For $25 grand, you too can own a ticket to Anna Wintour’s annual extravaganza at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Date? May 1st, 2017. You’ll be surrounded by Hollywood royalty, mega designers and fashionistas, Wall Street titans and sports superstars all vying for a spot on the one hundred and fifty yards of red carpet. Yet even if you were willing to spend the money, you can’t buy a ticket unless you’re personally invited by Vogue’s editor-in-chief herself, the inimitable Anna Wintour.
This spring, the Met’s Costume Institute, championed by Ms. Wintour since 1999, will examine Japan’s preeminent fashion designer and director of Commes De Garcon, Rei Kawakubo’s body of work. Ms. Kuwakubo is the second only living designer to be conferred with this achievement, the first being Yves St. Laurent in 1983, selected by Ms. Wintour’s predecessor, the wild and illustrious Diana Vreeland.
There are questions that are begging to be asked. Why Rei Kawakubo? What exactly is Anna and Rei’s relationship in the world of fashion? Why would the deeply financially strapped Met sign-off on Anna’s selection? Is the Met desperate to reclaim its title as the world’s most important house of art? Is it hunting to reinvent itself to Millennials?
“I never intended to start a revolution”. She intended only to show “what I thought was strong and beautiful. It just so happened that my notion was different from everybody else’s.”
Kawakubo, 74, rarely gives interviews and eschews being photographed. She has been deeply criticized for her anti-western fashion designs. She has always been viewed as radical chic, antibody, rebellious and aggressive. It’s as if she uses the catwalk to express her unique neural activities. Jackets designed with three arms, punk and lace, trousers spliced into a skirt. Never using a central axis of the body such as the spine to create symmetry, you often have no idea what’s coming toward you. There is nothing svelte about Kawakubo’s designs. Rei encourages her clients to improvise the way they wear her creations. She has no specific formula as say, Chanel did. Though her detractors would say otherwise, she has most certainly reinvented the fashion wheel season after season. It is very interesting to note that Ms. Kawakubo has never received an invitation to even attend the gala in the past.
Born in Tokyo, Rei never trained formally as a fashion designer. At university she studied art and literature and ventured into the industry when she took a job in a textiles factory. In 1967 she became a freelance stylist and by 1973 she incorporated her designs into her own private label. In a rare interview given to The New Yorker in 2005, Kawakubo commented: “I never intended to start a revolution”. She intended only to show “what I thought was strong and beautiful. It just so happened that my notion was different from everybody else’s.”
Commes De Garcon, her retail brand for women and men has an annual turnover of $250 million dollars with 230 storefronts and franchises located throughout Japan, New York, Paris and Dubai. Her fan base is feverishly dedicated and she has won over the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Louis Vuitton’s creative director Nicolas Ghesquiere, and yes, Marc Jacobs wears her skirts for men.
Photo by Richard Burbridge
There must be genius behind all the madness. Kawakubo started the trend of guerilla pop up shops which have gained great popularity in markets as diverse as furniture and home accessory stores, restaurants and theatres. Rei’s latest venture is a series of stores called The Dover Street Markets. “I wanted to present high fashion in a store reminiscent of a street market,” she recently said. “The Dover Street Markets bring brands of all disciplines together to sell their products in an open atmosphere that, most importantly, incites creativity.”
In a recent New York Times article, fashion and style journalist Matthew Schneier wrote: “She has, from the earliest collections, which she began to show in Paris in 1981, embraced imperfection and irregularity; drawn from and ultimately mutated ideas from the history of dress; played with taste, good and bad; and eventually moved away from the traditional idea of clothes altogether, creating pieces that exist somewhere between sculpture and clothing, performance art and fashion.” The emperor’s new clothes, some would chant.
Kawakubo’s show of one hundred to one hundred and twenty pieces will be broken into sections: fashion/anti-fashion, design/not design, clothes/not clothes, then/now, model/multiple, high/low, self/other, and object/subject. This show seems to have more compartments than a Bento box. I, for one, am already overwhelmed.
