Rei Kawakubo is having a moment. It just so happens that, in her case, that moment has lasted more than 45 years. Not only is the creative talent behind Comme des Garçons being honored this year by The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a retrospective of some of her most avant-garde designs, but the fiercely innovative Japanese designer is also the subject of another equally prestigious exhibition: an installation of her work in Barneys’ New York windows that sets her designs alongside sculptural pieces by iconic artist Louise Bourgeois.

While the timing of the two exhibitions happens to align, that’s the case only by mere coincidence. “It was about a year and a half ago that Barneys and Comme des Garçons began working on this project—long before The Met’s planned exhibit—following our other successful window collaborations with brands like Prada, Chloe, and Maison Margiela,” says Dennis Freedman, who served as the curator of the window installations currently on view in both our Madison Avenue and Downtown flagship locations. “In this case, it was almost immediate that I thought of the artist Louise Bourgeois, because her and Rei’s work had very strong parallels aesthetically, psychologically, and emotionally—even though one was an artist and one was a fashion designer and neither one was looking at the other’s work in any way for inspiration. The issues they both deal with, which you can ascertain both from looking at the work and from reading interviews with them, surround emotions like loss, separation, and confrontation.”

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Left: Louise Bourgeois in 1975 wearing her latex sculpture Avenza (1968-1969) which became part of Confrontation (1978). Photo: Mark Setteducati, © The Easton Foundation/VAGA, NY
Right: From Rei Kawakubo’s F/W15 Comme des Garcons show, “Ceremony of Separation”
“This piece was originally made to lie on the floor, and was subsequently cast in various materials,” Jerry Gorovoy says of Bourgeois’ Avenza. “When positioned vertically, as Bourgeois did on her own body, the mounds become breasts. Harking back to ancient female deities, the worn sculpture refers to the nurturing mother.”
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Left and Right: Costumes for the performance A Banquet/A Fashion Show of Body Parts,” Latex, 1978,
Art by Louise Bourgeois © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Center: A runway look from Comme des Garcons’ FW ’16 show, “18th Century Punk”

One of the most celebrated artists of her time, Bourgeois drew inspiration from her own life, and the uncompromising honesty she employed in conveying complicated emotional landscapes has made her work just as striking and relevant today as it was at any point in her 98-year life. “Louise created a complex body of work over the course of seven decades,” says Jerry Gorovoy, who served as Bourgeois’ assistant for the last 30 years of her life and who has been the driving force behind the artist’s work being exhibited. Gorovoy now oversees Bourgeois’ estate and was instrumental in the creation of this installation. “Her art seems to be timeless and still mysterious, despite the many exhibitions and publications in which it’s been seen.  The work can be seen through many lenses—the autobiographical, art history, feminism and psychoanalysis.”

It was this complexity that drew Bourgeois to mind in relation to the often-challenging work of Kawakubo. “There were very clear aesthetic connections between their work,” Freedman tells us. “There are strong similarities in the forms they make, and a lot of it deals with the body and women’s bodies in particular—exaggeration, deconstruction. I believe there were around 40 years of overlap in their work, from the time that Rei did her first show. So here they were working for four decades, each halfway around the world from each other, yet it’s extraordinary to see the connections.”

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Right: Untitled, by Louise Bourgeois. 1996. Cloth, bronze, and steel.
Art by Louise Bourgeois © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Left: From “Blood and Roses,” Comme des Garcons’ SS16 Collection
“In the mid-1990s, Bourgeois began making sculpture out of her clothes. Like a diary, these garments, which she had kept for decades, held memories of past people and places,” Gorovoy says. “For Bourgeois, the clothing became psychically charged raw material for her sculpture. Here, the extended and relaxed tail emerging from the underside of the dress is in marked contrast to the tightly coiled bronze spiral. Bourgeois’s sculptures often contain this duality between two extreme states: between tranquility and tension, hard and soft, and inside and outside.”

The connections between the two do become striking when the pieces are seen next to each other, and that connection also extends to the tradition that Barneys has set with our more provocative window installations. As Barneys Creative Director Matthew Mazzucca is quick to point out, the aim is often to elicit a response from viewers, whether they seek out the work or happen upon it as a passerby. “The best reaction is any reaction, because it can be impossible to get people to actually stop and consider something in the windows,” he says. “In this case, viewers can engage with the work by reading the window text, but ultimately, the works themselves will provoke an immediate reaction because there are a lot of challenges of beauty within them. I think we’ll get a lot of feedback that further the debate of ‘what is beauty?’ We never do anything with the aim of provoking controversy or to try to be edgy or out there. It’s just that the work innately resonates on that level because it operates on the edge of people’s norms.”

