Byline: Bridget Foley, with contributions from Jessica Kerwin

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A global village? Not yet — at least where fashion is concerned. A visit last week to Harvard, when Comme des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo was honored by the Graduate School of Design, suggested that culture clash is alive and thriving.
And not merely in the age-old diametric of East meets West. That’s small stuff next to the chasm of wonder that exists between avant-garde fashion and traditional academia, both lauded, lofty and not without their pretensions.
Kawakubo received the “Excellence in Design Award” from the university’s architecture school. The prize was established three years ago to highlight the relationship among various design disciplines while honoring people from nonarchitectural fields. This year, with the administration determined to cite a fashion designer, Kawakubo topped a very short list, made up of “mostly Japanese people,” according to Brooke Hodge, director of exhibitions at the design school.
Rei won out, championed by architect, guest professor and selection committee member Calvin Tsao. Of course: Kawakubo, brilliant chief champion of intellectual fashion at Comme des Garcons for nearly 30 years, and Harvard, America’s most famous bastion of intellectual pursuits — a perfect pair, right? Not necessarily. Despite obvious enthusiasm on both sides, it was clear that neither was completely comfortable with the other. The two previous honorees, Philippe Starck and Robert Wilson, hail from disciplines more readily perceived among the erudite as high-minded, engaging in work to which an Ivy League architecture type, teacher or student, can relate. But fashion — clothes? Such folly?
The Design School’s administration knew that fashion was a harder sell, but then the point of founding the award in the first place, according to Peter G. Rowe, the school’s dean, was to correct “what many of us perceive as being missed opportunities.”
Architecture department chairman Jorge Silvetti commented on students’ mixed reviews of Kawakubo’s installation. “I’m not surprised,” he said. “Here, people don’t talk about fashion seriously as a cultural endeavor.”
In his address at the award ceremony, Silvetti quoted typical comments of colleagues about the school’s desire to foster the fashion link: “We should be cautious, not to be misunderstood.” “Of course, but we must be tactful, introducing it to an architecture audience.”
Whoever said that had a point. While design specialists the Ivy over may swoon over the curves and circles of the Guggenheim Bilbao, reactions to curvatures of a different sort — photos of the body-distorting lumps and bumps featured in one of Kawakubo’s most notorious collections — drew quizzical looks. Of course, some were thrilled. Tsao noted the intrinsic connection of architecture and fashion: “They both shelter the body.” Third-year landscape architecture student Harold Koda, better known to the fashion world as a collaborator of the late Richard Martin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and who will cocurate the upcoming Armani exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York, said that his absence from fashion has made him miss it and appreciate its significance all the more.
As for more typical students, a brief, highly unscientific survey around Harvard Square indicated that none here have ever heard of Rei Kawaubo, or, for that matter, pay much attention to visual imagery around campus, since a big banner outside the school heralded her exhibit.
“Nope”; “Never heard of him”; “No, and I have a paper to write,” they responded in manners that ranged from charming to put-out. OK, you stop a science major here, a “gov” major there; fashion magazines don’t make up the bulk of their reading. But not even the fashiony-looking girl in the artsy mirrored skirt could identify Kawakubo.
Nor, for that matter, could a number of the architecture students, some of whom seemed unimpressed by the day’s events. On the up side, Carlos Arnaiz offered praise: “The store in Chelsea is incredible and stands for everything she does. She’s revolutionary.”
“The images are fantastic,” chimed in Gianpiero Pugliese.
Others begged to differ. “It’s very disorienting,” said Marcel Wilson of the installation of photographs arranged on huge freestanding walls and video monitors on the floor. Throughout, fashion shots, including some bumpy, lumpy stuff on Merce Cunningham dancers, were juxtaposed against other images — bold graphics, gardens, a chicken wire fence.
“It’s kind of annoying,” said Judith Wong. “It reminds me of Richard Serra, but I actually like it. As one professor said, ‘That’s the best photograph of chicken wire I’ve ever seen.”‘ The two then launched into a mock-intellectual discussion. “What does her work have to do with a photograph of a rice paddy?”
“You artificially restructure your body with the padding or the bumps, and in the same way the land is artificially restructured through architecture or by forming a rice paddy.” “But why a jumping frog?”
For her part, Kawakubo wore neither ruffles nor bumps, but a navy jacket and half-skirt with a crisp white shirt over side-striped athletic pants.
The avant austerity matched her mood. Notoriously press shy and determined to let her work speak for her, Kawakubo was clearly uncomfortable with so public an honor. When plans were made for reporters from this paper to interview her, the obvious was restated: no formal portrait, and she could only be photographed at the presentation from a healthy distance. Yet when admirers snapped away up close with disposable cameras, Rei posed graciously, and even signed an autograph.
While Kawakubo made a brief “thank-you” speech in English, when interviewed, as always, she spoke Japanese, interpreted by her husband, Adrian Joffe, and press officer, Miki Higasa. On the award: “She is happy to see fashion elevated to the level of architecture.” On her goal for the installation, “Structure and Expression”: “To alter the space.” On her choice of images: “There’s never any particular reason. She just gets out all of the images she thinks are strong at the time.” About the meaning of her fall punk collection: “Force and Strength,” Joffe editorialized, “Yeah, but it’s always about force and strength.” While the collection was widely perceived as a smash hit, Kawakubo “feels it didn’t succeed. Or not completely, anyway.” Does she ever think she succeeds? “Once or twice, but they were the least-understood collections.”
Still, remembering when is not her style: “The past is dead,” Joffe translates. “What’s important is the future.”
A future Kawakubo expects will be increasingly difficult. “The definition of experience is that the more experience one has, more and more is no longer new,” she said through Joffe. “We live in such an information-saturated world. It’s hard to give people something they haven’t seen.”
But certainly not impossible if you’re Rei Kawakubo. Joyce Ma flew in for the event from London. She called Rei her “icon,” and recalled buying Kawakubo’s clothes for the first time, around 1980. “The collection was all holes,” she said. “My shop manager, a very elegant Russian lady, told me that if I were to buy it, she would resign.” Ma bought it, and the manager didn’t resign. But the clothes didn’t sell all that well, either. “It took several seasons,” Ma said.
If 20 years later Kawakubo frets over her continued ability to shock, she needn’t bother. She’s still tossing out ideas new to most of the clothes-wearing world, and they still have the power to disarm. Case in point: the T-shirt-clad student who feigned appreciation for a more flamboyant fashion. “Oh, I usually wear something ruffled and something padded,” he said. “But today I had work to do and didn’t want those clothes to get ruined.”