Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between

CCTP 802 Art and Media Interfaced

Prof. Martin Irvine

Yinghan Guo

May 4th, 2018.


Situating Rei Kawakubo’s fashion exhibition in a museum context, this paper questions how should be understood the relationship between the museum and the exhibits, and how does the museum work as an interface between the exhibits and the viewer. The first part of the paper gives a brief introduction of Kawakubo and her most famous collections. The following three parts discuss the function of the museum, the Metropolitan exhibition, and whether the museum makes fashion an artwork. This paper aims to show that the Costume Institute’s curation of the show creates enough room for the viewers to make their own interpretations of the exhibits, and that the museum space contributes to the making of Kawakubo’s haute couture artworks.


Rei Kawakubo is a Japanese fashion designer who is often seen as an artist as well, though herself never acknowledges. Behind Kawakubo’s blurring identity is a larger debate about whether designers are artists and whether fashion is a form of art. Daphne Guinness gives a definite answer to this question: “the best of our designers are indisputably artists; it just so happens that they have chosen fabric as their medium instead of paint or clay. Whether or not they regard themselves as ‘artists’ is another question entirely” (Smith and Kubler 8) Guinness’s contribution to this debate is that she separates the roles of a fashion designer as is viewed by the general public and those as is understood by the fashion designers themselves. What complicates the debate is that fashion has been gradually taken into museum space—be it contemporary art galleries or traditional art museums—since the end of the last century. This trend sparks more discussions about the relationship between fashion and art.

Taking the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2017 retrospective of Rei Kawakubo’s work for example, this paper explores how fashion might be viewed as art in a museum context, and how the museum creates an interpretive framework for haute couture to be viewed as an artwork. This thesis aims to show that the museum promotes the idea that fashion can be seen as art, and argues that the museum space not only promotes cultural transmission and dialogue, but also participate in the meaning-making of a work of art.

Rei Kawakubo

Rei Kawakubo was born in 1942 in Tokyo. She enrolled in Keio University in the same city eighteen years later, where she studied fine arts and literature. Kawakubo was not officially trained as a fashion designer, but her exposure to Asian and Western art as she studied the history of aesthetics inspires her design in her later career, which incorporates both Eastern and Western elements. After her graduation from college, Kawakubo worked in the advertising department of Asahi Kasei, a textile company, and then as a freelance stylist. In 1969, she established her own fashion brand Comme des Garçcons, meaning “like some boys” in French, and incorporated the label in 1973.

Kawakubo had her first Paris show in 1981. Together with another Japanese fashion designer, Yohji Yamamoto, Kawakubo brought fresh air to the European fashion world. In the early 80s, fashion “was dominated by the high glamour of Gianni Versace and Thierry Mugler.” (Hyzagi). Kawakubo and Yamamoto, however, went against this trend by using “deliberate holes woven into crinkled fabrics, irregular hemlines, side seams that were often ragged and unfinished, and loose-fitting layers that fell aimlessly over the body” (Mears 99).

Using formlessness to conceal the body, Kawakubo went against the dominant tight-to-the-body fashion trend. “I built my work from within,” says Kawakubo, “instead of satisfying a demand for sexualized and ostentatious clothing.” Her non-conformism generated distinct reactions of the viewer, some of whom gave her generous praise, while others dismissed the collection as “ragged chic” and labels it as “post atomic.” This demonstrates how meaning is made through difference, and how fashion as a sign is read and interpreted differently.

Both the trend that Kawakubo rejected and the critique she received provide crucial context to understand her work. Martin Irvine summarizes that “an expression, utterance, or any form of discourse is . . . always already embedded in a history of expressions by others in chains or networks of ongoing cultural and political moments” (1). If Kawakubo’s rejection of the fashion trend is a dialogue with the past, then the critiques is a response in the future which her design anticipated when they were made. Since meaning emerges from dialogues, be it conversation or controversy, Kawakubo’s design acquires meaning as we read it in relation to the fashion trend. Her rejection to the popular and the norm, and her relentless seeking for the new and the groundbreaking gave her design a unique feature, which allows her to enter into the dialogue of fashion conversation with a distinct voice.

Kawakubo’s 1997 collection, “Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress,” demonstrates the sign value of her design, which, I argue, blurs the boundary between fashion and art. Being referred to also as “lumps and bumps,” this collection includes “dresses, skits and jackets in bright, stretch gingham checks that came with enormous goose-down-filed protuberances suggestive of tumors, shoulder pads, pregnant bellies or outside fanny packs—and in all the wrong places” (Smith).

