If you don’t know the name Rei Kawakubo, then you can’t call yourself a true fashion fan. The elusive Japanese founder and designer of the cult Comme des Garçons brand specialises in clothing as art and fantastical body sculpture.
Rumour has it that Kawakubo and her brand will be the subject of a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition in spring 2017; although there has been no official announcement, there have been enough hints. If so, it will be historic: she’ll be the first living woman fashion designer to have a retrospective exhibition at the Met. Only one other living designer has been afforded the honour – Yves Saint Laurent in 1983.
This year’s Met fashion exhibition is titled “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology”, and follows on from the hugely successful “China: Through the Looking Glass” and “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty”. The exhibitions are funded in part through the celebrity-studded annual Met gala.
Kawakubo, 73, is worthy of the retrospective not just because of her unique talent but because she is one of the most publicity-shy designers of our age (she declines most interviews and rarely comes out to take a bow), making her a constant source of fascination. It’s refreshing in the age of the designer-turned-celebrity that someone just wants the clothes to speak for themselves.
Her designs puzzle and confuse most people – they’re hardly wearable and very weird. But Comme des Garçons is all about ideas – about deconstructing and subverting fashion’s conventions. She toys with stereotypes, sexuality and shapes – with an approach to fashion that has been called gender-neutral.
Comme des Garçons led the rise of Japanese design in the 1990s, which changed fashion as we knew it and ushered in a new aesthetic that disregarded conventions of beauty and made so-called ugliness divine.
The label’s spring-summer 2017 show in Paris was full of surprises (and, because of the Met rumours, drew extra close attention). There were enormously wide silhouettes, and layered fabrics, first in stark black with a playful white frill or collar, then in red tartan. Puzzling and difficult to decipher, the mystery is all part of the thrill.