Ms. Anna Wintour, 67, born in and educated in London, came from established wealth. She began working in the fashion department of Harper’s and Queen in London.
In 1976, still in her twenties, Anna moved to New York and was offered the position of fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar. She quickly bounced up the editorial ladder, and became the editor for American Vogue in 1988. The magazine had been floundering for a number of years with no cohesive direction since Diana Vreeland was fired as its editor in 1971. Some years ago, Ms. Wintour stated in an interview with The London Daily Telegraph, “I want Vogue to be pacy, sharp, and sexy. I’m not interested in the super-rich or infinitely leisured. I want our readers to be energetic, executive women with money of their own and a wide range of issues. There is a new kind of woman out there. She doesn’t have time to shop anymore. She wants to know what and why and where and how.”
Vogue is now the most iconic of fashion magazines, always pushing the limits. Ms. Wintour also serves as the artistic director for Conde Nast. Her shows at the Met have met with critical acclaim over the past eighteen years. Of particular note, her show ‘China Through the Looking Glass’, a fantasy of far east fashion, brought in 800,000 visitors to the museum. To memorialize her, in 2014 the Met deified Ms. Wintour by renaming a set of galleries and offices after her name, chiefly the Anna Wintour Costume Center.
It is curious to note that Ms. Wintour has rarely attended Ms. Kawakubo’s Paris shows over the years of her reign. She did attend Rei’s Commes des Garcon Exhibit this past March with Andrew Bolton, curator of The Costume Institute. Concerning Ms. Kawakubo’s work, Ms Wintour has said: “ She ( Kawakubo) has an opinion, something most designers so honored aren’t around to offer. She has a very strong and original point of view, and I think that people will respond.” The question I ask, is how will they respond? Very risky business for the Met.
The Met has long established itself as one of the world’s most influential museums and is the largest museum in the United States. Yet the mirror is cracking.
It’s been a trying year for the Met. The museum presently has a deficit approaching forty million dollars, the new marketing and branding plans were a disaster, ninety employees were either laid off or bought out, overdrawing from endowment funds to pay expenses and over spending on an additional building are just a few of the issues. To add to the stew, The Met’s director, Thomas Campbell, resigned from his million dollar a year post this past February. Mr. Campbell has been deeply criticized for emphasizing and spending fortunes in emphasizing modern and contemporary art to compete with The Whitney and MOMA. It’s clear that to survive, the Met has to put clarity into its mission statement.
There is a famous quote by Winston Churchill that, when asked to cut arts funding in favor of the war effort, he replied, “Then what are we fighting for?”
What exactly does it want to be? How does a museum of such eminent stature broaden its audience in this age of rapid technology? Where is the balance? Do we forgo the great masterpieces and antiquities which have taught us about ourselves and give way to only what is presently hip and fashionable? There is a famous quote by Winston Churchill that, when asked to cut arts funding in favor of the war effort, he replied, “Then what are we fighting for?”
So, will Ms. Kawakubo save the Met and help redefine the museum for future generations? Will she rise above her critics as nothing more than a ‘blast of barbarity’ and take away the stigma they call Hiroshima’s revenge? Is she, as Ms. Wintour has said, “a designer’s designer?” Will the lay public get it?
Curator Andrew Bolton was quoted recently as saying: “By inviting us to rethink fashion as a site of constant creation, recreation and hybridity, (Kawakubo) has defined the aesthetics of our time”. We shall see. I do wish the Met the best. With your indulgence, I would like to quote Churchill once again: “The price of greatness is responsibility”.
Andrew Bolton and Anna Wintour in 2016. Photo: Andrew Toth
When you invite me to your Met gala party table for ten at $175K, please forgive me if I pine away for Balenciaga. Have a fab evening!
Comme des Garçons collection for spring-summer 2016
Catwalk / Getty