Before staging such a titanic exhibition in New York, Rei Kawakubo created a life-size version in Tokyo
It’s a rare occasion for Rei Kawakubo to be fêted – she famously refuses interviews and only communicates through her work, or through Comme des Garçons’ President and CEO, Adrian Joffe. He acts as her mouthpiece of sorts, channeling her thoughts into tangible sound bites. Talking to Kawakubo about her work can often result in frustration. When AnOther Editor-in-Chief Susannah Frankel once interviewed Kawakubo, she asked her what the collection in question meant, and Kawakubo drew a circle on a piece of paper and left the room. (That was to be interpreted as the Buddhist symbol for ensō, which means ‘void’).
It’s even more rare for New York’s Met Museum to celebrate Kawakubo’s enduring work for Comme des Garçons – not least because she is only the second living designer to receive a solo show at the Met, but because the Met’s curator, Andrew Bolton, had to contend with someone who was very particular about how her work was shown. She only agreed to do the exhibition so that she could set an example for how it should be done after she was gone. A template, essentially. As part of the New York Times TimesTalks series, Adrian Joffe sat down with Bolton and the Times’ Chief Fashion Critic Vanessa Friedman. The result was a fascinating insight into how a titanic exhibition gets pieced together, with a personality shrouded in mystery.
To get to a stage where a Comme des Garçons show was open to the public took years of planning and back-and-forth until both parties were equally pleased with the outcome. Here’s what we learned.
THE IDEA FOR A RETROSPECTIVE WAS PROPOSED BACK IN 2003
Adrian Joffe and Met Museum curator Andrew Bolton first met back in 2003. It was then that Bolton first informally proposed the idea for a Comme des Garçons show at the Met Museum’s Costume Institute. Joffe was open to the idea, but little did either of them know it would take 14 years to actually see that idea through to fruition.
KAWAKUBO ONLY DECIDED TO DO THE EXHIBITION SO SHE COULD SEE IT DONE RIGHT
Originally, Kawakubo was vehemently against the idea. She only wanted the exhibition to include her most recent collection. “She never wanted to do it because she never liked looking back,” said Joffe. “She’s always trying to start from zero. By definition, looking back there’s baggage. She was always worried about doing an exhibition because she would be forced to look at things.”
It took a bit of Joffe’s coaxing for her to realise this was the perfect moment. “She accepted the idea, because she was always saying the person who did those things in the 80s and 90s is not the person she is now. But she came to understand that that’s not the point. The point is to show the work to the public and see the history. She always used to say, ‘Do it after I’m not here.’ She didn’t want to look back and see the past things. But she said, ‘Maybe it would be good to do it so I can sort of show how I would do it if I were ever asked’.”
ARGUMENTS ENSUED OVER THE INCLUSION OF CERTAIN PIECES
For a designer who is always moving forward and refuses to consider any of her past work, it’s exceedingly tricky to put together a retrospective – whether or not it’s called that. Kawakubo hates the word “history”, according to Joffe, and so a few pieces from past collections proved contentious for inclusion. Andrew Bolton, the curator, battled hard to get a copy of the “holey sweater” from 1982 – one of the most iconic Comme pieces featured in images from photographer Peter Lindbergh. Kawakubo didn’t think it would make sense to include something from that era, which she now wholly disowns. Bolton felt differently, however, and procured a copy of the sweater from one of Kawakubo’s patternmakers. Other items that took some tug of war included pieces from the SS12 White Drama collection and AW05’s Broken Bride collection. Kawakubo felt that those collections were too beloved by the press and not provocative enough.
SHE CREATED A LIFE-SIZE REPLICA OF THE MET MUSEUM SPACE OUTSIDE OF TOKYO
Kawakubo wanted the exhibition to take place not in the Costume Institute, but in the Met Breuer, which wasn’t going to fly with the Met team. She had a life-size model of the space – 116,000 square feet in total – completely built outside of Tokyo “in order to show [the Met Museum] the impact” of designing a space from scratch that would work inside the museum. A small model wouldn’t do her vision justice, so a replica was created in her native Japan in order for her to properly visualise the space. A smaller replica was then made in Paris, which was presented to the museum’s team.
SHE WILL NEVER DO ANOTHER EXHIBITION
“She will definitely not do it again,” Joffe said. “She did it for the Met, for Andrew, there is no reason to do another one again. Unless we did another one with Andrew, a version of this – for me, that's possible. It would be nice to take it around the world, but we wouldn’t ever do something like this with a different person or a different institution.”
Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between is open now at New York’s Met Museum.
It’s Comme week! From red carpet write-ups to picks from the archive, head here for pieces celebrating the opening of The Met’s Art of the In-Between exhibition.