A rose-colored brocade coat by designer Rei Kawakubo billows out from the body, transforming a woman's silhouette from an hourglass into a teardrop. The sleeves aren't really sleeves at all, but tubes that remain attached to the torso. They fall directly from the collar, as there are no discernible shoulders. The coat fastens haphazardly, as if the wearer had simply wound a few yards of cloth around her curves and scrunched it into a knot at the side of the neck.

The model who wore the garment in the fall '96 collection had her hair piled high and powdered in the manner of Marie Antoinette or the Bride of Frankenstein, depending on one's frame of reference. The total effect was both compelling and foreboding, suggesting the majestic sweep of royalty while hinting at the freakish madness that comes from a false sense of omnipotence.

Typical Kawakubo.

If fashion is a series of concentric circles with a Gap pocket T-shirt in the center, then Kawakubo's work for her company, Comme des Garcons, lies in the outermost ring, where jackets have one sleeve and a shirt can swell with a bulging bump as if it's camouflaging a large cyst in need of aspiration.

Kawakubo, born in Tokyo in 1942 and with a background in textile advertising, is the fashion industry's most challenging, most thoughtful--and at times most pretentious--designer.

Whether she is confounding editors, stymieing buyers or baffling consumers, no one can deny that her designs are inspired solely by her own inner muse. At a time when the fashion industry is dominated by large corporations, and creativity is held hostage to the bottom line, Kawakubo's work is startling, outlandish and breathtaking.

She called a knit with large, gaping holes "lace." She introduced a perfume called Odeur 53 and described it as an "anti-fragrance." Her fall 1995 menswear collection, shown on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, resembled concentration camp uniforms; she denied the connection but apologized for any offense. One critic said her all-black collections were for "the woman unwilling to dress herself up so that other people have something pleasing to look at."

Rare is the designer who can conjure fury, dismay and disbelief with such seeming calm and regularity.

"I always felt that my clothes should give confidence to the woman who wears them," Kawakubo, speaking in Japanese, says through a translator. The clothes should provide "comfort to the mind, not necessarily to the body."

Where Kawakubo ventures today, the rest of the industry will unabashedly follow several years hence. The future, however, isn't always pretty.

"I think she's one of a half-dozen of the most influential designers in the world today," says Valerie Steele, a historian at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "Her customer base is very small but her influence on other designers is enormous."

Are her one-armed jackets really meant to be worn? In public? After speaking with Kawakubo, one realizes that her collections are not puzzles, they are dares. Because, indeed, Kawakubo means for her one-armed coat to be bought and worn. She is a provocateur with a $130 million privately held company.

It would be much easier to accept her work if the designer acknowledged these garments as art, experiments, testaments to the power of creativity. But she stubbornly calls them clothes. And every season, she comes to Paris and puts on a show.

"The main purpose is to show the clothes and to sell the clothes," she says. "I see this as a small business [founded] in the belief that if you make strong clothes, then they sell."

Clothes for the Mind

"Her clothes are experimental, intellectual. They're not what you'd call easy clothing. But they're beautiful," says Judy Collinson, head of women's ready-to-wear for Barneys New York, where Kawakubo's collection has been carried for more than 10 years.

Some examples:

About three years ago, a woman spent some $3,000 on a highfalutin Comme des Garcons suit. The laser-cut jacket had unfinished edges from which hung stray threads; the matching bubble skirt was stitched from an olive drab fabric that had been washed to make it look like vintage clothing.

The woman and a friend went to the Ritz Hotel in Paris for a drink at the bar. But the doorman wouldn't let her in. The whole ensemble looked like it had been stitched out of rags. And to her friend, it seemed as if the doorman was eyeing her with a suspicion reserved for bag ladies.

The "bag lady" ensemble set the stage for clothes that now are in collections like Donna Karan's. Laser-cut jackets--with their smooth but unfinished edges--are now acceptable. Consumers like and appreciate the more relaxed style.

Several years ago, a team of fashion editors was out on a photo shoot. The editors were trying to fit a Comme des Garcons dress on a model--a dress they'd seen on a runway and that they had a Polaroid of. But try as they might, tugging and twisting, they couldn't get the garment to look the way it did in the instructional photo. They made an emergency call to a Comme des Garcons representative who arrived on location to find that they'd put the dress on upside down.

At the spring '97 Comme des Garcons show, the dresses on display were lumpy. Not puckered like seersucker or puffy like a down vest. Instead, the dresses and skirts, constructed of a stretchy gingham check fabric, were bumpy in a Quasimodo, dowager's hump, monstrously creepy yet fascinating way.

