelings fill you up and break down doors in yourself you didn’t know were even locked before; these moments can define you. They are terrifying, prophetic, full of potential: They say bear witness and do as you are told, you had no idea before but now, kiddo, the world will tell you now. Maybe you have never had this kind of heady experience, maybe it was a bad one. I have had a full life and so, though I am young, I have had a moment like this twice.

The first time was on the floor of my teen bedroom, opening a book to a photo of Comme des Garçons. The text was written in an baroque and illegible font, the hardwood floor was reptilian from nail polish remover, and the window was cracked open for a breeze. I remember wood stain rippled off the floor, like a tired magic carpet, and some of the stain chips floated onto the pages and glowed yellow from the sun. I had opened this book: Style Deficit Disorder, by Tiffany Godoy, to a random page that wasn’t random at all, and my future was presented to me as if on a silver platter. My life didn’t change when I discovered Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons in this book, it was as if it had finally started. I was 15.

The pages that crawled inside me were on the 1996 collection Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body. I remember holding those pages for so long and so often that my body now remembers the motion on instinct; whenever I pick up that book those dresses unfurl before me as if I had traveled back in time. I remember most of my life through my clothes and especially the Comme des Garçons pieces I have collected along the way — the first dress I bought and the ramen I ate for months after; the first Junya Watanabe jacket that warmed me through my first depression, the dress my first lover convinced me to buy. All of it started with the gingham dresses printed in Godoy’s book, still glossy on the page.

A model at the Comme des Garçons fall/winter 2012-2013 show in Paris.
Photo: Alexander Klein/Getty Images

Those first gingham dresses thrilled me, and made me confused about the very premise of what a dress could look like. Were they dresses? Really, these wrapped monuments of fabric hardly qualified as something you would consider wearing on a date or to the mall. They distorted the body, swelled it up in a way that felt so compelling — I couldn’t comprehend any human that would wear these dresses; they weren’t for humans at all. Not any humans I knew, anyway, and that made me want to be these defiant, majestic space-beings.

The models didn’t look like they were moving down a runway on the page to me. The fabric wrapped with such an impression that it seemed as if each model would just blast off, either up into space or burst into pieces from the volume they were carrying. That collection was not about clothes as an assemblage of materials you could wear but a performance you took part in and were changed by; they were an event in which you were a necessary participant. The ideas could not be contained on a human body. There were no lines or definite cuts: The body and the dress swelled together, moved up and outwards, demanded something… more, claimed certain and vibrant space. The clothes looked soft — they were cotton pads essentially, after all, but the shapes felt aggressive in their difference and unrepentant about it too. They felt free, they felt explosive. I had never felt so challenged, or so seen. It felt political, and it let me know that my body and how I adorned it could be, too. And it didn’t have to make me feel awful: It could make me feel free.

Rei Kawakubo
Rei Kawakubo herself, in a rare photo.
Photo: Bernard Weil/Getty Images

My love for Rei Kawakubo and her empire of creations has guided me through my life since; it’s a characteristic even random acquaintances know about me. When there were only rumors of the next Met exhibition’s dedication to Rei (now confirmed for May 2017), I woke up to a dozen emails, some from editors, some from friends expressing fear or excitement or distaste. The die-hard fans I’ve spoken to have expressed fear and distaste. Because how could anyone do Rei the service she deserves, contain her essence utterly? It is setting yourself up to fail.

Kawakubo’s work and politic as a "public" figure is about refusal, mystery, deconstruction and a constant reimagining. She isn’t well known to the public at all, she is adamantly private, even her own employees rarely see her; she flits through Dover Street Market like a ghost. She has said time and time again she feels disappointed when many people like her work immediately because it means she did not push far enough. She imagines artistry as a battle; in an interview with the New York Times, she said" "With creation as my sword, I could fight the battles I wanted."

And she has also said, time and time again, that "to cut is to think." She is always at war with ideas, my Joan of Arc, my guardian. She does not have time to dress celebrities or play the designer-as-celebrity game: She has a war to wage, and she is always fighting. She has never even attended a single Met Gala, she hardly gets photographed, and she does, on average, one canned-quality interview a season. Rei Kawakubo is fundamentally not interested in being seen. In a previous exhibition of her work at MoCA, the most prominent words on display were a quote that said she does not want to explain herself, that she cannot imagine anyone wants to have to. And yet, her entire body of work will be now edited, collected, and presented to the hundreds of thousands people who would have called her average customer a freak; who will look to the curation plaques for a reason, an explanation.

I’m not genuinely surprised she’s been picked as the new Met muse though, her work is conceptually the fan-friendly Alexander McQueen’s precedent (whose retrospective broke museum records in 2011), although it is darker, less pretty. Where he was a romantic, young, and lonely soul with a tragic ending, she is a married and aging woman who refuses to end, who is always working on something more. Biographers define McQueen by his loneliness and the tragedies he struggled with through his work, and Kawakubo repeatedly refuses to even acknowledge that the historical tragedy of her youth may have influenced her work (as many biographers mention in whispers, she was a child during Hiroshima).

