If you are someone who likes a lot of guidance and explanation at the museum, you might want to dramatically recalibrate your expectations before heading into "Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art of the In-Between," the lavishly presented new show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute.
Arriving in a brilliant white space containing a series of geometric structures, you'll find no one pointing you in the right direction, and no explanatory text next to the garments. That's because for Kawakubo, the revered Japanese designer who's been reinventing her clothes for nearly a half-century — to the point that she no longer calls them clothes, but "objects for the body" — there is no right answer.
"I don't like to explain the clothes," the Comme des Garcons founder, now 74, was quoted as saying in 2013. "The clothes are just as you see them and feel them."
There is a bit of guidance available. Andrew Bolton, star curator of this and other blockbuster Met fashion exhibits, has provided paper brochures with maps and context, though he cheerfully welcomes you to ditch them. And even this much explanation for the visitor was a hard-fought compromise with Kawakubo.
"It was a battle," Kawakubo says in an interview with Bolton. "Are you going to write that we fought?"
They seem to have fought over various things. Showing a reporter around the exhibit a few days before opening, Bolton noted that although Kawakubo approached him 18 months ago saying she was ready for a show, she was resolutely opposed to a retrospective. She hates focusing on the past, because she has moved on.
"She finds it physically painful to look at her work. So, that took months of negotiation," he said.
Fans of "Comme," as fashion-lovers call it, would have been "screaming in my ears," Bolton added, if he hadn't included collections like "Broken Bride," where Kawakubo explored the concept of marriage, and "Ballerina Motorbike," in which she juxtaposed the very feminine — a filmy pink tutu — with the tough, muscular look of a black motorcycle jacket.
Kawakubo actually wanted to focus exclusively on the last few years of designs — following her second "rupture" in 2014, when she said she was no longer making "clothing" in the sense of wearable garments. (Her first rupture, in 1979, is known as the moment she decided to ditch her early, folklore-inflected designs and "start from zero.") "This was where her mind was at," Bolton said. He convinced her otherwise, and sprinkled through the show are juxtapositions of the older, more functional clothes, and the new.
Pointing out a 2009 dress, he noted: "This still has arms, still has legs, still has openings." Then, pointing to a post-2014 version: "Now you see the priority of form over function." An example of her later work is three jackets, fused into one — with two of the jackets forming sleeves of the central jacket.
It is rare that the Costume Institute focuses on a single living designer — the last was Yves Saint Laurent in 1983. But Bolton had long wanted to work with Kawakubo. "For me Rei is not only the most important and influential designer of the last 40 years, but the most inspirational at the same time," he says. "Her influence is enormous — especially on the vocabulary of fashion that we now take for granted, like asymmetry, like the unfinished, like black as a fashionable color."
"She summarizes the last 50 years of fashion. She's that important."
The exhibit, which launches with the glittery Met gala Monday night, is divided into nine themes, all of them dualities in Kawakubo's work: Fashion/Anti-Fashion, High/Low, Design/Not Design, and Clothes/Not Clothes are a few.
Passing by one display, Bolton notes that the collection is one of Kawakubo's favorites — and then stops himself. "Well, she wouldn't say favorite — she would say 'least dissatisfying.'" That 1997 collection was called "Body Meets Dress — Dress Meets Body." Garments in gingham-like fabric are stretched over bizarre protrusions on the body, coming out from the stomach or the back or the hip.
"I didn't expect them to be easy garments to be worn every day," Kawakubo has said about that collection. "It is more important... to translate thoughts into action rather than to worry about if one's clothes are worn in the end." (Of course, she has made more commercial collections that end up in stores, if not the runway.)
Scurrying around the exhibit the other day, Bolton described a classic anxiety dream he'd had two nights earlier: The exhibit opened, but it was in a huge airplane hangar — and nobody came. No one at all. And Kawakubo, too, has not been immune to anxiety about the show. "Do you think the space is disorienting?" she asks him during the interview. "Do you think people will get lost?"
Getting lost, he assures her, is rather the point.