FASHION & MUSEUMS PART 2

A few weeks after Owen's exhibition concluded, The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened an exhibition dedicated to Rei Kawakubo and Comme Des Garcons, entitled "The Art of the In-Between."  

 

A visionary who's work is borne from total conceptual innovation, Kawakubo rejects the past while simultaneously drawing on and reframing cultural and historical references.  A pioneer of what is aptly described as 'anti-fashion,' Kawakubo challenges notions of body, form, and beauty while continuing to push what can be made possible through clothing.   

While her work is oft-interpreted as being highly intellectual, Kawakubo rejects this notion and instead indicates raw feeling and emotionality as her primary sources of conceptual inspiration.  As a romantic, she stands by her emotions; she formulates and interprets them with great care, and this continued emotive inquisition is palpable in her work. 

 

Rejecting the sterility of detached intellectual thought and embracing the expressly humanistic, her designs leave warm feelings of openness rather than cold and reclusive ones.  Unlike that within intellectual realm of design, her work is ambiguous and elusive; free from specific places, purposes and periods.

 

While difficult to assign a singular thread to, "The Art of the In-Between," is primarily dedicated to rejecting a traditional dialectic, and illustrating the emptiness of conventional dichotomies.  She examines nine expressions of in-betweenness: absence/presence, design/not design, fashion/anti-fashion, model/multiple, high/low, then/now, self/other, object/subject, and clothes/not clothes. 

 

So much meaning exists beyond pre-established categorization, and Kawakubo offers a reification of this in her work.

The garments and their presentation to the viewer are engineered to generate meaningful meditations and connections and to revolutionize innovations and transformations in basic concepts.  Kawakubo’s work makes space for new possibilities of creation and re-creation.  

 

Kawakubo's exhibition is a holistic and immersive experience for the viewer.  Given full control of the space, from what pieces she selected for the installation, layout, and architecture, Kawakubo was bequeathed a conceptual ground zero by the curators at the MET.  Adding to the richness of the experience is the location of her exhibition within the museum. 

 

"The Art of the In-Between" is buried deep in the halls of the MET, flanked in both directions by the plethora of thousand-year-old vestiges of Ancient Art.  When this placement is interrogated, it is neither haphazard nor absurd; it unquestionably adds to the experience, giving Kawakubo’s exhibition a quality that is fundamentally ineffable. 

 

To feel the gravity, the message, and the profundity of Kawakubo at the MET, one has to consume all constituent parts of the exhibition.  Her work resists definition and it almost resists language itself. It must be experienced, and it must be felt. Such is the genius of Rei Kawakubo and Comme Des Garcons.  

Martin Margiela's retrospective on his years at Hermes, shown at the Mode Museum Provincie Antwerpen, is more understated in presentation than those belonging to Rick Owens or Rei Kawakubo.  Never known for his grandiosity, the gravity of the Margiela’s exhibit is equally immense, albeit more subtle.

Martin Margiela designed collections for Hermes from 1997-2003, introducing his iterations of the comfort, timelessness, and tactility that the hyper-luxury label continues to associate with its collections.  Many were skeptical of his appointment, and his prolific moniker of an 'anti-fashion deconstructionist,' but Hermes CEO Jean-Louis saw through these provisional criticisms.  He stated: “I think Martin Margiela has a good idea of who we are. He sees through us better than ourselves.” 

 

He saw that underneath Margiela's avant-garde methodology, he possessed a deep and innate understanding of classic clothing.  Despite the derision from the era’s critics at the time of the appointment, there were many who saw Margiela’s generational talent and vision as a designer. Subtly encroaching on the status-quo of hyper-luxury milieu, Margiela's sensibilities left an indelible print on the not only Hermes but the high-fashion sector itself.  

 

Margiela's time at Hermes coincided with Marc Jacobs’ much more glamorous and notorious tenure at Louis Vuitton.  Jacobs transformed Louis Vuitton into a hyper-brand, making the French luxury line as recognizable and as the likes of Pepsi and Coca-Cola around the globe; Jacobs was a pioneer in the shift towards luxury labels being ubiquitous in the realm of global consumerist iconography.   The digital context that was emerging at the turn of the century created a desire for an instantly recognizable luxury brand; Jacobs aptly tapped into this new paradigm.  

"Rejecting the sterility of detached intellectual thought and embracing the expressly humanistic, her designs leave warm feelings of openness rather than cold and reclusive ones."

On the other end of the luxury spectrum was Martin Margiela and Hermes.  Margiela took the inverse approach to Hermes, he made anonymity, subtlety, and nuance into a competing form of luxury.  His collections at Hermes are a testament to this subdued form of haute-couture.  The divide between the hyper-brand and the unassuming has grown more from a fissure into a full-blown fracture, and the ever-prescient Martin Margiela foresaw this trend.  

 

While almost unfathomable, Margiela’s years at Hermes, both at his own label and at Hermes, are sparingly available on the internet.  Margiela rarely gave interviews in his career (especially during his tenure at Hermes), and there are almost no digital memories of his work, no memory of his effervescent and elusive methodology.  No one can say conclusively to this day, but Margiela was such a man of mystery that rumors persist he designed the costumes for Kill Bill vol. 1 through the Hermes house. 

 

In response to this gap in the historical record, Antwerp’s ModeMuseum acquaints the 21st century - and the digital world - to Margiela’s vision at Hermès. “Margiela: The Hermès Years,” is curated by museum director Kaat Debo, highlighting the craftsmanship par excellence, revolutionary ideology, and remarkable simplicity of Margiela’s designs for the iconic French house.

“I think Martin Margiela has a good idea of who we are. He sees through us better than ourselves.” 

Debo calls the relationship between Margiela and Hermes “two interpretations of one creative DNA.” “From a first look, these two worlds—Maison Martin Margiela and Hermès—appear completely different, but if you take a closer look, many ideas keep coming back: his obsessions, his passion for tailoring, for menswear,” she explains. 

 

Debo illustrates and explores the relationship between Margiela’s eponymous label and Hermes visually; Margiela’s label shows against a white backdrop while Hermes displays in front of their signature distinguished orange.  The exhibition also showcases the garments that Margiela perpetually reiterated and reconceptualized at both houses, including the tuxedo jacket, the trenchcoat, and the white shirt.

 

When asked why she chose Margiela to be the focal point of Mode Museum Provincie Antwerpen, Debo attests to the importance of the visual, textural experience.  “The clothes don’t maybe look, at first, very spectacular, but how they are conceived, how they are produced, that is spectacular. It’s spectacular to wear them.

 

To show garments like these in a fashion show is really difficult because you can’t communicate how exquisite the fabrics are, you can’t show the insides of the garments, you can’t show the finishing. You can’t explain all the innovations he introduced in materials and techniques. That’s why I wanted to do the exhibition, to give the collections a second chance and really show how brilliant they were and how rich in ideas, because I think that a lot of people missed the richness in ideas. They didn’t grasp all the ideas and concepts.”

This renewed interest in not only avant-garde visionaries, but physical retrospective, is not merely rooted in the nostalgic.  It is instead a call to initiate discourse on innovation, originality, authorship, and creativity in the modern age, accomplished through the insights and methods of eras past.  As Debo so poetically explains in reference to her Margiela exhibit, “We can’t go back to the ’90s. It’s not nostalgia, because the world has changed. Fashion has a very short memory, and at times that’s very problematic. As a museum, we can give fashion its memory back.”

text: Aaron Gray

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