It is the meeting of two great monstres sacrés. Paolo Roversi, known for portraits and fashion photography that’s exquisite, ethereal, and yet fiercely modern, has carried on, for nearly four decades, an intense creative collaboration with the designer Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons. It began in the 1980s, when Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto first took Paris by storm, marking each season with lavishly illustrated catalogs. “The fashion was revolutionary and the images had to be just as revolutionary,” Roversi recalls. Kawakubo quickly realized that Roversi had a real sensitivity to her aesthetic. “Rei saw that I was a great admirer of her design,” he says. “So we began working together more often—each season, they came to me.”
Kawakubo, as someone who is completely confident in her own abilities, did not seek to control the photographer. “She gave us carte blanche,” Roversi says. “Rei hardly ever came on the shoot. Sometimes she would send an assistant to dress the models, because the designs could be quite experimental. But she never left instructions for the photos.”
Now, the fruit of their rich partnership is being documented for the first time in a museum exhibition, “Birds,” at Dallas Contemporary. Originally slated to open on March 29 but now postponed until later this year, the exhibition will include more than 50 Roversi prints, many of which have never been seen. “Birds,” its title suggestive of the movement that animates many of the images, will also be the first Roversi exhibition in North America. (This year, in Roversi’s Italian hometown of Ravenna, the Museo d’Arte della città di Ravenna will host a full-scale Roversi retrospective, “Studio Luce,” from October 10 until January 10, 2021.)
“It is always very stimulating for me,” the photographer says of his work with Comme. “Working with Rei opens new horizons in a way that other work does not. Each time, I discover something new about my work, about color, about form, about light.”
In 2017, the designer was the subject of a major exhibition by the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between.” As the Met show was being prepared, the designer invited Roversi to Tokyo to go through the archives and create new images. “To be able to photograph the earlier designs on the girls of today was fascinating,” Roversi explains. “But it is always such a unique experience because Rei Kawakubo is unique. The bar is always very high and we end up producing images that are not quite like anything else I have ever done.”
This story appears in the March issue of Surface. To experience the complete issue subscribe here.