It is obvious that those lumps and bumps are not functional, because no one would wear them in daily life. They only appear in fashion shows and are appreciated because of their sign value, or the ideas that they express. “Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress” is a collection through which Kawakubo attempts to explore the relationship between clothes and the body. When the models put on the clothes, the lumps and bumps become a part of the body. Rather than seeing clothes as materials that cover the body, Kawakubo proposes a more intimate relationship between them. The lumps and bumps that give the clothes a special form (physical deformation) become a sign through which the viewer interprets Kawakubo’s ideas about the relationship between clothes and the body.

This collection also invites us to ponder over Kawakubo’s design in another dialogue, that is, with her own past. Though she claims time and again that she never goes back to her past ideas or designs, it is impossible not to. Indeed, “Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress” in no way resembles the styles of the clothes she made for her 1981 Paris runway debut, as the former is characterized by bright colors and tight skirt while the latter is shown in black loose form, however, there are critics pointing out the spirit that they share in common. Alexander Fury, for example, argues that this collection presents Kawakubo as “a lone voice against fashion’s flow of skinny, unstructured tube dresses and bias-cut slips”—a critique that is also shared by Kawakubo’s 1981 show also received. It suggests that there is an overarching theme that rules over each of Kawakubo’s collections, and those meta-narratives, though seem to be distinct from each other in every way, also subject to a grand narrative.

Kawakubo’s 1997 collection poses the question about the relationship between fashion and art, as the clothes are presented as more ornamental than functional. Fashion, traditionally understood as a form of popular culture, is moving towards art. Mitchell Oakley Smith and Alison Kubler suggest that “the traditionally existed hierarchy of ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms” of art and fashion is now collapsed” (10) As early as in 1917, Marchel Duchamp had already made ordinary daily life objects into art, as is exemplified in his famous “Fountain.” In the 1950s, artists like Andy Warhol also turns mass-produced advertisements into artworks. Likewise, fashion began to show up in museums and art galleries by the end of the last century. In 2017, Kawakubo becomes the only living fashion designer after Yves Saint Laurent whose work was displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This exhibition urges us to treat and examine Kawakubo’s fashion design as artwork.

The Functions of the Museum

Before examining Kawakubo’s retrospective, it is necessary to understand how the functions of the museum help us to read art and fashion in a museum context. Mark Lilla, Edward Alexander, and Mary Alexander discuss the cultural function of the museum. The Alexanders point out that the aims for the museums in the last century are “exhibition, education, or interpretation,” which is in essence a “conveyance of culture” (10). Underlie this claim is the interface that the museum creates between the object on display and its viewer. Exploring the nature of the museum’s cultural function, Lilla regards the museum as “an ‘empowering’ institution”, which is “meant to incorporate all who would become part of our shared cultural experience” (25). He focuses on the resonance that each viewer has with the exhibition, and discovers the trans-cultural bound between the viewers through their shared experiences. Sharing the same view, Andrew McClellan suggests that “we learn to see ourselves in a larger flow of human experience and to empathize with others through a shared appreciation of beauty.” Our willingness to accept other cultures and ability to understand them are the preconditions for the transmission of meaning.

Apart from the cultural function, critics also read the museum as a space for dialogue.  Duncan Cameron notes that “museums occupy two ends of a spectrum from a ‘temple’ to a ‘forum’ in the early 1970s,” which looks back at “the premodern form of a museum as a site for musing and for discourse” (189). Cameron interestingly points out two seemingly paradoxical nature of the museum, which is nevertheless both necessary for the viewer to comprehend the meaning of the exhibit and then transmit it. Musing is the process in which the viewer opens himself or herself up to comprehend the possible meaning of an unfamiliar object. Discussion with fellow viewers after their own musings helps each to understand the exhibition with more diverse perspectives and on a deeper level. Stephen Weil, however, slightly expands the scope of the “discourse.” He suggests that “museums have moved beyond collections and collecting so dominant in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to become institutions rooted in interpretation in its broadest sense, actively seeking to provoke thought and the exchange of ideas between the museum and its visitors” (229). For Stephen, the discourse not only happens between people, but could also happen between people and object, as well as people and the whole cultural tradition behind the objects on display. The museum puts the exhibit and the viewer into a dialogue in which meaning emerges.

