On the streets that cut through the center of the 10th Arrondissement here, countless shops sell puffy wigs, skeins of fake hair and mysterious pomades bearing pictures of black women with long, thick locks. The African immigrants who fill these shops are looking to create elaborate sculptural hairstyles that hark back to cultural traditions but also hold the promise of grabbing attention from a majority culture that would ignore them.
There is an essential human need to announce one's presence to the world. It is particularly important among those who are in danger of disappearing into the shadows, their individuality obscured by thankless jobs, poverty or simply unfamiliar traditions.
These look-at-me hairstyles draw attention in part because of their volume. They take up extra room in the world, and people who take up space receive attention. Voluminous clothing serves the same purpose. In a crowded room, a woman wearing a full-skirted ball gown or a dress with a train is invariably noticed. Others must stand at arm's length, allowing them to take in the breadth of her being.
Designer Jun Takahashi of Undercover presented his spring 2005 collection in this neighborhood Monday, and he clearly had been captivated by the neighborhood beauty parlors, devoting an inordinate amount of attention to the size and complexity of the models' hair. In Takahashi's presentation, one model emerged with an Afro composed of dozens of wigs and hairpieces all merged into one. The enormous hirsute globe made her seem like a doomed figure balancing this burden on her delicate neck -- its tendons standing out like an elaborate filigree.
Was the point only to keep the eye from wandering away from the runway? On the runways here everything serves a purpose. Rarely does a designer spend 20 minutes of catwalk time simply to show a few pretty frocks. How lazy! How banal! Every detail offers a point of interpretation. A big hairdo can speak of culture, visibility, social order. To fully understand many collections here, one needs access to a full library of books on cinema and art history -- or at least a fast Internet connection.
The collection that Takahashi created was a homage to Czech surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer. Svankmajer apparently dabbles in mixed media works and in 1988 released a feature-length film based on "Alice in Wonderland" called "Neco z Alenky." One wonders why these designers can't find inspiration in something a little less esoteric. Don't they ever go to their local multiplex? Is it so shameful to be inspired by Michael Mann?
The setting for the presentation was the splendidly dilapidated Theatre des Bouffes du Nord -- a place for comic opera, experimental productions and the like. The collection was influenced by the color and texture of the theater's crumbling plaster, by surreal flourishes that tease and exploit one's sense of reality and by absurdist humor. Armed with this information, one can either be a bore at an upcoming cocktail party or dissect the Undercover collection down to the last ravaged thread.
The models emerged with their towering look-at-me hairstyles wearing white skirts whose surfaces resembled cracked and peeling plaster. They wore thick terry cloth swallowtail coats that looked as though they might have been pulled from an old costume closet. Dresses appeared to be pouring forth from the pockets of trousers in the way that a magician might pull a silk scarf from his jacket sleeve. A red dress seemed to have been inspired by the cracked and peeling walls of the backdrop behind it. Cardigans and skirts looked as if they were bursting open from all the tulle, silks and other fabric hidden beneath them.
Takahashi's work teases the eye and plays to one's sense of humor. Really, it was acceptable to chuckle every now and then. As unrecognizable as it may seem, this was fashion humor. Nothing is as it appears to be. Everything is hiding something else.
Many of the collections in the opening days of the spring 2005 shows here appear to be fascinated with the idea of volume, focusing on the shape and proportion of clothes rather than on elaborate beading, sequins or other adornment. How do the clothes surround the body? Are there pockets and pleats in which surprises can be hidden?
Yohji Yamamoto turned his attention to the front of the body, creating elaborate apronlike constructions that cover the front, leaving the back open. They are worn over trousers. Yamamoto makes exquisite use of flowers, created by the way fabric is folded and pleated.
