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KawakuboNothing prepares you for the sheer energy of Rei Kawakubo’s designs. From the hands and imagination of this Japanese founder of Commes des Garçons have arisen works as muscular as those of Rodin, both drawing-room formal and motorcycle anarchic, evoking science fiction as well as history, geometry, nature, architecture, a lava flow of ideas, entirely original. In photographs the garments – one hesitates even to call them clothes – are often oddly shaped, consuming models and defying conventional movement and purpose. In person, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they have the effect of stopping you dead in your tracks and evoking visceral emotions, begging to be tousled and touched, commanding thought, summoning consternation and delight. Nothing is as it seems, and never is anything to be assumed. The whole concept of clothing, what it says and who it makes us, is called into question.

Famously, Ms. Kawakubo did not study pattern making or fashion design, but aesthetics and fine arts; the lack of formal training in the garment trade freed her to discard tradition and expectations, and simply make what was in her mind with whatever materials she pleased, and no thought to practicality or wearability, trends or criticism. A dress shaped like a gourd that hobbles the legs? Yes. A flutter of a wobbly disc that eliminates the shape of the body altogether? Yes. A dress that wears its own dress, or two? How about a hood that simply swallows and renders invisible its wearer, or a snake of cloth that winds and binds and captures? Yes. There are no “nos” to her designs.

Inherent in the work is anger, at the way fashion and clothing often distort female bodies, limit them, dictate their worth, define their purpose, sexualize, genderize, infantilize. Deconstructed corsets with lumps in odd places remind us of the stupidity of such a garment; a devastating mourning dress covered with the black tiny dresses of lost babies, swaths of black veils that completely subsume, call forth relentless motherhood and its cost. Gowns that bind with big gaping holes, mouth shaped apertures, great slashes of violent red, swirls and strips that terrify and overwhelm. These are clothes that drip with the rage of battle, at the price paid for position, role and life.

Her collection of wedding dresses is witty and profound. Seen from a distance, they are conventionally white and ecru dresses, of various shapes. Up close, you see the lovely Edwardian style gown is made with a fabric on which the lace is merely printed, a sham, and hanging from the large veiled hat, metal chains. A ball gown layered in many lace fabrics is sumptuous and beautiful, until one notices the black leather harness. These dresses are funny, and scary, and comment both on the absurd convention of weddings and on marriage as a sacrifice of freedom.

Ms. Kawakubo takes in the world as she designs. One series engages with colonialism, using many traditional fabrics, tartan, military dress, in shapes that evoke India, the far east, the tropics, binding together east and west, commander and slave. She plays with menswear, glen plaid, suiting, in ways that question and defy gender roles. Dimension and shape are paramount, and while her palette tends towards black, white and grey, she uses color to create disharmony, or to amuse or shock. The very concept of beauty is challenged; it is clear that she prefers the interesting and the damaged to the pretty.

“Clothes make the man”, a phrase that comes to us by way of Shakepeare and the ancient Greeks, expresses how deeply we connect personal image, true or false, to the way we dress ourselves. From Hans Andersen and old middle eastern folk tales we get “the Emperor has no clothes,” a way of saying that something appears to be true which is in fact a lie. Kawakubo understands that it is all lies. Her truth is achieved by turning clothing sideways, upside down, backwards, inside out and outside in, using both microscope and telescope to show us who we are, and who we might be. Her extraordinary artistry lies in challenging the circumscription of clothing, flaying the idea for the sake of a glimpse of the glorious, the ugly, the wonderful, inside.

Text © Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2017. Reuse with permission.  Photo © Timothy A. Clary, Agence France-Presse, Getty Images.