To have a more comprehensive understanding of how the museum transmits culture, we also need to study the relation between the museum and the artwork it displays. Exploring the museum’s aesthetic purpose, Daniel Buren proposes that “the museum is the frame and effective support upon which the work is inscribed/composed. It is at once the centre in which the action takes place and the single (topographical and cultural) viewpoint for the work” (189). By pointing out the museum’s framing and supporting function, Buren makes it inseparable to the artwork’s meaning-making. The objects are put in the museum because of both the curator’s choice and their own values. The fact that the works are chosen and put into the museum gives becomes an acknowledgment of their status as artwork. In other words, as the boundaries between art and popular culture or commodity become murky, it becomes increasingly hard to tell a work of art from a non-art object. Under this circumstances, museums define a thing as an artwork by admitting it and including in an exhibition. This function of the museum is especially helpful for defining the nature of fashion, given its ambiguous position between art and a popular form of culture. The functions of the museums, including cultural transmission, promoting dialogue and defining the objects as artworks, create meaning as it interfaces between the communication between art and the viewer.

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2017 exhibition Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between was curated by Andrew Bolton, Head Curator of the Costume Institute. It examines approximately 140 examples of Kawakubo’s womenswear for Comme des Garçons since the early 1980s. Through these examples, the galleries explore the space between boundaries in the designer’s revolutionary experiments. In the exhibition, objects are organized into nine themes, including Absence/Presence, Design/Not Design, Fashion/Anti- Fashion, Model/Multiple, Then/Now, High/Low, Self/Other, Object/Subject, and Clothes/Not Clothes. The exhibition aims to illustrate how Kawakubo breaks down the imaginary walls between these dualisms, exposing their artificiality and arbitrariness.

As we learn from Matthew Schneier that Bolton “structured the exhibitions around pairs of binary themes . . . to show how Ms. Kawakubo’s work could be both and neither, in between and somewhere else entirely” (Schneier). One of the interesting questions to ask about the exhibition is how the space of the museum and the installation of the exhibits help achieve Bolton’s intention and discover meaning. In the actual museum place, to one’s astonishment, there are no directions given to guide visitors through the galleries, and there are no wall texts to explain Kawakubo’s designs and ideas. One of the reasons why there is so little information given for the show is that Kawakubo hates providing interpretations for her own work. Since the exhibition is conducted by the collaboration of the artist and the curator, the latter had to compromise and design the show in a way that does not explain yet still allows the viewer to extract meaning from the exhibition.

Bolton ingeniously creates an interface between the exhibits and the viewers through the manipulation of the museum space. The retrospective of Kawakubo’s work is categorized thematically and by color, rather than chronically. In the gallery’s introduction video, Bolton reveals that Kawakubo “doesn’t want one grand narrative to be imposed on her work, so the actual display itself is presented as an artistic intervention.” The retrospective is thus broken into different meta-narratives, with each cluster of the exhibits occupying a place and displaying one theme, showing no apparent relation to other clusters—that is to say, the connections are left for the viewer to make. Bolton also explains that the show is “mazed almost like a playground. You’re encouraged to experience at your own pace, in your own route.”

The absence of the wall texts is aimed at engaging the viewer’s active participation. “I think Rei’s work is poetry,” says Thierry Dreyfus, who is in charge of the lightening for the show, “it is like when you read Whitman—you participate, and then you share something; but nothing is said, nothing that can be explained” (Yaeger). Rather than having the designer defining the meaning of her work, the show engages the viewer into an interpreting process in which the meaning of the work is produced by the collaboration of the artist and the viewer. One could have a postmodern experience viewing this exhibition. because no overarching guidelines are given to the interpretation of the work, that is to say, each viewer has to create his or her own pattern to participate. More importantly, since the artist intends to have her clothes speaks for themselves, each individual viewer participate in the making of the meaning of the work on display.

The relationship between the exhibits and the viewer are bilateral. As the viewer becomes the interpreter, they also change the nature of the objects—the interpreting process turns the clothes into artwork as they read fashion as signs. According to Daniel Chandler, “signs take the form of words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts of objects, but such things have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning” (13). As the viewers interpret the signs, they participate in the objects’ meaning-making process. Bolton’s curation of the retrospective could also be explained by Charles Sanders Peirce’s argument of sense-making: “the meaning of a sign is not contained within it, but arises in its interpretation” (32). The museum’s framing and supporting function are thus confirmed through Kawakubo’s case: it provides a space for the exhibits’ meaning-making process.

