Taking risks and challenging conventions has always been on Rei Kawakubo's agenda. Upsetting body silhouettes, breaking, padding and reassembling them has therefore been one of her favourite exercises in fashion since her early catwalk shows in the '80s.
Her experiments reached a new level with the seminal S/S 1997 collection "Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body" (also known as the "lumps and bumps" show...), but, in more recent years, silhouettes have grown bigger and bigger, becoming more extravagant, turning maybe into symbols of our world in perennial chaos that is trying to swallow us.
Comme des Garçons' A/W 17 collection continued along these lines: rather than featuring designs with some strategical padded and stuffed motifs as it would have been maybe logical in a 20th anniversary celebration of that iconic collection (you can't expect Kawakubo to be so banal, can you?), it included gigantic and monumental (and quite often armless) shapes.
The show opened with bulbous white shells, absurd female forms preserving the anthropomorphic anonymity of Fausto Melotti's "Seven Sages", but with the voluptuous bodies of the Venus of Willendorf or of Niki de Saint Phalle's joyously plump Nanas and the dynamism of Jean Arp's "Torse de Pyrénées".
From sinuous forms, the catwalk gradually progressed, developing into more outlandish designs, at times matched with customised Nike sneakers.
Most of the designs on the runway were made with what Kawakubo dubbed "non-fabrics", that is textiles that were not woven and could definitely not be catalogued under the "fashion fabrics" category.
Among the materials that prevailed there was white foam, a thick gray material that looked like architectural insulating felt made with recycled clothing (an attempt at creating high fashion with unusual materials or a critique of fast fashion?), and crinkled brown paper.
Black lace made a brief appearance on a white shape with a belled skirt covered in fabric formations reminiscent of the heavily calcified carapace of thoracica, while silver foil was employed for a spherical design suggesting a leap into the future or reminiscent of Karla Grosch performing in Oskar Schlemmer's "Metalltanz" in 1928.
Wigs (by longterm contributor Julien d'Ys) were made with the stainless steel sponges you use to scrub away greasy, grimy stains from pots and pans, almost to suggest that everyday materials could be used to make fashion statements or they were maybe odes to the imperfect perfections of normal life, that also hinted at waste and consumption.
Kawakubo's main preoccupation in this collection was the future of the silhouette and the possibility of redefining the female form via these shapes in which you could see any sort of thing or maybe nothing at all, depending from your imagination or will to be transported into the designer's enigmatic and inscrutable vision (mind you, having now reached the status of untouchable, Kawakubo may also be taking the piss out of the fashion crowds: too scared to be able to grasp her messages, we may be collectively seeing grand journeys into the infinite, while she may just be assembling a pile of crap on purpose; in a nutshell, we are probably behaving like that woman congratulating designer Ducasse with the grand words "Botticelli's monumental angels...the archangel of robots...tempests transfixed and deified..." at the beginning of William Klein's fashion parody film Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?).
The meanings of these figures may therefore be multiple: if you looked at the shadows cast from Kawakubo's bizarre monsters you immediately thought about sculptures and modern abstractions à la Barbara Hepworth (it would be interesting to see what kind of projections British artist duo Tim Noble and Sue Webster would produce if, rather than using junk they would employ a Comme des Garçons design in their installations...). At the same time, these shells had a disquieting power about them, they restricted the body movements, warped the silhouettes and violated the freedom of the wearer, making people think.
The runway for Kawakubo's has indeed turned into a stage for ideas and experiments with new materials and shapes, rather than being just a place to show a selection of clothes.
Or maybe, rather than being a runway show, this was a post-fashion, post-trends and post-fads two-finger salute to the mental madness of the fashion weeks, with their semi-naked celebrities selling their bodies rather than clothes.
But if Kawakubo has been taking a lot of risks through these fashion performances, it will soon be the duty of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute in New York to take the discourse further with "The Art of the In-Between", its new Spring exhibition, curated by Andrew Bolton.
Opening in two months' time (May 4th through September 4th), this retrospective (the first monographic show about a living designer since Yves Saint Laurent's exhibition in 1983) will feature around 150 examples of Kawakubo's womenswear designs for Comme des Garçons, dating from the early 1980s to the A/W 17 collection.
The title of the show refers to the designer's revolutionary experiments in "in-betweenness", and her fascination with interstitiality that will be explored according to eight dichotomoies - Fashion/Anti-Fashion, Design/Not Design, Model/Multiple, Then/Now, High/Low, Self/Other, Object/Subject, and Clothes/Not Clothes.
"I have always pursued a new way of thinking about design...by denying established values, conventions, and what is generally accepted as the norm," Kawakubo stated in an official press release about the event, "the modes of expression that have always been most important to me are fusion...imbalance... unfinished... elimination...and absence of intent."
She may have forgotten her will to break walls between dualisms and dichotomies in search of new shapes and silhouettes for the future, but visitors of the Comme des Garçons event at the Met Museum will probably become aware of it as soon as they will step into the exhibition spaces.