New York pays tribute to Japanese fashion icon Kawakubo

Twists, knots, curls and folds: the fantastical, boundary-pushing creations of legendary designer Rei Kawakubo explore the space where fashion ends and art begins.

The Japanese designer, who founded the esteemed Comme des Garcons fashion house in 1969, is being honored at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art with an exhibition featuring half a century of her creations.

It is the first monographic show at the museum’s Costume Institute dedicated to a living designer since Yves Saint Laurent, the French legend who put women in trousers and tuxedo jackets, in 1983.

The exhibition “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art of the In-Between,” which opens Thursday and runs through September 4, displays more than 140 designs spanning the early 1980s to today.

A svelte and graceful figure, Kawakubo on Monday was the honored guest and inspiration at the annual fashion gala held at the Met, wearing her signature blunt bangs and displaying her trademark sphinxlike reserve.

A woman of few words, the 74-year-old almost never gives interviews, and refuses to discuss the meaning of her work. She continued to keep her own counsel, even in the runup to the momentous exhibition.

Her creations, however, are as audacious as she is demure.

The designer’s oft-quoted phrase, “for something to be beautiful, it doesn’t have to be pretty,” sums up her approach.

In the guide that accompanies the exhibition, she offers another perspective: “I work around the figure, but I am never limited by what the figure has to be.”

“The history of fashion has yielded only a handful of designers who are not only masters at their at their work but who can also define or redefine the aesthetics of our time. And Rei is one of these,” said Andrew Bolton, curator in charge of the Costume Institute.

“Season after season, collection after collection, she changes our eye while upending perceived notion of beauty,” he added. “If anything her work makes the art versus fashion debate redundant.”

– ‘Upending beauty’ –

Comme des Garcons focuses on asymmetry, imbalance and the form and structure of the garment, often relegating the wearer to the background.

Sometimes, the silhouette of a woman is altogether altered by a protruding bustle around the posterior, asymmetry or body ligatures.

Museum director Thomas Campbell said Kawakubo’s creations are very much at home in the Met, one of the largest and most prestigious museums in the world.

“Her creations often look like sculpture, challenging our idea of the place of fashion in contemporary culture,” he said.

The exhibit explores the art of the “in-between,” Kawakubo’s desire to find a space between labels and escape fashion conventions, playing with the tension and duality that define a lifetime of work.

There are nine areas exploring polar opposite themes in Kawakubo’s work, including “Clothes/Not clothes,” “Abstraction/Representation” and “Life/Loss.”

In “Design/Not Design,” the Met has assembled a collection of the sculptural, reinforced shapes somewhat akin to fabric origami.

The form-fitting dresses in “Absence/Presence,” meanwhile, tightly swaddle the body, with bulging protuberances that appear almost like deformities.

At Monday’s Met fundraiser, the society world’s “party of the year” that gathers famous faces from the world of film, fashion and music, the show-stopping red carpet number worn by pop star Rihanna was a dress by Kawakubo.

The floral, asymmetrical garment was slashed at the thigh and covered in bold colored discs layered like flower petals, paired with gladiator-style stilettos with red straps wrapped around her leg from ankle to thigh.

Lady Gaga took to Twitter hailing Rihanna as the “best dressed” of the night who “captured the spirit of the night” and the “emotion of Kawakubo.”

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