Models on the runway for spring/summer 1991 in Paris.
Photo: Daniel Simon/Getty Images

She’s one of the few designers the Met has ever honored who is still alive. I cannot even imagine that she will ever die. The possibility of her death — brought up by the idea of a retrospective, a turning back to reflect onto itself — frightens me on a foundational level. I worry that it means that fashion thinks it’s done with her, that we’ve learned all of what she has to share. I don’t think we are, or ever will be. We weren’t ready for her when she arrived on the scene either, and it is something I wonder if the curators will account for.

When Kawakubo arrived in Paris, we shunned her for her somber clothing, her blacks, the lack of shiny ‘80s exuberance. WWD fetishized her on the spot, in the March 1984 issue it described her as "the samurai geisha of fashion," "coy," and that her "act" was "stale with not a whit of irony." Critics dismissed her for years by both fetishizing her for her origins and dismissing her for refusing to make her work legible within those stereotypes: They would call her a geisha, and then claim, like The Atlantic’s Holly Brubach did in a review, that the woman who wears Comme des Garçons comes from a world "that no one is looking forward to," that the woman who wears the brand is "unwilling to dress herself up so that other people have something pleasing to look at." (In this day and age, I would consider that a compliment.)

A model at Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2017.
Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Mugler and Yves Saint Laurent were the darlings of fashion when Kawakubo came to town, it was always an either/or, Laurent winning and Kawakubo a wet pile of clothes who didn’t even do Asian well, not colorful, like Laurent. Fashion criticism and the industry at large became embroiled in a troubling binary to see who could more offensively define — and therefore conquer — orientalism.

Kawakubo was ill-received at first because she was unexpected, because she came from a context other than the one we were familiar with, and thereby shined a light on the worst parts of the industry: the racism, classism, sexism in our own preferred mythologies. She used cheaper boiled wools and jerseys rather than chiffons and silks at first; fashion called her work sexless because we could not understand desire takes many forms, that you can make something artful and meaningful without the things we preferred before. She continues to challenge us, operating her own company away from LVMH and prospective buyers, she refuses to answer to any investors — hers is entirely her own vision, and it is always reworked, top to bottom, abstract from the start. She does not in fact even make her own patterns, but offers an idea to her team to work with: Even in her own business she refuses to explain herself. There has been more than one occasion where her prompt for her team has been a single doodle, and from there, her cabinet of helpers build upwards. Everything about her is a stomp, a "no", an "I demand more," a constant demand for more discovery. She’s mentioned more than once sometimes she just unscrews or loosens parts in the manufacturing process just to see what would come from it. Mistakes are methodical for her; you can’t tell if she’s trolling you or if she’s absolutely serious (undoubtedly, she’s doing both). Her guerilla stores change locations constantly; even her flagship locations move their walls and often use decaying, easily recyclable furniture made of cardboard and wire because she is obsessed with flying ahead to the future, abandoning that which does not still serve her. We will never be finished with her because she is not done with us.

When the exhibit opens, I worry that there will be so much emotional context missing, so many ideas that will inevitably feel surrendered and incomplete — why was this collection used, and not this one? One season she confronted failed marriages, another class warfare and Amy Winehouse in the line-notes, another one monstrosity, another one gender performances and flamenco. They all meant something so distinct, each one is a greater sum than the parts individually. So I fear the retrospective will feel insincere, a collection of her clothes but not necessarily her ideas or her personality. There’s no plaque for how much she means to me.

Maybe I should bring Post-its that explain how one piece or another saved my life, act as tour guide to anyone who’d have the misfortune to be there when I explain how I would remake her collections when I could not afford to own them, how working towards owning a piece of her dream kept me sane when I was young and angry and queer and alone. It did, literally, do that for me: I made myself a bet when I was 18 and depressed that I would own specific pieces of Comme des Garçons by the time I was 25, so I could not kill myself before then because I needed to at least be buried in what I loved so much. Kawakubo gave me time and the will to endure it even when I felt it was too much.

Up close on a model at PFW, spring/summer 2012.
Photo: Francois Guillot/Getty Images

I am not 25 yet and I am still depressed but I do own most of those pieces now, and I feel better for it, and I feel changed. She offered me a definition of queerness and political identity before I found the word or community or agency to express it in my life in other ways; when I first read Jose Munoz’s work on queer futurity I felt a sense of déjà vu: That is what Kawakubo offers, too, through her clothes. Munoz wrote that the queer aesthetic frequently contains blueprints towards a futurity; that queerness is an idea that can be used to imagine a future. What else did Kawakubo offer me, when she bowled me over with her clothes? Life gave me queer desire and queerness as an action, a method, a place I hold space. Life also gave me the clothes to do it in. The other day, I wore a padded Comme shirt with a cotton heart onto the sleeve and kissed a woman I love, and people walked by whispering.

The failure to apprehend — understand? — her body of work will make me angry, but I think maybe that is the most Comme des Garçons characteristic of all, the rage at something unfinished, the fear of it not being good enough, the hunger to try once more, better, with more feeling, with more love. So the curatorial mistakes, I have resigned myself to thinking, will hopefully make it better and more interesting. If they don’t, I’ll still feel righteous for knowing what went wrong. As Kawakubo once said in reference to Dress Meets Body (which was evidently inspired by a banal Gap window of black clothes): "I may have been especially angry at the time, but I’m more or less always angry anyway."

I hope the exhibition doesn’t cage that anger, but lets it breathe itself into every visitor. It is, after all, what saved my life when I was 15.  Sometimes it still does.

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