Collecting Comme, National Gallery of Victoria (VIC)

Drawing from more than 40 collections, the NGV’s exhibition showcases the iconoclastic designer’s work and philosophy.

For the past 50 years, the visionary and highly influential fashion designer Rei Kawakubo has been challenging the accepted Western notions of beauty and gender by deconstructing the garment to form a new visual vocabulary. Ignoring conventional dressmaking traditions which flattered and revealed women’s bodies – often for the male gaze – Kawakubo reframes our ideas of what fashion can be through oversized or asymmetrical designs, the use of layering, or emphasising the imperfect or unfinished in her fashion. Her radical approach to design and experimental approach to pattern making and treatment of fabrics courts both devotees and detractors.

Presently showing at the NGV International, Collecting Comme brings together more than 65 outfits by Kawakubo, the founder and creative force behind the fashion label Comme des Garçons. Drawing from more than 40 collections – including the gallery’s own, donated by the collector Takamasa Takahashi – the exhibition also includes 13 additional works designed by Kawakubo’s protégés Junya Watanabe and Tao Kurihara.

The paradox of this enigmatic artist and her work is the philosophy that informs it: wabi sabi, a way of being in the world that stems from the ancient Japanese notion of the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete, but which also has roots in ideas of the modest and the humble. It is a quiet way of being. In stark contrast to this is the world of high fashion, its commercialism and materiality and it is this that makes Kawakubo’s work and her success both intriguing and at odds with the expectations of an industry that aspires to the finely finished, highly tailored garment. The gallery fitouts echo these ideas of the imperfect and incomplete, with roughly patched walls and the exposed wooden framework of the unfinished and the industrial. Lighting is dimmed in the first of the gallery spaces, transforming it into multiple cat walks with pulsing screens and musical backdrop.

Although cleverly designed, navigation may be an issue in this first gallery space for those with mobility constraints. The visual and aural bombardment may also be problematic for some visitors.

In contrast, the second of the gallery spaces is lighter, quieter. Continuing with the notion of the unfinished, its focus is on single garments or groupings from key collections, highlighting the relationship between ideas and process.

The famous hole-and dropped-stitch garments from the Holes collection (1982-83) – created by deliberately faulting knitting machines – introduce the viewer to Kawakubo’s ideas of what fashion can explore along with her obsession with the colour black.

The Chic Punk collection of the early 1990s reflects the growing influence of punk elements in Kawakubo’s designs; this oeuvre incorporates tartans, PVC, fishnet and leather with zips and bondage straps. It was at this time that Kawakubo also introduced the colour red. Along with black, red has become a signature colour in many of her collections.

Each season Kawakubo’s collections introduce the unexpected. A new collection might begin with a crumpled wad of paper, an abstract phrase or the instruction to, in Kawakubo’s words, ‘start with something perfect and go backwards’.

The 2001-02 Beyond Taboo collection incorporates polyester, nylon, rayon, leather, diamantes and metal fastenings in the designs. This collection also challenges the viewer’s notions of modesty by displaying women’s underwear on the outside of the garment. The collector Takahashi argues that ‘exposing women’s underwear on the outside breaks up erotic desires and challenges [existing] taboos’.

In her Blood and Roses collection (2014-15), Kawakubo utilises largely man-made and unconventional materials in her designs such as polyester, synthetic leather, nylon, plastic, elastic and rubber. By exposing seams and intentionally fraying edges as well as relying on knotting and wrapping to respond to the wearer’s body shape, she again challenges our notions of what good design can entail.

Despite her radical approach to design, Kawakubo regards her fashion as suitable for everyday use, regardless of its offbeat flavour, with the aim of freeing the female form from its cultural constraints. It is this philosophy that Takahashi hopes will inspire the visitor to this exhibition. ‘I want to preserve [Kawakubo’s] work like art so people can understand her philosophy,’ he says.

Situated on the third level of the gallery, the exhibition can be accessed by escalators and lift. Interpretive material such as didactic panels, text labels, photographs and multiple screens allow the viewer a greater depth and context for Kawakubo’s work.

A powerful exhibition of an iconoclastic designer.

4 stars out of 5 ★★★★

Collecting Comme
31 October 2019 – 26 July 2020
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne VIC
Free entry

Mem Capp
About the Author
Mem Capp is a Melbourne artist and writer.