But then, it is also worth considering they seemingly lack dialogue in this retrospective. In other words, does the show demonstrates which system Kawakubo’s signs belong to? Mikhail Bakhtin argues that “the utterance is filled with dialogic overtones,” because “our thought itself—philosophical, scientific, artistic—is born and shaped in the process of interaction and struggle with others’ thought” (Speech Genres 92) The dialogue or conversation, however, is not explicitly shown by the retrospective. Moreover, there seems to be a lack of conversation in all individual exhibitions. Buren discusses the museum’s collecting function, arguing that it “makes simplifications possible,” because the collection can be used “to show a single artist’s work, thus producing a ‘flattening’ effect” (190) Is it legitimate, then, to argue that the Comme des Garçons exhibition is flattened because the show is all about Kawakubo’s design?

It is true that the exhibition does not include many backgrounds that could situate Kawakubo’s design in a fashion context, yet, there are still alternative conversations that circles around the show. First of all, critics’ comments suggest that, even Kawakubo claims that all of her works are original, it does not mean that she was not influenced. David Salle points out that Kawakubo’s design demonstrates a multicultural influence, from the Elizabethan court dress to the Belle Epoque, and from the France of Versailles to the Japanese battle dress. Stephanie LaCava also notes that Kawakubo’s designs in her 1981 Paris show took inspiration from Japanese folklore. The critics’ observations make up the dialogic background behind the show, which might offer the viewer more help were they offered by the Costume Institute’s curation.

In addition to a dialogue with other cultures from which Kawakubo got her inspiration, she is also in conversation with the future. “Continually questioning, encouraging individuality and looking to the future,” claims Kawakubo, “this is Comme des Garçons’ approach to creating clothes” (Frankel 158). Her anticipations of the future virtually make up part of her present discourse. Bahktin proposes that “the world is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. Such is the situation with any living dialogue. The orientation towards an answer is open, blatant and concrete” (The Dialogic Imagination 280). Each of her new collection is her attempt to look into the future, and all of her haute couture is in conversation with the anticipated responses in future. One may situate Kawakubo’s exhibition among the past fashion exhibitions that the Constume Institution concocted, such as the ones featuring Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander MacQueen. However, it seems to me that Bolton deliberately eliminated the conversation in order to foreground Kawakubo’s artistic genius and creative attempts.

Fashion or Art?

A fundamental question that the Comme des Garçon exhibition poses is that whether Kawakubo’s haute couture should be understood as fashion or art? I propose that the answer is both. As is suggested by the subtitle of the retrospective: Kawakubo’s work is an art in between. Haute couture, defined as clothes produced by hand or for a specific body, is a form of high fashion as is differentiated from popular fashion. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin discuss the “aura” of authenticity that makes something art, and argues that it disappears in the age of reproduction (218). According to Benjamin, popular fashion is not art, because the mass-produced clothes bear no “authenticity” of artwork. Haute couture, however, could be understood as art, because it is made by hand and thus preserves an “authenticity” of an artwork. Germano Genoa notes that “the idealized view of artistic creation as the poetic manifestation of individual genius which transcends the banality of daily life is at odds with this correlation of art production with mass-market mechanisms” (Firenze 88) It seems that haute couture reconciles this contradiction as the clothes become the embodiment of the designer’s ingenious creativity. Haute couture takes on the “aura” that has been lost in the age of mass production.

Haute couture’s high symbolic value also makes it a form of art. Instead of the functional value that is emphasized by popular fashion, haute couture is characterized by its symbolic value. Since the materials themselves do not produce meaning and do not make themselves fashion or art, meaning emerges from the interpretation of the symbolic value that is attached to the clothes. Bolton argues that “fashion isn’t just about wearability or about the pragmatics of clothing, but also about ideas and concepts. . . Fashion is a vehicle to express ideas about the subject. And that, too, is what art is all about” (Smith and Kubler, 160). Though there are no tangible features that make certain clothes high fashion, each design that makes up a collection is unique, and each season is exclusive. It is the differentiation that makes them recognizable, and expensive. The fact that a great number of people cannot afford high fashion design gives more symbolic value to it, because wearing haute couture demonstrates one’s wealth and social status. Haute couture shares aspects of artworks because of the high symbolic value it gets from its recognizability.

