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The new fashion exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a show dedicated to the boundary-pushing Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo, is extremely rude. That’s a compliment.
Dozens of fluorescent tubes have been mounted on the ceiling, filling the exhibit’s single room with a dull, antiseptic light. As one Met staffer remarked, nobody looks good in this lighting. The best thing you can say for it is that it has a mattifying effect on the skin.
The stark white space is a geometry student’s worst nightmare. Garments hide under archways and reveal themselves through cutaways in cylinders and cones. Some live in house-shaped enclosures. Unless you’re very thorough, there is a good chance you’ll miss some of the pieces hiding in distant corners, but you may also walk into an opening that looks like it will display something cool and find nothing.
This willful obfuscation is exactly as it should be. Kawakubo launched her clothing brand, Comme des Garçons, in 1969, broke onto the Paris fashion scene in 1981, and has been making unflattering, challenging garments that upend our notions of beauty ever since. On view, you’ll find pretty gingham dresses padded with misshapen lumps, bridal gowns that seem to have gotten trounced during a house party, skirts turned inside out, and silky red torso bulbs that completely ignore the need for arm holes.
As though to mess with visitors, a glass box containing a series of white dresses balances atop two other display structures, well above eye level, and the reedy lights reflect off its surface, obscuring the clothing perfectly. Meanwhile, a cylindrical pen holding black dresses laden with subtle drapes and folds is set in brutally dim lighting.
There’s no wall text in this show, only numerical labels for each item with a section header like “Birth/Marriage/Death” or “Form/Function.” (The title of the exhibit is “Rei Kawakubo: Art of the In-Between.”) If you’d like to learn more about a particular piece, you can consult the exhibition guide, which resembles an Ikea manual.
Kawakubo, age 74, is famously reluctant to explain the origins of her designs. “She doesn’t want there to be a definitive interpretation of her clothes,” says Andrew Bolton, the exhibit’s curator. “She doesn’t want to impose subjective analysis on the clothes, and that’s the reason we didn’t have any text in the exhibition. All the text is in the exhibition guide, which you can read or not read as you so wish.”
Kawakubo’s work can come off as heady, but once you’ve released yourself from intellectual posturing and lean into the feelings that bubble up when you look at it, things get really fun. In fact, the exhibit is an exercise in low-key comedy. (According to Bolton, one of the biggest misconceptions about Kawakubo is that her work has no humor.)
The space looks like both a bizarro playground and a retail operation — its modular layout feels suspiciously like Dover Street Market, the chain of concept stores that Kawakubo founded in 2004 — which is a pretty good stunt to pull in one of New York’s most high-brow art institutions. Much like pranking your patrons by displaying a bunch of black dresses in a dark corner.
But other pieces you can examine from inches away, and that’s where the clinical lighting is actually helpful. You’ll notice the meticulous placement of ruffles, lace, and fur on a circular garment, and the carefully placed stitches that rig up the folds in a red and white mesh dress. You’ll see the trompe l’oeil creases printed on a layered gown, and the rhinestone-dotted tendrils of the wigs topping the mannequins.
This, the possibility of earnestly appreciating Kawakubo’s craft, is where the combination of a hard-to-navigate space and the absence of wall text could fail the exhibit when it opens to the public on Thursday. Not everyone attending will know who Rei Kawakubo is, and not everyone will think to grab a brochure at the door. Kawakubo may not want to over-explain her designs — and she did indeed have a hand in the exhibit’s development — but visitors may lose something if they come in completely cold. Specifically, the knowledge that the work’s interpretation is fair game to anyone, however inaccessible its strangeness may initially seem.