It is as though the body is the infrastructure, and Yamamoto uses it to support the twists and turns of his fabric. The emphasis is more on the magic in the material and less on the way fabric brings out some expressive quality in the body. There are portrait-collar jackets and full-legged trousers with straightforward closures, but mostly Yamamoto plays tricks with zippers, using them to confuse the eye. Is that a skirt or a pair of pants? It wraps around the body and zips up, but it seems to have distinct compartments for each leg. Whatever the garment with the confounding shape might be called, one still is inclined to wear it.
One of the first things to catch the eye at the Balenciaga show on Tuesday was the dresses worn by the staff. In black or white, they were taken from the Balenciaga archives and updated with modern fabrics. The dresses had a close-fitting, sleeveless bodice with a bubble of a skirt and a band at the hem that created the illusion of an hourglass figure -- no matter that a more athletic or tomboy shape may have been hiding underneath. Anyone who has watched a film from the late 1950s or '60s has undoubtedly seen one of these dresses. It is one of the iconic silhouettes created by Cristobal Balenciaga.
In recalling the work of the house's founder, fashion historian Valerie Steele says a Balenciaga dress "creates little air pockets around the body." And she quotes the house's namesake as saying, "A woman doesn't need the perfect body or shape to wear clothes. My clothes will do that for her."
Balenciaga died in 1972. And now, more than 30 years later, designer Nicolas Ghesquiere sits at the creative helm of the label. Ghesquiere has typically favored clothes that are not easy to wear. His snug-fitting trousers, tiny skirts and abbreviated shearlings require that a woman have, if not a perfect shape, at least an admirable one.
Slowly, however, volume has become a more pronounced part of his collection. Perhaps it is because he has begun to pay close attention to the archives. Each season the house re-creates a handful of original designs under Ghesquiere's direction. Perhaps it is because clothes that help an imperfect shape look better are more commercial. Whatever the impetus, he has begun to find beauty and intrigue in the "air pockets."
Ghesquiere's collection for spring mines the traditions of uniforms, in particular the navy blazer with gold buttons. His dark blue dresses fit close through the torso. The waist is pulled in with a wide belt and the skirt explodes with movement and volume.
Designers seem positively obsessed with the idea of there being more to a garment than what is on the surface. Ghesquiere uses half-open zippers as a way to give the eye hidden spaces to explore. In a slim-fitting, aerodynamic sheath, the zippers cause the eye to linger, allowing a woman just a few more seconds in the spotlight.
Junya Watanabe uses zippers and oversize snaps as a form of decoration and as structural elements. A swirling row of golden zippers rises up around the collar of a dress, giving it a high, stiff neckline. Zippers around the waistband of a skirt create an almost sculptural effect. The waistband stands slightly away from the torso, creating an almost protective zone around the body.
Comme des Garcons
Studying the ways clothes interact with the body and the space that surrounds it has been integral to the work of Comme des Garcons designer Rei Kawakubo. She has studied the way padded clothing can alter the contours of the body, arguing that a hump on the back and a lump on the side of the shoulder have a place within the culture's definition of beauty. It would be fair to say that Kawakubo was unsuccessful in that argument.
For fall, she mulls the jacket. Sometimes it is constructed of leather, sometimes of neoprene, pieced together with oversize whip stitches. It sits away from the body as though it has been pumped full of air. On the bottom, there are ballerina tutus, some of them cantilevered forward to reveal slim-fitting bloomers.
Kawakubo's work will be represented in a group exhibition that opens Thursday at the Museum at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. The central point of the show -- that clothes can have shapes separate from the ones a body might impose on them -- makes it easier to digest Kawakubo's work.
So often it seems that her clothes exist in their own universe -- one in which people don't really need their shoulders to move freely, for example. But Kawakubo suggests in her spring collection that the body can function within the sculptural bubble created by her puffy jackets. There's no need to move outside of it.
On the subject of tutus one could argue that they are a profoundly feminine and delicate way to offset the toughness of a leather jacket. Their stiffness and width speak to the issue of volume and space.
As for the decision to style the models with white powdered barrister wigs, that is best discussed in the presence of a fully stocked bar and a designated driver. One can only assume that is the method by which the idea was conceived.