Exhibiting haute couture in the museum reaffirms its artistic quality. When being asked how to evaluate whether a designer is worthy of selection for an exhibition, Bolton answers that they select “designers who really have advanced fashion in one way or another, whether through techniques and constructions, or conceptually” (163). The museum acknowledges haute couture’s artistic value by holding exhibitions for it. In the same fashion, the Metropolitan Museum of Art also corroborates the artistic quality of Kawakubo’s fashion design. Yaeger comments that Kawakubo’s avant-garde parade is closer to performance art than fashion show. Salles even calls her a “combinatory formalist.” Kawakubo turns concepts into objects, which is exactly what an artist does. Her groundbreaking or even grotesque design explores the area in between fashion and art, pushing the boundary of the former one step closer toward the latter.


The Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between exhibition exemplifies how the museum interfaces between the exhibit and the viewer and how it makes fashion possible to be read as art. The museum creates frames of dialogues for artworks, and also participates the meaning-making process. The museum also transmits culture. Kawakubo’s design already shows a fusion of Japanese culture with Western culture. By holding this exhibition at the center of the New York City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art showed this unique fashion to visitors from around the world. The museum perpetuates the idea and concepts that Kawakubo’s fashion embodies through collecting and displaying the haute couture. This process, which acknowledges fashion as artwork, also adds a new layer of meaning to high fashion.

Works Cited

Alexander, Edward P., and Mary Alexander. Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums. Second edition, Altamira Press, 2007.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Edited by Michael Holquist, Translated by Caryl Emerson, Reprint edition, University of Texas Press, 1983

—. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, translated by Vern W. McGee, 2nd edition, University of Texas Press, 1986.

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Cameron, Duncan. “The Museum, a Temple or the Forum,” Journal of World History Vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 189-204.

Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. 2 edition, Routledge, 2007.

Frankel, Susannah. Visionaries: Interviews with Fashion Designers. V & A Publications ; Distributed by H. N. Abrams, 2001.

Fury, Alexander. “7 Key Themes in Rei Kawakubo’s Career.The New York Times Style Magazine. Apr 28, 2017.

Hyzagi, Jacques. “Rei Kawakubo’s Radical chic.” The Guardian, Sep 20, 2015.

Irvine, Martin. “Dialogue, Dialogic, Dialogism | Intertextuality, Intermediality | Remix: A Student’s Guide.”

LaCava, Stephanie. “The Radical Success of Comme des GarçonsThe New York Review of Books. Jul 11, 2017.

Lilla, Mark. “The Great Museum Muddle,” New Republic, April 8, 1985.

McClellan, Andrew. The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. First edition, University of California Press, 2008.

Mears, Patricia. “Exhibiting Asia: The Global Impact of Japanese Fashion in Museums and Galleries.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, vol. 12, no. 1, Mar. 2008.

Oakley Smith, Mitchell, and Alison Kubler. Art/Fashion in the 21st Century. Thames & Hudson Inc, 2013.

Salle, David. “Clothes That Don’t Need You.” The New York Review of Books. Sep 28, 2017.

Schneier, Matthew. “Rei Kawakubo, the Nearly Silent Oracle of FashionThe New York Times, May1, 2017.

Smith, Roberta. “The Met’s Rei Kawakubo Show, Dressed for Defiance.”  The New York Times, May 4, 2017.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Weil, Stephen E. “From Being about Something to Being for Somebody: the Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum,” Daedalus, 1999, pp. 229-258.

Yaeger, Lynn. “On the Eve of the Comme des Garçons Retrospective, the Notoriously Reclusive Rei Kawakubo Speaks Out.” Vogue, Apr 13, 2017.

Works Consulted

Bolton, Andrew. Rei Kawakubo/Comme Des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. Slp Har/Ps edition, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017.

Godtsenhoven, Karen Van, et al., editors. Fashion Game Changers: Reinventing the 20th-Century Silhouette. Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2016.

Irvine, Martin. “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture.”The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies. Edited by Eduaro Navas, Owen Gallagher, and xtine burrough. Routledge, 2015, pp. 15-42.

Kelly, Cara “Is Clothing Art? Who Cares, You’ll Love the New Met Exhibit Either WayUSA Today, May 4, 2017.

Shapton, Leanne. “Rei Kawakubo, Interpreter of Dreams.” The New York Times, Apr 26, 2017.

Thurman, Judith. “The Misfit: Rei Kawakubo is a Japanese avant-gardist of few words, and she changed women’s fashion.The New Yorker. Jul 04, 2005.

Waters, John. Role Models. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Yaggy, Amanda. “Channeling Rei Kawakubo at the Met.” The New Yorker, August 26, 2017.