Here is designer Junya Watanabe wanting only to apply his skill to making beautiful, relevant clothes. He began with a trench coat, and he deconstructed it in seemingly a thousand different ways. It became skirts and cargo pants, dresses and corsets and coats. He layered these pieces over leggings printed with the original artwork from Brazilian duo Bicicleta Sem Freio and a Spanish graffiti artist who goes by Demsky J.
And that was that. A delightful collection of interesting ideas expertly executed.
But where Watanabe offered pure fashion, Kei Ninomiya made an emotional appeal. It’s impossible not to consider the environment and climate change when looking at Ninomiya’s spring 2020 Noir collection. He called the collection he put on the runway Saturday afternoon “Beginning,” and it focused on the energy that comes from starting something new. So there were ferns and succulents sprouting from the magnificent plant crowns and headpieces created for the occasion by Azuma Makoto, a Japanese flower artist. The models walked down the runway like human topiaries, the sounds of leaves brushing against their legs and rustling from their strides.
Sometimes the plants appeared to be covering black blazers and trousers, as if some business hack was overgrown by nature, the same way the ruins of a lost civilization are reclaimed by the environment. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
He sometimes covers the face with mossy masks, and it can be jarring. It’s easy to understand why some might take offense at the notion of covering a woman’s face and making her anonymous. Of silencing her. In the context of his presentation, his decision comes as a suggestion: Perhaps we should refrain from focusing so much on us, on our individual needs and desires, and consider ourselves as part of an interconnected environment. We are part of the biodiversity, and we are not immune to extinction.
Ninomiya reminds his audience of the precariousness of nature in the jolting appearance of a woman in slick, lacquered black detritus. She is a shimmering junk heap out of which a few sprigs of life grow. She is our haunting future. Is that bit of green a sign of life springing forth? Or the last gasp of joy?
There is a choice, of course. We can choose to stand in the darkness or to move into the light. We can see our world as something beyond a suburban cul-de-sac or an urban mews. Or we can be small and petty. A single blade of grass doesn’t last long. Ninomiya suggests that we can start over — or at least start the day with fresh thoughts, new ideas … hope.
Can fashion designers teach us something about growth? They are, after all, masters of the art of change. They understand that we are forever tweaking our identity, searching for new ways to express our personality. Designer Rei Kawakubo has taken on the grand topic of human identity in creating costumes for a new opera, “Orlando,” by composer Olga Neuwirth, which is expected to debut in Vienna in December. The opera focuses on the idea of gender stereotypes and transformation.
Kawakubo began to explore these ideas in June during her Comme des Garçons menswear presentation that featured male models in pin-curls wearing ornamented blazers and trousers and dresses and skirts that were not particularly masculine nor especially feminine. Act II had her musing on femininity, romance and the self. On the runway Saturday evening, her ideas about gender were not relegated to one time or ethos. She speaks through brocades and ruffles, tapestries and what appears to be plain muslin.
Her shapes are grand and imposing, and her ideas play out in a cacophony of color and textures. There are skirts that degrade into slim trousers, leggings stuffed with distorting padding and bloomers sized for a giant. The garments hearken to past centuries when the lines between gender were not so fixed, when men wore ruffles and silk stockings and everyone wore wigs and powdered their hair.
The final act is the opera itself. One suspects that will also be the moment when the beauty of these fascinating creations will come alive with emotion. That was the missing element Saturday evening, that mysterious, poetic something that tugs at your heart and gives Kawakubo’s work its magic. Despite Stravinsky roaring on the soundtrack and the models gliding meditatively down the elevated runway, the show was a constrained, intellectual experience — the shapes are mesmerizing, the fabrication dynamic, the complexity inspiring — rather than an emotional one.
But perhaps Kawakubo knows our needs better than we ourselves know them. Perhaps emotion is the problem. People are making decisions with their gut, shooting from the hip and too often leading with their outrage. Perhaps now is, quite simply, the time to stop and think.
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