making friends

Fashion people and architects have long been giving each other dirty looks; fashion designers don't get the respect that architects do, and architects don't get their own perfume brands. The graduate school of design, which does not teach fashion, just gave japanese designer rei kawakubo the excellence in design award; does this mean a cease-fire?

One house of design threw down its welcome mat for the matriarch of another as the Graduate School of Design (GSD) honored Rei Kawakubo of fashion mainstay Comme des Garons last Wednesday for "pushing the proverbial design envelope." Rei may draw outside the lines, but certainly the GSD's award ceremony held in her honor did not. Despite the celebrity element, the event proved to be austere and somewhat dull, probably less interesting than the classes normally held in the recently redone but still stark Gund Hall. The casual attendee yearned for a supermodel or two strutting down the aisles catwalk-style in some of Comme des Garon's many flamboyant ensembles to spice up the uneventful award presentation. Those organizing the affair declined to show even modest visual accouterments such as slides, preferring instead to let the exhibit, which the award show inaugurated, speak for itself.

Until we were unleashed into the outer hallway housing the exhibit, we had to find our eye candy in the spectacles that filled neighboring chairs. The rogue with the shag hairdo and glittery eye shadow sucking on a kumquat while boasting to his friends that he'd worn "everything Comme des Garons" in honor of the occasion and the older gentleman with a serious dark suit festooned with flaming red slippers enlivened the bland demeanor of an audience mostly clad in stuffy black apparel or Harvard student Abercrombie gear. The former was understandable; after all, "Rei invented black as a color," as we were later told by one of the speakers. Thank God she has forayed into colors of a brighter nature, offering hopeful hints of respite from a fashion-following scene overflowing with gloomily garbed sycophants and cheek-kissers. The severe woman dressed in the morose shade of Rei's invention who snapped something in Japanese and gave me a dirty look whose meaning is universally venomous, all because I sat next to her munching on pretzels, is indicative of Comme des Garon's need to appeal to a fan base that eats more kumquats.

If I was guilty of flouting convention, so is Rei Kawakubo. Since 1981, when she made her first Paris showing, the creative force behind Comme des Garons has taken avant-garde fashion to evermore jaw-dropping levels. Jagged ruffles, tattered plaid and wads of foam creating Quasimodo-like lumps are all incorporated into a body of work that can hardly be described as ready-to-wear. Jorge Silvetti, Chair of the GSD Department of Architecture, quoted Kawakubo as having said "I want to design clothes that have not yet existed; I want to be rebellious." Despite, or perhaps because of, her defiantly individualistic design tendencies, Kawakubo has the three qualities which Silvetti counts as necessary in any Excellence in Design Award recipient: proven genius, creativity and success.

Kawakubo's continuing influence on up-and-coming designers reflects her ever-renewing ingenuity, as does her appeal to the younger set of Harvard design students that made up a sizable portion of the spectators. GSD Dean Peter Rowe gave his diligent pupils a lesson on the wide compass of design, proclaiming the necessity of building one community on the foundation of "intermingling design avenues and allied design disciplines." Here he alluded to what was apparently a major point of controversy in the selection of this year's award recipient: does fashion, lately so commercialized and hackneyed, qualify as real art or is it simply design dribble?

Silvetti, the head of the Department of Architecture, traditionally the most esteemed of design disciplines, in a school that does not teach fashion design, warmly embraced Kawakubo and the art of fashion as a whole. He continued to address issues of the appropriateness of giving such an award to a sector of design that some dismiss as gossamer. What are shifts of flowing fabric next to the bulwark of a solid concrete wall whose construction follows logically from an architectural blueprint?

In an eloquent defense of the award choice, Silvetti declared a cease-fire, an "end to hostility between fashion and architecture." Although fashion is a "new monster" (in comparison, one supposes, to the venerable menace of modern architecture), Silvetti maintained that its aspirations don't stray too far from those of its design ancestors-both architecture and fashion aim to protect us, establish our identity and merge with the human form. And yet the question of whether the design traditionalist unfairly dismisses fashion design as "impure" was insufficiently answered. The Excellence in Design Award was developed in conjunction with the GSD's Design Arts Initiative, meant to expand recognition of the many art forms design can embody. But Kawakubo specifically requested no interpretation of her work by the speakers at the ceremony, having previously declared that her clothes "are not art" and carry "no message." She forbade her clothing to be anything more than an image, and her own acceptance speech was (due to language constraints) none too expressive, sweet but overly succinct: "It makes me happy to receive this award." The purpose behind her work, other than to be different, thus proves elusive, and Rowe's instruction on design art mediation was only mildly illuminating. Perhaps my authoritarian neighbor could have shed some light. I found myself regretting the pretzels.

With all the build-up surrounding the exhibit, it was disappointing to exit the lecture hall and find that it consisted solely of huge blown-up photographs of textiles, nature scenes, sketches and models behind barbed wire wearing Rei's work. The degree of success with which the attempt to bridge the gap between old and new was met could perhaps be reckoned by the quizzical expression on the face of the graying man in the conservative suit examining the exhibition. He stood watching one of two video monitors displaying excerpts from Kawakubo's most recent runway showings, in which the models distinctly lurked rather than strutted. His female companion fervently explained how Rei shreds fabric to create her massive ruffles and pointed out the highlights from the spring shows. His only response was a head-shaking and a throaty chuckle. "So the punk look is back in, is it?"

The highlight of the exhibition was leaving the corridor to join the Rei-loving (or at least quietly respectful) revelers sipping champagne and snacking on brie. The self-proclaimed Comme des Garons fan with the sparkly eye-shadow was looking vaguely disgruntled. There was nary a kumquat in sight.

An exhibit of Rei Kawakubo's work is in Gund Hall through May 31.