Andrew Bolton, the head curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, in New York City, was seated front row at Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons SS17 show. He was sat next to Anna Wintour, the US Vogue Editor, who hasn’t been seen at a Comme show for several seasons.
Even the most amateur sleuth might deduce, then, that Kawakubo will be the subject of the Met’s 2017 spring exhibition (the same spot last occupied by China: Through the Looking Glass). The most glittering of art events, the May show is a shared endeavour between Bolton and Wintour: he curates the artworks and she curates the enormous fundraising gala dinner, or “Met Ball”, that precedes its opening.
Backstage after the show, Wintour offered her congratulations to Kawakubo — “and to say how pleased I am that we will be working together”. Case closed, right? Wrong. When I asked a Comme des Garçons spokesman whether or not the show was set, I was told that “it is not confirmed for the time being and no official announcement has been made”.
Were it to be true, Kawakubo, the 73-year-old Japanese designer who founded her label in 1969, would be the second living designer ever to have been the subject of the show. The last was Yves Saint Laurent in 1983 (Miuccia Prada was honoured in 2012, but only as the other half of an exhibition, Impossible Conversations, alongside Elsa Schiaparelli).
Kawakubo will make a fascinating study. Alongside her husband Adrian Joffe, whom she married in 1992, she oversees a business and retail empire that brings in annual revenues of around $260m. But despite her considerable commercial success, her shows remain an absolute distillation of her view: small, installation-like collections of only a few looks, 17 in all for SS16, that show no obedience to the typical conventions of the catwalk — wearability, seasonality, commercialism.
“Rei sees herself as a purist, the artist at the heart of the company and the person with the creative vision,” said Bolton from his seat next to me. “She offers her collection as an art piece, and then looks to her design team to unpick that vision and turn it into more commercial product. It’s how she can maintain a sense of remove from the business of fashion.”
Like artworks, Kawakubo’s shows are a riddle of references and ideas; you look at her collections in search of an emotional connection or mood rather than a new overcoat. According to Joffe, who speaks as Kawakubo’s translator, this SS17 show was called “invisible clothing” and it was “the epitome of Comme”. Other than that, they offered no more clues.
The models appeared, walking slowly, either swaddled in cocoon-like layers of clothes — an overcoat cut in half was over-layered and quilted outwards, a nest of jackets inter-layered with white shirt tails unfurled like a rose — or rendered two-dimensional: a great rectangle of fabric was seamed along the pattern-lines, and worn across the body.
The clothes had a funereal austerity, black and white with huge white pilgrim collars, or were made in livid scarlet. Most of the looks were worn with plastic skull caps, coils of acetate that dripped down the models faces like ectoplasm. The soundtrack, “Sorrow”, Colin Stetson’s Reimagining of Henryk Gorecki’s Third Symphony, charged the atmosphere with a soaring melancholy.
And then came a dress with a bassinet hood — the model’s head appearing as though in a coffin. A later look was stitched together from a dozen other bassinets printed with black hearts. Other looks featured circular abdominal cut-outs. On an instinctive level, they suggested a deep maternal grief. Or longing. They made me feel incredibly sad.
I wouldn’t presume to know what Kawakubo intended with her SS17 collection. But the thrill with Comme is in its interpretation and trying to find her meaning. There was real beauty here. Those who like it get the T-shirt. I really hope we now get the show.