Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo is one of fashion’s most influential designers with Martin Margiela, Karl Lagerfeld and Helmut Lang all citing her as inspiration.
The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is dedicating its current exhibition, opening May 4, to Kawakubo (only the second living designer to have a solo display at the Met; The first being Yves Saint Laurent in 1983). ‘Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between’ showcases 140 womenswear pieces, spanning from the early 1980s, when she began showing in Paris, to her recent collection, and organised into nine aesthetic expressions.
“I think people will come away from the exhibition rethinking the art of the in-between. Rei is this figure who is about originality. Every single season she reinvents herself and reinvents fashion,” said Andrew Bolton the museum’s head curator.
Kawakubo herself was honouree chair at the 2017 Met Gala, held on the first Monday in May and the fashion industry’s answer to the Oscar’s. Katy Perry, Pharrell Williams, Tom Brady, Gisele Bundchen and Anna Wintour joined her as co-chairs, while Apple, Conde Nast, Farfetch, H&M and Maison Valentino acted as sponsors.
Red and black hues dominated the gala – colours synonymous to Comme des Garçons – Katy Perry (Maison Margiela), Naomi Campbell, Candice Swanepoel (custom Topshop), Joan Smalls (bespoke Topshop), Miranda Kerr, Rita Ora (Marchesa) Naomi Watts, Stella McCartney, Léa Seydoux (Louis Vuitton) and more. Black was dominamt in the collections Kawakubo designed in the ‘80s and even though Chanel brought it to fashion from mourning, Kawakubo reinvented it and used it to symbolise strength and severity in a decade when the fashion world turned to colour. And in her 1988 collection dosed in scarlet she simply said, “red is black”.
There were some barley there dresses too, paying homage to the in-between and avant-garde. Kendall Jenner wore a draped slip dress from La Perla Haute Couture. 85,000 crystals were hand painted and applied to reveal her bare skin beneath dressed only in a black thong. “It was inspired by Rei Kawakubo’s concept of ‘un-fabric’ and the ability to create movement out of seemingly immobile materials,” La Perla’s creative director Julia Haart explained. Bella Hadid followed suit, glittering in an Alexander Wang bodysuit with a scoop back.
Rihanna stunned in a Comme des Garçons’ Fall 2016 runway creation. 18th-century punks inspired the three-dimensional floral dress made from double-faced boned laser-cut satin – a recurring reference point of inspiration for Kawakubo. Comme model Anna Cleveland made her Met Gala debut this year in white bows from the Fall 2015 ‘Blood and Roses’ collection. As well as the guests, designers on the night also paid a touching tribute to Kawakubo, from Off-White’s Virgil Abloh “expressing the creative freedom that Comme des Garçons possesses” to Donatella Versace explaining, “I have so much admiration for Rei Kawakubo, especially for her determination and incredible strength.”
But why is Rei Kawakubo so influential? Well, as creative consultant, Ronnie Cooke Newhouse said, “Rei was the first designer to symbolise a change in attitude. She’s a non-conformist. Just at the moment when you think she’s made the rule, she breaks the rule.” And British Vogue’s newly appointed editor-in-chief, Edward Enninful, told Another magazine, “She proved that you could be an outsider and still be influential. She does her own thing and people follow. And a lot of designers today wouldn’t exist had it not been for her pioneering vision. There are designers and there’s Rei Kawakubo.”