Comme Des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo has been announced as the 2017 Met Gala theme.
The news made me recall a scene from Never Been Kissed. A group of teens are trying to decide the theme for their prom. Everyone wants Guy Perkins, the most popular guy in school who dresses like Italian porn star who left his cowboy hat at home, to decide. They’re like, “What’s the theme, Guy Perkins? We can’t make decisions without your superfluously unbuttoned shirt and necklaces and that felt hat just sitting on the corner of your bed!”
And he goes, “All right, all right. Josie.”
Some incredulous girl named Sera, not Sara, goes, “That’s not a theme!”
Then Guy Perkins The Wise responds, “No, Josie will have the answer.”
That fun dialogue ran through my head when I got the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s press release, which said, “Costume Institute’s Spring 2017 Exhibition at The Met to Focus on Rei Kawakubo and the Art of the In-Between.” It’s a big deal! To be THE THEME of an entire museum exhibit! At the MET, no less.
While you are alive!
Rei Kawabuko is the first living designer to have a solo show at the Met since since Yves Saint Laurent in 1983. In fashion, she’s often described with terms more commonly reserved for a cult leader than a designer thanks to the magnetic pull of her avant-guard vision. Rai Kawabuko does not just have fans. She has worshipers, devotees. Her Comme Des Garçons creations have inspired the work of Marc Jacobs, Karl Lagerfeld and Nicolas Ghesquère, among countless un-cited others.
In The Guardian’s coverage of this announcement, they quote film director John Waters, “who dedicated an entire chapter of his 2010 book Role Models to Kawakubo, calling her a ‘genius fashion dictator. She specialises in clothes that are torn, crooked, permanently wrinkled, ill-fitting and expensive … Ms Kawakubo is my god.’
To those who venerate her, she is a mysterious deity. But she is not a household name. Centering the theme of a museum wing around her is a bit of a risk.
Her lack of Even Your Uncle From Idaho Knows Who She Is appeal could mean, as The New York Times pointed out, less of an around-the-block kind of crowd than the Alexander McQueen exhibit drew. Comme Des Garçons sells, but it is in no way mass-appeal commercial. Where the 2014 Charles James exhibit prompted classic fashion nostalgia, 2016’s Manus ex Machina connected with guests through the universal use of technology, and 2015’s China: Through the Looking Glass was more Met-traditional in that it focused on the history and influence of a specific culture, the 2017 theme — Rei Kawakubo and the Art of the In-Between — will have to rely on the reputation of a living, breathing designer who not many people understand.
But that’s why we go to museums, right? To learn. To peel back layers of different worlds; to be overcome by the combination of historical facts and imagination. In many ways, it’s already like a fashion show in that we want so badly to be inspired. We don’t have to “get” everything. But we are so human when we seek to try.
The press release offered a Rei Kawakubo quote: “I have always pursued a new way of thinking about design…by denying established values, conventions, and what is generally accepted as the norm. And the modes of expression that have always been most important to me are fusion…imbalance… unfinished… elimination…and absence of intent.”
If we’re talking about theme in its most literal sense, then no, one woman, alive or not, cannot be “a theme,” but her complicated, startling and mind-churning universe can be. You and me and Even Your Uncle From Idaho will not need to understand. We get to observe, while Rei Kawakubo remains the one with all the answers.