Rihanna’s petal dress among pieces in stunning new Met exhibit showcasing designs of Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo

Also featuring a dress akin to the one worn by Katy Perry for the May issue of Vogue, ‘Art of the In-Between’ exhibition at Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute examines the space between boundaries and asks: is clothing art?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 May, 2017, 4:05pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 May, 2017, 4:05pm

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York is a mecca for wannabe designers and those who follow the Carrie Bradshaw logic of prioritising style over all else, sometimes even food. But a fashion obsession isn’t required to enjoy the museum’s new exhibit that opened this week, Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. Nor is an understanding of design history or what the term deconstructed means.

An open mind, maybe.

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Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo’s name is a mouthful (pronounced ray cow-uh-kooh-bo), as is her line, Comme des Garçons (“like some boys” in French). But New York City visitors shouldn’t let the unfamiliar names and terminology deter them from a trip to the 5th Avenue museum.

The white-walled exhibit is broken into nine sections, each examining “in-betweenness”. It’s possible to get caught up in the heady philosophical questions Kawakubo poses in her works, like the dichotomy of absence and presence. Yet, it’s also possible to enjoy it as a more surface-level brain teaser. Is this art or clothing? Is clothing art?

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Those questions are at the core of why the 74-year-old designer has been hailed as a revolutionary, and are on full display in the 140-piece collection. The exhibit guidebook suggests a pathway through the circular layout inhabited by puzzle-piece structures such as those framing the garments, but guests are also encouraged to choose their own adventure and let their imaginations fly.

“Everyone says a skirt has to be sewn with the seams on the inside? Well, what if I try it on the outside?” a museum-goer staring at the white patchwork skirt and tattered shirt in section two can imagine the designer asking herself. Equally fun is envisioning the petite Kawakubo handing a crumpled piece of paper to her design team and asking for a pattern to be made using its qualities, which apparently was the genesis of the brown paper dress that kicks off the section. Talk about a Devil Wears Prada moment.

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If you’re eager to find recognisable looks, head to section five, called “Elite Culture/Popular Culture”. There you’ll find the tutus and leather jackets from Kawakubo’s famous 2005 show Ballerina Motorbike. They are the most wearable, maybe not to the supermarket, but even Forever 21 sells a version of a ballerina skirt and a faux motorcycle jacket.

Section six is Kawakubo’s interesting take on clothing worn to social rituals. Gazing at the layered, Victorian-looking dresses and headpieces, it’s hard not to wonder why we don’t wear such elaborate cocoon-like veils for funerals and weddings. What would happen if we did?

Section nine has some familiar pieces for Vogue readers and Rihanna followers. Those who followed Monday night’s Met Gala, the legendary fundraiser for the institute and notorious red carpet event, may catch a petal dress akin to the Barbadian singer’s, and one worn by Katy Perry for the May issue of the magazine.

Because many of us are more familiar with modern art exhibits in sterile-looking galleries than we are couture fashion presentations, In-Between may be a counter-intuitive cross-over hit, attracting fans of both worlds. Its predecessor, 2016’s Manus x Machina exhibit, drew more than 750,000 people, making it the second-most popular following 2015’s hit China: Through the Looking Glass, and the seventh-most visited at the whole of the Met.

“I know we get a lot of people who will laugh at it and not see the intention – the ones who reduce fashion to wearability,” Kawakubo’s husband and partner, Adrian Joffe, said in a rare interview the pair gave to Vogue before the opening. “But I hope most people will be inspired by it.”

Maybe off the runway and inside a museum, they’ll inspire some who didn’t realise they love high fashion.

The exhibit is open until September 4.