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 Comme des Garçons SS07
Comme des Garçons SS07Photography Craig McDean, courtesy of Comme des Garçons / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Andrew Bolton on what it was like to curate Comme

...and how the Met Gala is the ultimate voyeuristic experience

Both Rei Kawakubo and the work she has created at Comme des Garçons are deeply enigmatic. So how was Andrew Bolton – curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – going to approach exhibiting it? As a Patron of Sarabande: The Lee Alexander McQueen Foundation established to support emerging creative talent in the UK – Bolton was in London Wednesday night to answer that question. So from working with Rei, to choosing the garments on display, to the ultimate question of what the ‘Art of the In-Between’ actually is, here’s what the curator revealed.


“It was easy to persuade the board to do an exhibition on Rei because of her impact with Comme since the early 80s. The fact that Rei’s work exists in the space between dichotomies – being art and fashion – it was easy for them to see the artistic intent and potential for the exhibition. When the idea first came about, Rei only wanted to show her last seven collections, so from spring 2014 to today. That’s really where her head is at the moment – everything before that was almost too painful for her to look back. So the biggest challenge initially was to persuade her to expand the exhibition beyond that. She also didn’t want it to be retrospective, so I had to come up with a thesis that she felt comfortable with.”


Art of the In-Between was this idea of an invitation to empty one’s mind of any sort of references and to look at her work with completely open eyes. That was really where we began, and she felt very comfortable about this interpretation of her work. Rei hated it when people understood her work too easily, so the examples of collections like White Drama and Broken Bride that were applauded. She hated that they weren’t challenging enough for viewers and visitors. So the challenge for me was to free my mind of any references previously given to her work, because they destroyed the subjective presence of it. Its subjective presence was to be achieved through this ‘in-betweenness’.”


“She doesn’t want any label attached to her. She says she was born in Japan but she’s not a Japanese designer, she says she’s a woman but she’s not a feminist. She doesn’t like her collections being associated with a label, despite the fact that much of her modern designs are in fact feminist statements. I don’t think she wants her work to be read on that level – I think she views it as an interpretation that’s too simplistic. I think it’s the idea of having limited interpretations of her clothing that she’s always wanted.”

“Rei made this breakout in 1979 when she made the deliberate decision to make clothing that had never been seen before. To me it was avant-garde modernism. The same motivation that prompted this rupture in 1979 was the same motivation that prompted her rupture in 2014. This same idea of moving away from experiencing and creating something completely new. She often said she wanted to start looking at fashion through the eyes of a child, someone completely immune. She also wanted the idea of translating ideas into pure form and representing this form through objects.”


“When you’re curating an exhibition, you have the designs and they fit in with that. You rarely come up with a design and then fix the curation around it. That was a huge challenge I had to face because Rei cared more about the design than the curation. That’s where she wanted me to start – to think about the space we had. She invited me to Tokyo and found a warehouse that was the exact proportions of the exhibition space and created a life size model for me. It was extraordinary. The design and curation eventually did become in tandem but Rei really did want this idea of looking at the designs as blank canvases so that their characters could speak. That’s why we had no music in the exhibition, and no text on the walls.”


“That’s definitely the most difficult part, editing down from your original object selection. But it helped that I had this overarching narrative – this idea of the in-between. Within that, you had eight dichotomies. They helped to set a criteria for the object selection. So that made it slightly easier. Most of the pieces from 1989 onwards are owned by Rei in her archive, and those prior to that were in the Kyoto Costume Institute in Japan. So there were only 2 venues really in terms of the loans required.”


“It’s the ultimate voyeur experience because you’re totally invisible. It’s a very out of body experience because it’s not your world. It’s very separate from the exhibition – since Anna took it on board, it’s become this incredible funding opportunity for our department. It’s very church and state really. There was always a threat looming over me that Rei actually wouldn’t come. But she did, she actually came the Friday evening before it opened as well. It was a terrifying moment, but I’ve learnt to give her space. I think what I always feared was that the architecture would overpower the objects. And I think she was nervous about being the second living designer to be featured in the Met. But when she came and saw the show she was pleased and relaxed into it.”

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until 4th September