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Left: Echo VII, Bronze, painted white, and Steel, 2007
Art by Louise Bourgeois © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Right: Part of the Comme des Garcons FW 14 runway, “Monster”
“These pieces are from a series in which Bourgeois stretched her own sweaters over thin metal rods, and then stuffed and stitched them to shape individual forms. To retain the tension of the taut material, Bourgeois decided to cast the series in bronze,” Gorovoy tells us. “Painted white, they have a ghost-like presence, and refer back to her carved wood sculptures from the 1940s and 1950s. While the early sculptures were rigid, architectural and phallic, works from the ECHO series are softer and more feminine. In ECHO VII, the large opening in the form is reminiscent of an animal’s lair or nest, referencing earlier plaster works from the 1960s.”
rei kawakubo louise bourgeois
Left: Echo I, Bronze, painted white, and Steel, 2007
Art by Louise Bourgeois © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Right: A view of the runway at “Monster,” Kawakubo’s F/W ’14 showing

How people may respond to the windows does play into the conceptualization of them, and for Gorovoy, the hope is that the emotional responses range beyond just the immediate shock factor. “I hope viewers see and feel that both artists have arrived at their forms from projecting internal feelings outward,” Gorovoy says. “The eccentricity and formal inventions of both are beautiful and strange. These two figures are both highly original and have a lot to say about the human condition.”

Mazzucca also stresses the fact that, while Barneys has a history of embracing and promoting the work of powerful women, to view the installation through only that lens misses a crucial element. “Objectively, it’s not about the fact that they’re women, but rather that these are both people who are so immersed in their work, so focused, they set parameters and challenge themselves, and the result is that they create these sculptures,” he tells us. “They’re different, but they come from the same perspective.”

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Left: Torso, Self Portrait, Bronze, Painted white, Wall Piece, 1963-1964
Art by Louise Bourgeois © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Right: From Rei Kawakubo’s “Monster,” her work for Comme des Garcons FW14
Louise Bourgeois herself said of this sculpture, “This is the way I experience my torso…somehow with a certain dissatisfaction and regret that one’s own body is not as beautiful as one would like it to be. It doesn’t seem to measure up by any standard of beauty.”

While there are these incredible similarities, it’s important to Freedman that people are aware that the installation serves as an exploration of creativity rather than as a commentary on the two worlds within which these women operated. “This installation is not in any way, shape, or form trying to make a connection between fashion and art—it’s not,” he emphasizes. “The purpose of the windows is to show the work of these two particular women. It’s very much about them, not about the fact that one of them represents art and one represents fashion. The only thing this installation is about is the striking similarities and parallels that are revealed in these windows about one of the greatest artists of her generation and one of the greatest fashion designers. They’re both singular.”

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One of the windows are Barneys’ Downtown flagship.
Photographed by Tom Sibley. Art by Louise Bourgeois © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
“Because of the nature of the pieces themselves, we kept all other elements of the windows very clean and minimal in the style of a gallery—not to simulate a gallery aesthetic, but just to create a very objective space in which to view the work,” says Barneys creative director Matthew Mazzucca. “We wanted to let the work speak for itself and didn’t feel the need to build it out beyond that.”

Within those parameters, there’s still plenty of room for the lighter, more joyful emotions that also exist within the work, as become evident when Mazzucca speaks about the process of pulling together the featured Comme des Garçons pieces from collections as far afield as Japan and Europe. “These pieces were separated across seas, they come together and live together for the five weeks of the installation, and then they’ll never be together again—it’s very poetic and abstractly beautiful,” he says. “The pieces needed to meet, and I love that sentimentality. They’ve traveled so far to be with each other. It’s a very poetic, romantic gesture.”

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A view of on of the Madison Avenue windows, complete with video footage of Louise Bourgeois’ performance piece A Banquet/A Fashion Show of Body Parts, 1978.
Photographed by Tom Sibley. Art by Louise Bourgeois © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Rei Kawakubo X Louise Bourgeois is now on display at Barneys on Madison Avenue and at our Downtown Flagship and will be on view through the end of May 2017.

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