Dress 1997, is part a group of eleven works designed by Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto that have been recently donated to the National Gallery of Victoria by Takamasa Takahashi. The colour of this navy cotton dress, which appears as an intense black when seen indoors, reveals the designer’s skill with dark tones. The dress’s sculptural contours and ‘tough’ drapery recall the visceral drama of Balenciaga’s stiff gazar and billowing taffeta gowns of the 1950s and early 1960s, Like a classic Balenciaga, the cloth in Kawakubo’s work stands away from the body in deep folds, with no apparent beginning or end and without the aid of complex internal structures. Instead, the cotton shell is fused to a thin interfacing and interlined with tulle to achieve apaper-like effect. The cut or pattern is, however, the crucial factor which creates the dress’s overblown profile. Viewed flat it forms a circular horseshoe with openings for the neck, arms and legs placed at illogical angles and distances from each other. On the body the realignment of these apertures provides the impetus for the spiralling drape as the fabric descends from neck to knee. Kawakubo seems to be highlighting the dynamic relationship between the dress and the body.
Rei Kawakubo is regarded as one of the most original designers working today. Her style can change dramatically from season to season; at times in tune with other designers but more often according to her own rhythm. The extensive use of black and other sombre shades, which became a Kawakubo signature from the early 1980s, was widely imitated, but this trait is merely an aspect of her unpredictable style that can be summarised as a constant search for new ideas. Over the past three decades Kawakubo’s clothes have ranged from unstructured, oversized, layered and draped shapes in coarse and distressed natural materials to close-fitting garments using brightly coloured synthetic fabrics. With each collection she interrogates and extends the potential of fabric and form; an approach that is characterised, overall, by an interest in asymmetry and the integration of detail with the structure of a garment. Kawakubo’s work is habitually compared with that of her design compatriots, in particular the architect Tadao Ando or the fashion designers Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto. Her clothes, however, possess similar qualities to the work of Madeleine Vionnet and Cristobal Balenciaga, two of the great innovators of twentieth-century French haute couture, who each created uniquely modern forms that challenged conventions of clothing the female body. In this way, Kawakubo has inserted herself into the dialogue of twentieth-century fashion.
The concept behind the Comme des Garcons 1997 spring–summer women’s collection stemmed from Kawakubo’s desire for a ‘new way of thinking’ about clothes, an approach encapsulated by her own phrase ‘the body becomes dress, dress becomes body’ (S. Frankel, Visionaries: Interviews with Fashion Designers, London, 2001, p. 154). Kawakubo has a reputation for creating demanding clothes for women and this particular collection stands out as her most challenging to date. The clothes highlighted the tension between the forms of a garment reacting against the body’s contours and featured a series of tight, sheer jersey dresses with bumps created by down-filled cushions placed over the models’ own curves. The next group focussed on the use of light, crisp fabrics that were treated and cut to float away from the body, as if suspended by air. At the designer’s Paris runway presentation, Dress, 1997, appeared at the point of transition from the first to the second group of outfits. This particular work embodies both aspects of the collection’s theme: the contradiction and interplay between the shape of the clothes and the contours of the body; the fundamental limitation for all designers and one which Kawakubo surpasses memorably.
Roger Leong, Curator of Fashion and Costumes, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2005).