Thick coils snaked along under the dresses and slithered up one hip. A gentle knoll rose from one model's back. Another block of padding caused a model's rear end to protrude like a flying buttress. The collection arrived in stores with the stuffing intact. The clothes were not expected to sell, but Barneys New York bought them anyway and prominently displayed them.

"The bump collection was a hard year," Collinson says diplomatically. But the store has always been a champion of Kawakubo's work.

Comme des Garcons "is very important to Barneys' whole aesthetic," Collinson says, and profitable as well. "Buying it is a challenge, but it's so much fun figuring out what she's trying to say and accomplish and then making it work for the store."

To do that, one must forget assumptions about the necessity of a shirt having armholes. One must become resolved to the fact that Kawakubo will never explicitly state what a collection means or what inspired it.

Consider Kawakubo's message to critics preceding the presentation of her bump collection: "The body becomes dress and dress becomes the body and they become one."

"I can't explain it," says Nancy Pearlstein of Relish, a boutique in Chevy Chase that sells the secondary collection Comme des Garcons, Comme des Garcons. "I think she has a certain modern-art kind of appeal."

The bulk of Kawakubo's fans are in Japan, followed by the United States and then Europe. To be sure, many of her customers are artists, particularly in New York. But not solely. Here in Washington, the secondary line sells to "such a mishmash of people. Artsy people buy it. But then I have classic, conservative people who don't necessarily know [the label] they're buying, but they just like it," Pearlstein says.

The bump collection was part of Kawakubo's ongoing examination of the relationship between clothes and the body and how each can alter the other. A backpack transforms the silhouette of a woman. So does a bulky shoulder bag, or a fanny pack. Uneven shoulders can make a shirt hang lopsided. A short waist can make a skirt hike up in back.

Asked what feeds her own creativity, Kawakubo implies that she works in a vacuum, inspired by nothing, influenced by no one. She will not discuss what she reads, what paintings she admires. Such a claim is even more startling "especially since everyone else has such heightened antennae and is looking 360 degrees around to see what others are doing," FIT's Steele says. "I think she notices more than she lets on. But I also think her instinct is to react in an opposite way."

So in the midst of sleek silhouettes, Kawakubo offers bumps.

"I talked to so many journalists who'd ask me, would I wear it? No. But she's done so many cool things that I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt," Steele says. "And sure enough, a few seasons later, others picked up on [the bumps] by adding padding to clothes."

Bare Essentials

At most fashion shows, there is dramatic lighting, a loud soundtrack and models who strut, wriggle or stomp down the runway. At a Comme des Garcons show the lighting is flat and harsh, as if someone has just flipped on a 200-watt bulb. Then the models appear, dronelike. The background is spare. There is no music, just the sound of camera shutters clicking. A carefully chosen audience soberly whispers. Occasionally there are outbreaks of applause, as if a certain garment has provided insight on the meaning of life.

The models always tell the same story of waiting in the wings for their moment onstage and of Kawakubo giving their garments an abrupt tug or twist so that a shirt that once hung evenly from both shoulders now hangs cockeyed from only one.

Is this merely festering pretentiousness? Or is it something more, something visionary? Initially, what she produces seems discordant. Soon, however, others are inspired, they copy her, and what once shocked the senses becomes reasonable.

But Kawakubo does not consider herself a visionary. That would suggest hubris. It also would imply that she is a dreamer prone to impractical ideas. And while she admits that her work is difficult to understand, she also believes that it is utterly reasonable.

When others appropriate her ideas she remains silent, recognizing that once a garment is unveiled to the public, it is fair game for all those seeking inspiration.

"Some do [copy] on purpose. Others see something I have done and digest it in their own way. Perhaps the root of what bothers me more is the media," says Kawakubo. "They suddenly write about the uneven length of a skirt, which I have been doing for all these years.

"I would like the critics to be correct." Meaning that she would like to be recognized as the one who executed the idea first.

Sometimes, however, the critics are simply confused. But Kawakubo does not make it easy for them. She comes across as a Sphinx, indecipherable even to those who work for her.

Yet in the midst of the riddles and tomfoolery lies a single enticing detail that draws the eye. It could be something as simple as the strands of thread that hang from a garment, the sweetly scalloped hemline of a dress--or more correctly, half of a dress--the raw beauty of a coat that has been flipped inside out.

These are the notions that have helped to transform fashion on a grand scale.

Kawakubo sparked interest in unorthodox proportions. Her experimentation with fabrics like polyester brought them into use in high-end fashion. The scallop hemlines foreshadowed a girlish bohemia.

"Most designers are really interpreters or merchandisers," Pearlstein says. "She's totally an innovator."

