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Rei Kawakubo brought her first runway show to Paris in 1981, knowing that, at that point, the fashion world wouldn't come to her in Japan. That show sent a tremor through the fashion industry. Her models appeared without makeup, wearing flat, comfortable (gasp!) men's-style shoes and clothing that looked like it had been assembled from the ragbag. She immediately put Tokyo on the map as a fashion design center.
She also made a name for herself as an unconventional conceptualist, an inspiration to latter-day street-chic designers, as well as A-list celebs like minimalist Helmut Lang and punk goddess Vivienne Westwood.
Kawakubo is a fine artist and philosopher who surrounds herself with talented individuals able to give shape to her ideas. She's in control of every facet of her multimillion-dollar brand Comme des Garçons. French for "like the boys," this mellifluous phrase characterizes a philosophy of freedom when it comes to clothing construction — fragments of garments mismatched and inside out, and a mix-up of colors and textures — as well as presentation style and marketing strategy. Kawakubo sells clothing out of packing cartons at "guerrilla stores" in Beirut, Warsaw and Singapore, as well as in upscale boutiques of her own design in Tokyo, Paris and New York.
MOCAD's solo Kawakubo exhibition features a diverse group of 80 or so pieces spaciously displayed. The entrance to the show is a tunnel that mimics the entryway to the Comme des Garçons in New York. Visitors are met by a red-and-white-checked and camouflage-stripe-accented outfit hanging lifeless above a bare light bulb and a Rei Kawakubo subversive quote: "Fashion is not art."
The adjacent wall is a Detroit-style trash collage of fragments of unraveling sweaters and detritus from runway shows at which Comme des Garçon's introduced its many collections.
Kawakubo claims she creates totally new designs, but the style of her sleeves, collars, waists and hemlines often reference previous eras. She looks everywhere for inspiration and defines fashion in very broad terms, humorously adapting the construction of a baseball mitt, for example, to a leather jacket.
And she reshapes not just clothing, but the human form itself, with costumes for Merce Cunningham's dance company ... as if our own bulges were not extreme enough already.
Kawakubo claims that she doesn't design for any specific body type, and one thick, cone-breasted foam torso on display proves it. Many jackets and coats are amorphous enough that someone shorter and heavier than a Size 0 runway model could wear them, although it's unclear whether the impact would be as dramatic. And it's difficult to imagine how one garment taped to the wall — resembling a gray picnic blanket with a hole cut in it and two randomly placed sleeves — would look good on anyone!
The MOCAD installation is, for the most part, as approachable as the displays in Comme des Garçons' guerrilla stores. You can walk right up to most of the clothes; they are suspended on hangers, slumped on the floor and stuck to the walls. The clothing from private collectors, however, is exhibited in a makeshift room with caution tape across the doorway. The freedom that characterizes the designer's philosophy throughout the rest of the exhibition confronts the reality of damage and theft here. The suggestion is that these clothes are "off-limits" because they are risky designs, but the real issue is someone could soil or steal valuable vintage threads. Why the double standard of display? Are these privately owned items more valuable than the runway clothes displayed out in the open? Or is this supposed to look like a dressing room? Either way, the guerrilla store has become a funky historical museum display that drains life, a sense of urbanity, from the garments and shouts, "Don't Touch!"
A small installation of stacked televisions presents engaging clips from several Kawakubo runway shows. Her 2006 collection features a conglomeration of ruffled and gathered components with tailored parts. Coming toward the camera, the models are modestly covered from head to toe, or at least to the knees, with elaborate garments juxtaposing feminine and masculine elements. As the models turn their backs to walk away, however, we see that a simple, long shirt is all that supports the complex front load. Their long legs and flat-heeled oxford shoes are entirely visible. The outfit is an elaborate ruse — quite literally, a facade for Kawakubo to raise gender issues, emphasize fashion's artificiality and display a keen sense of self-awareness about the ludicrousness of her own designs.
Another video showcases Kawakubo's "Broken Bride" collection from 2005. Models wearing her peculiar off-white or black gowns walk down the runway to the sound of traditional wedding music, shod in men's white lace-up or slip-on shoes. Their faces are coated with white pancake makeup, their eyes surrounded by sequins, hairdos capped by wreaths of garish fake flowers or tinsel garland. This is Kawakubo at her most philosophical. These gowns are for brides prepared to break with tradition, just as she has broken with the image of a Japanese icon: the geisha.
Beyond designing garments, Kawakubo creates fabrics specifically for her collections. Many of her "Broken Bride" dresses are made from silk that's transfer-printed with the details of a complex pleated gown to create a trompe l'oeil effect that enriches the design's tone and construction, without all that detail sewn in.
Clothing as art, architecture, container, disguise or displaced identity are issues raised in this exhibition, a show definitely worth seeing even for those who aren't runway-ready. You may find some designs puzzling or think others are just awful, wondering why anyone would pay thousands of dollars to wear them. But you'll also reflect on your own clothing preferences. And that is the purpose, in the most general terms, of Kawakubo's designs. She frees you to consider, create and wear what inspires you.
In conjunction with this exhibition, MOCAD presents a lecture by Harold Koda, curator-in-charge of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; at 7 p.m., Thursday, March 6, and a lecture by New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn at 7 p.m., Thursday, March 20.
ReFusing Fashion: Rei Kawakubo runs through April 20 at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 4454 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-6622.
Dolores S. Slowinski is an artist-writer who wears practical clothes in Detroit. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.