The Alienating Garments of Rei Kawakubo

The Japanese designer’s pointedly eccentric clothing, the subject of an exhibition at the Met, makes a surprisingly tender statement about women’s bodies.

Comme des Garçons / Paolo Roversi / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Helen Lasichanh, the wife of the musician Pharrell Williams, made her arrival at the Met Gala this past week seemingly bedecked in Design Within Reach. Her suit, in two shades of red, boasted inflated tights and hips and exaggerated shoulder pads, like one might find on a coat of armor. Most strikingly, the suit had no arm holes, giving the appearance of having swallowed its wearer whole. Online commentators had their expected field day, comparing Lasichanh to all sorts of couches and chairs. Teletubbies were invoked, too.

Yet those mocking the outfit are themselves missing the joke. Lasichanh’s suit—audacious, and, yes, very funny—is the work of Rei Kawakubo, the mischievous Japanese designer behind the line Comme des Garçons, whose outlandish designs are currently on view at the Met’s Costume Institute. The understated titan of avant-garde fashion is best-known for bulbous designs that on first look appear to share more with museum sculptures than with traditional dresses and trousers. Since her first show in Paris in the early ’80s, Kawakubo has subverted norms of the body and of design. To ridicule her clothes for their eccentricity is akin to making fun of Pee-wee Herman for his nerdiness.

The designer has long been alternately hailed as an innovator and demonized for creating aggressively unattractive clothing that is out-of-step with its time. From cocoon dresses with no waistline to sweaters full of holes to oddly shaped dresses, Kawakubo has been responsible for radical reconsiderations of the silhouette through experimental pattern-making, draping, knotting, and eventually the use of padding. This sense of out-of-step–ness is evident in the Costume Institute’s spring show. Rei Kawakubo / Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between is a cerebral exhibition, serving as a surprisingly timely reminder of the need to embrace bodily differences and vulnerabilities.

Remarkably, Kawakubo is only the second living designer to have a solo show at the Met (the first was Yves Saint Laurent in 1983). Decades before attaining iconic status, the designer made waves in the early ’80s by showing austere black or monochromatic garments that engulfed the body—a sharp contrast to the prevailing aesthetic of the time, in which clothing tightly hugged its (preferably gym-fit) wearer. Coupled with her use of “humbler” material such as plain cotton or felted woolen, Kawakubo’s work was a poke in the eye to the hypersexualized opulence of the Reagan era, with its saturated palette, gilded brocades, and plush velvets. Kawakubo was famously hailed as the foremother of deconstruction fashion, a style that the always astute New York Times fashion critic Amy Spindler aptly described as “an asbestos suit against the bonfire of the vanities.”

“The Infinity of Tailoring,” autumn/winter 2013–14 (Comme des Garçons / Paolo Roversi / The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The female silhouette most closely associated with the ’80s, particularly within women’s work wear across Europe and North America, was characterized by overly padded shoulders: Think Melanie Griffith in Working Girl. The “power suit”—an imitation of menswear that leaned on the importance of self-presentation in the decade’s increasingly corporatized workplaces—would become inextricably linked to the rise of the enterprising self and the neoliberal politics of Reagan and Thatcher. It was central to the sartorial engineering promoted by the popular literature and visual culture of the period—perhaps most successfully by the John T. Molloy dress manual The Woman’s Dress for Success Book. The style coexisted with the bodycon look: form-fitting attire of stretch material, like the bandage dresses of Azzedine Alaïa, that exalted the statuesque bodies of the era’s supermodels. The bodycon look developed in response to a growing focus not only on health and fitness, but also on overachievement—a self-reliance ethos requiring ever-increasing degrees of bodily perfection, and exemplified by the exacting morning beauty routine of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.

