Gallery View, Object/Subject
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Gallery View, Object/Subject

A fashion designer has designed the best piece of architecture I have seen in recent months, but Rei Kawakubo, who started the clothing and accessories brand Comme des Garçons in 1979, did not create this labyrinth of cones, circles, cantilevered bars, and arches by herself. She has a large team at disposal at her atelier and also collaborated on the space with the staff designers from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where her exhibition "Art of the In-Between" is on display until Sept 4.

Her vision translated into space, however, is startling.

Gallery View, Then/Now
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Gallery View, Then/Now

The gallery guide you receive when you enter explains the general idea:

Mu (emptiness) is suggested through the architectural leitmotif of the circle, which in Zen Buddhism symbolizes the void, and ma (space) is evoked through the interplay of structural forms. Ma expresses void as well as volume—a thing with and without shape, not defined by concrete boundaries. Amplified by the stark whiteness of the gallery surfaces, the visual effect is one of both absence and presence. Kawakubo regards her fashions and their environments as a Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art.” This synthesis is reflected in the exhibition, designed as a complete expression of the Comme des Garçons “universe.” It is intended to be a holistic, immersive experience, facilitating a personal engagement with the fashions on display.

I am not sure those notions are evident, but at least they give you a sense of what to expect. When you walk into the Met’s upper-level galleries, you find yourself wandering through a sea of white-painted geometric shapes bathed by a harsh glow coming from grids of fluorescent lights. Although some of Kawakubo’s forms are either simple boxes with one open side through which you can view her clothes on mannequins or circles that contain a collection of such abstractions of humans, most of the built objects are hybrids that are difficult to describe. There is a cylinder that gives rise to a polygonal fan. An arch curves up, then angles straight down and across, to become a display alcove. A rectangular box two stories tall sprouts a cantilevered box from which two mannequins stare down at the crowd.

Gallery View, Absence/Presence
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Gallery View, Absence/Presence

Your path through these displays is as seemingly haphazard as the display cases themselves. There is a general direction past nine themes, each of which consists of a contrast (such as “Design/Not Design,” “High/Low,” “Clothes/Not Clothes”), but how you move through the gallery from one to the other is not immediately evident. You have to let the curves guide you and then the top-heavy forms draw you in. As you do, the whole stage set opens and closes around you, letting the clothes, as well as your fellow audience members, appear and disappear.

Gallery View, (from left) Bound/Unbound,Order/Chaos
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Gallery View, (from left) Bound/Unbound,Order/Chaos

One of Kawakubo’s contrasts is “Design/Not Design,” and the exhibition displays a continuous tension. The design is a way to show off clothes in such a manner that: first, you’d have to take some effort to touch them; second, you can see them adequately and usually from several angles; and finally, the clothes are framed in such a way that the other items around do not interfere too much with your line of vision. That might not push the issue far enough, but the intrusion of shapes and forms echo the clothes’ shape more than they work to show them off.

Gallery View, Clothes/Not Clothes
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Gallery View, Clothes/Not Clothes

Kawakubo’s clothes are themselves objects lessons in how to take apart what we think of as the nested demands of function, comfort, and harmony, and then she makes a mockery of what we have been taught is the correct way clothes should work. Starting in 1997, the designer began to tear away at most of the dictums of high fashion. She produced clothes that critics called “lumps and bumps”: dresses with shoulders, hips, or breasts exaggerated to such an extent that they completely distorted the body. Of that collection, she referred to hunchbacks and people with tumors, bringing disease and deformity into the realm of beauty and flawless bodies.

Like many fashion designers of the last few decades, Kawakubo also draws on popular culture, designing clothes that refer to biker chic, S&M gear, and street fashion. She breaks the boundaries of gender stereotypes, and what distinguishes her from everybody from Vivienne Westwood to Thierry Mugler in this endeavor is the ways she completely pulls apart the clothes, turning them into fragments layered and held together with the thinnest possible stitching. She likes the threads to show when the garment bunches and the seams flare out where you expect them to be tucked in, doing their structural work in polite oblivion.

The epitome of a Kawakubo design to me is "The Future of Silhouette," from her most recent collection. Apparently, she presented a crumpled piece of paper to her seamstresses and asked them to turn it into a dress. The result is a brown paper implosion of creases, folds, crumples, and sheets that sucks you into every intricacy of the result even while its overall shape intensifies a sense of the human body in motion and stress.

Ryo Katsuma A Commes des Garcons store designed by Future Systems.

In 1997, the year Kawakubo made the first of several shifts in her career, I worked with her on an exhibition of her work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I went to visit her in Japan and we discussed an ambitious project in which she would bring her latest collection together with work of some of her favorite artists. We started assembling the work and planning the display but, after a year of work, she canceled the exhibition. “I can only plan one season ahead, I am always making something new,” she told me. “The museum is too slow.” Now she has found a way to work with one of the greatest museums in the world, although the trade-off is that the display looks quite similar to what you find at her stores—several of which were designed by the late Jan Kaplický’s firm Future Systems, and that seem to have inspired this exhibition design. What’s more, although this is supposed to be a career survey, most of the work is from the last few collections. But whatever the limitations of this show, we get to dive into a space that represents in form and function, as well as object and space, the vision of one of the most rip-roaring breakers of preconceptions and aesthetic boxes working today.