Distinguished Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo is a unique character. She founded her brand, Comme des Garcons, in 1960s Tokyo. Although Kawakubo never formally trained as a fashion designer, her brand is popular worldwide. Throughout the 1970s, she worked on developing her signature style before debuting in Paris in 1981. Since then, countless exhibits, fashion shows, and lines were displayed.
Dubbed the architect of clothes, Kawakubo takes a meaningful approach by looking at various sources of inspiration, such as architecture. Her 2017 exhibit at the MET in New York City, “Art of the In-Between,” is an ultimate blend of fashion, architecture, and Kawakubo herself.
If you’re unfamiliar with Kawakubo’s work, there’s a very sculptural and enigmatic quality about each piece. The Art of the In-Between exhibit is no different. Over 150 garments designed since the 1980s are featured to convey her avant-garde attitude and distinct aesthetic. Fashion to Kawakubo is an extension of the body and should be unconventional in beauty and social acceptance.
The clothing displayed at her exhibit stands out not only from its initial appearance but from the meaning that comes along with them. Different areas of the exhibit are titled differently, such as Object/Subject or Clothes/Not Clothes, and include interpretations of Japanese concepts like kawaii. The pieces are also grouped by color, rather than by date, to further highlight connections across her large collection of work.
The name of the exhibition alludes to the inability to define Comme des Garcons. It’s innovative yet commercial. It’s not art, nor is it fashion. Instead, Comme des Garcons and Kawakubo stand in a void, an in-between space, that remains undefined and gives charm to what her fashion is all about.
As was earlier stated, it’s been said that Kawakubo is an architect of clothes. Not only did she create structures and shapes as forms of fashion but she also designed the display for the Art of the In-Between. Working with the MET’s team, Kawakubo chooses to present her clothes within and around a chain of plain white volumes that vary in size and shape but are seemingly identical in the plan. The volumes respond to the pieces displayed and are just as individualized.
The exhibition subtly shows how fashion and architecture are becoming intertwined. Not only is architecture moving towards fashion as something more ephemeral, image-oriented, and subject to movements, such as classical, rococo, and neo-classical, but the introduction and addition of technology and fluidity is a large influence.
In the fashion world, more designers have looked towards architecture for inspiration, such as Ralph Lauren and Tom Ford, as a way of abstracting the body into planes of a larger piece of machinery.
The Art of the In-Between exhibit beautifully mimics all of what Kawakubo stands for in its architecture. The combination of slits in the different masses, as well as cut-off squares, cylinders, or cantilevered boxes, are as equally provocative as Kawakubo’s garments. As one wanders through the exhibit, there’s no clear path and each turn reveals a different framing of pieces but with no real relationship to the viewer or the fashion. The entirety of the space sits under the light of fluorescent tubes with no intent to spotlight specific areas.
Kawakubo’s architecture comes from her brand’s signature style of tearing down the definition and leaving it in the in-between. Japanese architect, Sou Fujimoto, is also a fan and creator of the void. Instead of fashion, Fujimoto looks towards extreme opposition. An example of this can be Fujimoto’s Toilet in Ichihara, Japan built in 2013. The design explores the differences between public and private, openness and enclosure. A single steel-framed glass cubicle is placed within an enclosed garden.
What is usually seen as a private activity is now exposed and put on display. However, the security provided by the fence gives back that privacy. Fujimoto explores and reinterprets different combinations of opposites to create an architecture that sits in between.
Others like Kawakubo
Kawakubo’s signature look that she worked so hard to craft is a powerful stance against strict definition and interpretation of fashion. It comes as no surprise that Comme des Garcons is a flourishing brand that accomplishes many things. With initial overwhelming popularity in Japan, the brand has since grown and landed around the world.
Whether we realize it or not, our clothes say a lot about us and how we interpret the sphere around us. Fashion and architecture are working hand-in-hand to break down barriers and strict ideologies into something that is unable to be defined and, at times, understood. Other Japanese architects are working towards the same goal.
For example, another master of abstraction is Issey Miyake, who launched his work in New York in 1971. Kawakubo’s protege, Junya Watanabe has also carved a road for himself after working as an apprentice at CDG. Taking from what he’s been exposed to, Watanabe first debuted in 1993 and brands himself with pattern manipulation and innovative techniques. Overall, the fashion scene within architecture and the architectural scene within fashion are never-ending. If anything, it’s increasingly in demand. Looking towards the in-between can create new possibilities across many different fields.
- Betsky, A., 2017. Aaron Betsky: “Rei Kawakubo is an architect of clothes”. [online] Dezeen. Available at: <https://www.dezeen.com/2017/07/20/opinion-rei-kuwakabo-comme-des-garcon-exhibition-met-museum-architecture-fashion-intertwined-aaron-betsky/> [Accessed 25 April 2021].
- Honig, M., 2017. Comme des Garçons First Look: The Art of the In-Between. [online] Observer. Available at: <https://observer.com/2017/05/comme-des-garcons-first-look-the-art-of-the-in-between/> [Accessed 25 April 2021].
- Howarth, D., 2017. Comme des Garçons fashion exhibition opens at The Met in New York. [online] Dezeen. Available at: <https://www.dezeen.com/2017/05/01/rei-kawakubo-comme-des-garcons-art-of-in-between-exhibition-opens-metropolitan-museum-art-new-york/> [Accessed 25 April 2021].
- Knott, S., 2014. Sou Fujimoto: The spaces in-between. [online] ArchitectureAU. Available at: <https://architectureau.com/articles/sou-fujimoto-the-spaces-in-between/#> [Accessed 25 April 2021].