Kawakubo’s work stood in contrast to both models. Her now-famous “hole sweater,” included at the Met, was intended, like much of her early work, as an exploration of wabi-sabi, the Buddhist concept of celebrating beauty in imperfection. Yet upon its unveiling, it was read as forlorn, moth-eaten, and shapeless; as Marylou Luther reported in 1983 in The Los Angeles Times, the look was dismissed by critics as “sophisticated rags.” The smattering of suit jackets that Kawakubo designed in the ’80s were asymmetrical, made from monochromatic felted wool materials and with hardly any of the shoulder pads used throughout the decade to create a masculinized female silhouette. The quiet black wool knits cocooning the body, also on view, illustrate why Kawakubo’s early work was interpreted as a direct attack on Western ideas of female beauty. Throughout the Met show, we see an unapologetically rebellious artist undercutting prevailing mores. A few years ago, the Costume Institute presented a controversial (and poorly understood) show on punk rock in fashion. Though her designs weren’t exactly prevalent in CBGB, Kawakubo (whose garments were included in that exhibit) is in some ways the true inheritor of that mantle, her work constantly pushing back on the grandeur around her.

“Body Meets Dress–Dress Meets Body,” spring/summer 1997 (Comme des Garçons / Paolo Roversi / The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

When Kawakubo eventually did embrace padding in the ’90s, she employed it to the opposite effect of power-dressing, creating oddly shaped bodies by strategically placing pads on hips, shoulders, and even the belly. Padding was central to her most remarkable collection, 1997’s “Dress Meets Body,” which occupies a prominent place within the Met show: The collection was famously dismissed by fashion insiders, who sniped that the protuberances sprouting from the clothes resembled tumors. Yet in their bulging shapes—achieved through a system of down pads—the designs marked Kawakubo’s resounding response to the fit and “contained” women’s bodies that dominated and were idealized by mainstream fashion. Kawakubo manipulated that silhouette to achieve the opposite goal. As noted by the fashion historian Rebecca Arnold, Kawakubo “want[s] to explode the arguments surrounding the size of the flesh … attempt[s] to use plastic surgery’s message that the limits of our bodies are no longer fixed in a liberating way, and use[s] their work to push out into negative space, to embrace diversity rather than the homogeneity of the flesh.” Ultimately, the collection brilliantly questioned notions of what is sexually alluring and what is grotesque, particularly within the Western vocabulary.

“Blue Witch,” spring/summer 2016 (Comme des Garçons / Paolo Roversi / The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It’s an investigation that remains central to Kawakubo’s designs, which present unorthodox relations of clothes to the body, implying a novel understanding of sexuality and beauty. (She also presaged the contemporary moment wherein younger designers freely elide the artificial division between menswear and womenswear.) For a 1994–95 collection, the designer enlisted the artist Cindy Sherman to create promotional images—at a time when Sherman’s work was dominated by dark, often gruesome imagery. One of the resulting photographs—used as a direct mailer for Comme des Garçons customers—displays a ghoulish mannequin of ambiguous gender, its chest ripped open and filled with a second doll’s decapitated head. (Like some Don Draper nightmare, the mannequin models the line’s pristine clothing.) Alongside Kawakubo, Sherman was piercing fashion’s polished façade of bodily perfection, and subverting its beauty and gender codes.

Alas, Sherman’s photographs are not in Art of the In-Between—the Met focuses on the garments themselves. Yet the recent pieces included in the exhibition do justice to the grotesque, out-of-bounds bodies represented by the Sherman campaign. Among the most striking examples of Kawakubo’s experimentation is a cartoonishly large bubblegum-pink dress from her 2012 “flat” collection. Made of felt, with the seam allowances left uncut, the dress creates an oversized shape regardless of the wearer’s size. Lady Gaga, after being criticized for gaining weight, wore it as a tongue-in-cheek response—a candy-coated fat suit.  In wearing the gigantic garment, Gaga fully embraced Kawakubo’s knowing and, at times, humorous critique of the fashion industry and what it requires of women’s bodies. The bubblegum dress may not be conventionally attractive or remotely practical—in fact, it shares a lot with the outfit worn by Lasichanh. But one thing these dresses and suits do is push back on what clothing, and the body it houses, should be. As the famously tight-lipped Kawakubo herself has commented, her clothes set out to “change the value of beauty in a positive way.”