The spectacle of the Met Gala was remarkable this year, not only for its opulent celebration of fashion, but also because it is the second time in history that the theme has been the work of a living designer (the first being Yves Saint Laurent in 1983). Rihanna undoubtedly stole the show, partially by being one of the few attendees to acknowledge the theme and wear Comme des Garçons. She was resplendent in her sculptural dress constructed from petal-like shapes, showcasing designer Rei Kawakubo's ability to create pieces which are both avant-garde and uniquely beautiful.
Although Rihanna drew the attention of most headlines, it was another of the guests who wore one of Kawakubo's most controversial designs. Helen Lasichanh arrived in a red Comme des Garçons jumpsuit, resulting in a flurry of memes likening her to various pieces of furniture. The piece features the distinctive warping of the human form that Kawakubo is known for, with padding creating unnatural protrusions that defy the viewer's expectations. The jumpsuit also has no holes for arms, meaning the wearer cannot use their own. Indeed, several of Kawakubo's designs in recent years have this distinctive feature. This detail is the crux of the debate surrounding Kawakubo's work. Is she bravely challenging societal expectations of the female form, or is this an extreme example of women sacrificing comfort and bodily autonomy in the name of fashion?
Francesca Granata argued in The Atlantic, quite rightly, that the people laughing at Lasichanh are missing the point of the art. It must also be acknowledged, however, that we are not obliged to unquestioningly accept artwork. The implications of the armless jumpsuit for any kind of practical use are troubling. How can one eat, drink, or even go to the bathroom in such a piece? The answer is, obviously, they can't. In her red carpet interview with André Leon Talley, Anna Wintour noted cheerfully that she had heard rumours of some attendees having to change clothes after the red carpet, because they would otherwise not be able to move through the exhibition or have dinner. It would be disingenuous to conflate Kawakubo's architectural pieces with streetwear, but nevertheless it is important to consider the effect these items have on the wearer. Activity is ultimately limited to walking and standing, and the pieces are suitable for the catwalk only. The implication of a piece with no arms is that the wearer has someone on standby to attend to their needs, or pick them up if they fall. The jumpsuit, in this instance, renders the individual inside it relatively helpless, essentially opting to put on a high-fashion straightjacket.
Another concerning aspect of the design is that the most restrictive garments of Comme des Garçons seem to be reserved for women. For all that the name of the brand translates to 'Like some boys', the lines for men, whilst certainly avant-garde, do not feature the same levels of bodily distortion and constraint. Arguably, since men's bodies are not subject to the same level of scrutiny as women's, questioning their form so fundamentally might be less powerful. It would be interesting to see how such deconstruction of the body would play out on a male form. Women's clothing being less comfortable and practical than men's is a worrying feature of many fashion lines, but few designers take quite so much from their models in terms of mobility as Kawakubo. Even acknowledging that the work is not intended for everyday wear, is it justifiable to bind only women in this way?
Yet, the unexpected forms created by Comme des Garçons could also be read as an act of resistance against the expectation that bodies, particularly women's bodies, should only look one way. The wearable artworks are refreshingly resistant to the notion of prettiness, and many feminists would be charmed by the designer's refusal to have mirrors in her first store, since you should buy clothes "because of how they make you feel, not how they make you look". The extent to which Comme des Garçons challenges the male gaze and sexualisation of the female body should be celebrated. The urge to project values and beliefs on to an artist should be resisted, however, and Kawakubo has notably also asserted that feminism, and politics in general, are not relevant to her work. One aspect of the beauty of art is its openness to interpretation, but this should not come at the cost of ignoring the creator's vision.
Rei Kawakubo is a revolutionary, and the debate surrounding her designs reflects that. Whether they represent liberation of the female body from social norms, or the oppression and literal objectification of the woman wearing them, the fact that these questions are raised is a testament to the power of her work. Love it or loathe it, it is the perfect focus for the Costume Institute's Spring 2017 exhibition, precisely because it makes us think.