By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 9, 2009
PARIS, March 8 -- Like many great cities, this one can leave a visitor breathless with its beauty. But in between the brilliantly lit monuments, the belle epoque architecture and the graceful curves of the Seine, one is reminded that a life lived against the backdrop of a postcard is not always easy.
On Friday morning, just outside the picturesque courtyards of the Louvre, an elderly woman -- barely able to walk -- was begging for a few coins. She was hunched over, making it almost impossible to see her face, and judging from the bulk throughout her torso, she appeared to be wearing every meager garment that she owned. Layers and layers of dirty fabric billowed from under a too-snug overcoat.
It was hard not to have the image of that woman come to mind a day later when the designer Rei Kawakubo presented her fall 2009 collection for Comme des Garcons. Not a lot of women wear Comme des Garcons, which is a label known for its willingness to challenge assumptions about the construction of clothes and how they should function. Kawakubo doesn't believe a shirt requires two armholes, for instance, or that the ultimate purpose of a dress is always to make a woman look attractive. It most certainly isn't always meant to make her sexy.
The fashion industry pays attention to Kawakubo's work because she can often be prescient about trends and cultural moods. She pushed other designers -- and with them everyone from J. Crew to H&M -- into experimenting with deconstruction and collage. She elevated down-market fabrics like polyester and acrylic into the atelier. Kawakubo can be jarring in her refusal to tread lightly in controversial territory. (She once was accused of using the striped uniforms of Nazi death camps as inspiration for a collection.) Sometimes, she simply has a profoundly interesting idea that more commercially driven designers can shamelessly dilute and tweak for the mass market. She is one of the more compelling reasons to come to Paris, where the fall 2009 collections are being unveiled.
Kawakubo's presentation began with lovely, angelic-looking young models wrapped in layers of blush-colored tulle capes and skirts. Then the mood turned melancholy and even ugly as models appeared in olive drab coats with primitive drawings sketched down the back in what looked like black paint. From there, the coats were deconstructed and re-imagined, and here is where it was impossible not to think of that poor elderly woman. The models wore tight-fitting patchwork coats from which layers of thick, plaid blanket fabric seemed to explode. The look was voluminous, even tent-like, and overwhelmed the slight models. Their faces were obscured by tulle and on one side, there was a single "kiss" in red glitter.
By the end of the presentation, the thick coats -- and the vagabond references -- had given way to tubes of tulle encasing both the models and their crumpled dresses, which were embellished with pearls.
The show rode a wave of emotion from bliss to anger to sorrow and finally peacefulness. Its mood shifted from light to dark and back again. Rather than responding to the construction of the clothes -- because it was impossible to really tell what was going on under all those layers -- the audience reacted to the feelings and images those clothes evoked.
Other designers create clothes with an emotional impact, but those responses tend to be one note, simple. Clothes can inspire joy. They can intimidate. They can leave you feeling a little freaked out. The presentation by Junya Watanabe, with his models done up with Marie Antoinette's high hair and opera blaring on the soundtrack, included chocolate-brown down coats and down dresses with grand kimono sleeves, extravagant skirts and exuberant collars. The collection was uplifting. Meanwhile, the Haider Ackermann collection, with its sensual bias cuts, draped sweaters and zippered jackets, was a disquisition on cool.
At Balmain, designer Christophe Decarnin continued to beat the drum for 1980s fashion and sent more Michael Jackson "Thriller" jackets down the runway along with MC Hammer pants and strapless crystal-encrusted mini-dresses. Mood evoked by the Balmain collection? Exasperation.
And at Nina Ricci, designer Olivier Theyskens offered a dark collection of tight trousers and rigidly tailored jackets, gowns with romantically rippled hemlines, sensual pants that flowed like liquid, and quite possibly the scariest, and thus the most distracting, shoes ever put on a runway. They were vertiginously high platforms without a supporting heel, which made the models look as though they were walking en pointe on blocks. Immediate response to the show? Dismay. Followed by: Must. Twitter. Now.
The Comme des Garcons collection could not be boiled down to 140 characters. It fomented the uncomfortable feeling that fashion had found inspiration in the plight of the homeless, the defeated and the desolate. And if that wasn't enough to put one's teeth on edge, the collection was undeniably deeply compelling. It was both sad and beautiful -- a realization that made one think: Surely, I must be some sort of monstrous human being.
Kawakubo's fashion forces a reassessment of what makes us squeamish about certain sources of inspiration and definitions of beauty. A designer can pull ideas from a host of places -- sometimes simultaneously and sometimes unconsciously. Almost certainly, no one will be riled by a designer inspired by overindulged Goth teenagers, rock stars or the ladies-who-lunch. But when designers take creative license with the aesthetics of the less privileged, the less powerful, it feels as if they are stealing the very souls of those people.
Kawakubo didn't abscond with that indigent woman's actual identity -- the designer probably has never even seen this particular woman. But Kawakubo appropriated the one thing that forcefully announces the presence of the disenfranchised in the world, one of the few things that keep them from disappearing: Belongings. The rainbow of fabric in a Sudanese refugee camp, the piles of broken shoes in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a stack of jackets and parkas in a coat drive. We might not see the individual, but we see their plight. We see something.
So it's reasonable to cry foul at the idea of commercializing despair. Of making the look of destitution so mass market and frothy-happy-silly that it no longer stands out.
But the power of this collection was that it didn't deny the sadness and the pain, it allowed both to coexist with beauty, which is the way it works in this city and so many others. That's not fashion; that's simply reality.
Most women would not be moved to wear these clothes from Comme des Garcons. (Although they might find the clothes from Kawakubo's second, more commercial line palatable.) They firmly believe that a $2,000 dress ought to spark comparisons to a fairy tale not an NGO grant proposal. But just when it seems that the fashion industry had given up on saying anything especially moving at a time when the future seems so uncertain, Kawakubo managed to reach beyond the clothes and right down to the complex emotions connected with them.
For Kawakubo, the payoff may ultimately be that some folks will want to incorporate the tulle overlays or the blanket coats into their wardrobe. But the real success is that her presentation -- with its equal attention to and respect for pain and joy, sadness and beauty -- made one regret not having tried harder to see the face of that beggar woman at the Louvre.