Fashion on the Edge

The Comme des Garcons label was born in Japan in 1969 and debuted in Paris in 1981. (Kawakubo is still based in Tokyo.) The company's showroom, tucked behind iron gates in the fashionable Place Vendome, is a long white rectangular space that seems to run on forever.

There is no laughter here. Models walk around in leotards and tights ready to try on a garment so the sales staff can explain how it should be worn. Each piece has a helpful diagram attached.

"She doesn't have people who aren't implicitly loyal," one former employee said. "When you leave, you feel like you have to be deprogrammed. While you're there, you feel like you're part of a very private club. You get it and no one else does."

Everyone who works for Kawakubo wears clothes from the current season. The bump collection gave her workers pause because while the padding was removable, no one dared alter the designer's vision. Of course, as one former employee said, "I never saw her wearing pillows."

Kawakubo emerges from another room wearing a black skirt--or maybe it's pants; it's hard to tell--and a white blouse. The attire looks almost like a uniform. Her face on this day reveals no emotion of any kind, only a hint of fatigue.

She is married to her company's managing director, Adrian Joffe. She collaborated with choreographer Merce Cunningham, whose dancers were costumed in her bump collection for "Scenario," which premiered in 1997. She favors contemporary artist Cindy Sherman for her advertising campaigns.

And she doesn't believe in the designer as celebrity. "The clothes say it all," she insists. "You can see the collection and suss out the personality behind the clothes. The clothes say the most rather than my house or what my life is like."

The fashion and design lecturer Sarah Bodine wrote of Kawakubo's work, "Her clothing is not so much about the body as the space around the body and the metaphor of self." For Kawakubo, clothes don't have to follow the line of the body. They can be constructed around it, like a tent or a fortress. Clothes can dwarf the body or make it larger than life.

Using those ideas as a reference point, it becomes easier to understand how Kawakubo can blithely create a garment that winds around the torso without regard to arms, waist or bosom.

"I might design something that might not function fully as clothes. . . . What's more important is the spirit," she says. "If the clothes give confidence and beauty, that is far more important."

While Kawakubo does not call her fashion art, museums around the world have included her work in their permanent collections. Her designs reside in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and in New York at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute.

The Costume Institute has three garments from the bump collection; the very year that those coils and mounds appeared on the runway, one of the pieces was included in its "Four Seasons" show, exhibited alongside a white Victorian dress.

"It was like a cartoon version of Edwardianism. It was so much fun," says curator Richard Martin. As he saw it, Kawakubo was playing fast and loose with Victorian costume. She had brought to life the ladies in Georges Seurat's "A Sunday on la Grande Jatte." Suddenly the bustles and corsets and all of the figure-altering hardware and padding were in motion, shifting and writhing. Of course, that is Martin's interpretation, not Kawakubo's.

"Fashion history came alive," Martin says, in a way that it does not in the work of designers like John Galliano, who regularly immerses himself in some distant moment in the past and then mimics it.

But to compare Kawakubo with other designers really is only to irritate her. She is often grouped with designers Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, but that is only because they share a Japanese heritage and all grabbed the Paris spotlight in the '80s with their non-Western approach to clothes. But Yamamoto is more of a couturier and Miyake is an optimistic adventurer, forever experimenting with fabric technology. Kawakubo's experimentation is with the essential nature of clothes. She sees herself as wanting to "go beyond the banner of what has been done before."

Yet she is quick to contradict herself and say that she does not have goals. It would be more accurate to say that she is chasing an unreachable goal, like someone trying to measure infinity.

Kawakubo's small fan base appreciates her perspective on beauty and femininity, neither of which jibes with the traditional Western ideal. Indeed, much of her construction--wrapping, de-emphasis of the body--is drawn from traditional Japanese dress. Kawakubo has said that she does not find clothes that reveal the body to be flattering. She steers away from the most famous runway models, choosing unknowns or more startling faces.

"In normal circumstance, we regard long legs, big bust and blond to be beautiful," she says. But Kawakubo also wonders why we can't regard those with short legs and a small chest to be beautiful also.

In an extreme way, Kawakubo is asking why we so often see beauty only in perfection. Why must it be defined in Western terms? And ultimately, why must it be defined at all?

CAPTION: Rei Kawakubo has something up her sleeves: Clockwise from top, a teardrop-shaped coat; an outfit from her "bump" collection; a bold block pattern.

CAPTION: A suit with asymmetrical jacket, above, and an outfit with elaborate hat, above right, from the 1998-99 Comme des Garcons collection.

CAPTION: A sarong-like skirt (and top) from the 1999-2000 ready-to-wear collection, part of Rei Kawakubo's startling and breathtaking work.