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There’s a very good reason for fashion to be this weird

Comme des Garcons fall/winter 2016 collection. (MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

PARIS — The designer Rei Kawakubo began her fall 2016 Comme des Garcons show here with a model dressed in tiers of floral brocade that could cover the walls of a royal boudoir. The fabric had enough body to hold a shape, and that shape was of multiple rings and petals and the odd puzzle piece. They were connected with silver rivets.

The model’s head was covered in a black conical wig. And she crept slowly down the elevated runway in a pair of fuzzy slip-ons.

More women followed. They appeared swallowed up in giant fuchsia sacks stuffed to overflowing with bits of fur. They were encased in mountains of bright pink. . . something. Sometimes their bottom halves were nearly the full width of the runway thanks to exaggerated panniers. And often, their legs were covered in a kind of articulated brace with particular attention paid to shielding the knee.

The women looked like creatures from another time — Marie Antoinette imagined by a young child in the thick of a pink princess obsession. But they also looked oddly mechanized, like a robotic vestige from the industrial age, when factory workers wielded monkey wrenches instead of computer codes.

[Robin Givhan at Paris Fashion Week: Complete coverage]

Everything about the ensemble was odd and inscrutable. It was weird. It was fashion. And it makes people crazy.

Afterward, the critically acclaimed Japanese designer offered only a handful of words to explain it: “18th Century Punk. The 18th century was a time of change and revolution. This is how I imagine punks would look like if they had lived in this century.” Well, okay.

Upon closer examination, that hair was sort of a mohawk by way of powdered wig. The clothes alluded to an aristocratic court. But those few words are only a starting point. They provide a bit of insight into her deep imagination and the seed from which the collection sprang.

For the viewer, the collection is ultimately an invitation to explore the ways in which aesthetic shorthand changes and evolves over time, depending on geography and culture. How do clothes affect our perceptions? How do we use clothes to signify our intent? What if Kawakubo had imagined the look of punks — these subversive, independent youth — in Senegal? Or Mexico? What would they look like in the 1920s? What will a snapshot of subversion look like 50 years from now?

Weird fashion, confounding fashion is filled with ideas that get under our skin and shift our thinking in ways that are subtle and yet profound. Or at least it tries to.

The simplest thing that fashion can do is to clothe us for an occasion and spark a trend. Furry shoes! Leopard prints! Pink! The more difficult task is pushing us to change the way that we think about our culture and ourselves. Kawakubo has made the argument that a woman can opt out of hourglass silhouettes and still declare herself feminine and powerful. Yet, people seem more perturbed by one of Kawakubo’s roly-poly models than one trussed up in a corset and wearing a skirt cut almost to her derriere.

Kawakubo’s work pushes us to rethink the way in which clothes must fit. They do not have to directly follow the line of the body but can be cut contrary to it.

A hem does not have to be perfectly finished. Indeed, clothes do not have to be flawless or made from precious fabrics before they can be of value — before they can be deemed beautiful. And in this way, Kawakubo has pushed us to expand our definition of beauty.

The Vetements collective, from which Demna Gvasalia was plucked to become creative director at Balenciaga, specializes in turning a spotlight on the most basic and banal kinds of clothes: sweatshirts, work uniforms, oxford shirts. Vetements doesn’t try to elevate these garments — the fabric isn’t all that splendid, frankly. It simply asks: Why can’t these be fetishized as desirable just the way they are?

Is weird fashion simply clothing struggling to be taken seriously as art? Perhaps, if the definition of art is an expression of creativity that aims to provoke an emotional response. But fashion is not the same as a painting or sculpture or ballet. Fashion is a commodity — it has to be worn, it has to live outside of a gallery or theater.

But here’s the point: It doesn’t have to be worn by everyone. It doesn’t have to be appropriate for the office or the mall or  a White House state dinner.

You and your cul-de-sac neighbors don’t have to like it. The point is that you react to it.

Designer Junya Watanabe explored geometry, playing with circles and constructing garments out of an industrial fabric typically used in auto interiors. By refusing to differentiate between the personal and the industrial, he underscores the idea that those worlds aren’t so terribly far apart. Our lives have become mechanized and overplanned and digitized. We don’t even consider ourselves present — at a meal, a party — until we have created a digital record of it. Are we separate from a computer or just an extension of it, part of the binary code?

Rick Owens uses fashion as a way of communicating the social and cultural concerns that nag at him. In the past, he has expressed his belief in the fearsomeness of diversity and the power of women freed to simply be themselves rather than some socially mandated version of it.

For fall, his models marched across a vast industrial grotto wearing clothes that were draped around their body. They looked beautiful and wild. There was nothing too precise and self-conscious about his clothes. They swaddled and flowed. And the models’ hair was kinky, teased and untamed. They were like otherworldly apparitions.

And how did you feel about it all? If you found it unattractive, is that because you have been trained to believe that hair should be “just so” before it is acceptable?

Weird fashion, if you give it time, can make your mind spin with curiosity. It can force you to search for answers to questions you never before thought of asking yourself.

Sometimes, fashion is eccentric in the pursuit of delight. It is silly and fun, romantic and whimsical. It brings us closer to those elementary school days before we became weighed down with the fear of being judged and the need to fit in. It takes us back to when we demanded to wear whatever brought us joy. Perhaps we mixed polka dots and stripes or purple and orange simply because those combinations made us laugh.

John Galliano writes an adult romance at Maison Margiela where his clothes collide in fantastical ways and the point is not to dig deep for meaning but simply let the mash-up of military, Western, rococo, baroque and the whole crazy quilt of quirky flourishes electrify every pleasure center in the way that a plain white T-shirt never could.

The wide belts, platform heels, colorful boots and spider web wigs are the result of an imagination set free. Call it fashion as magical realism.

If fashion makes you laugh, good. It means that it has jarred you from complacency. It means it has caught your attention. Now, think about why you laughed.  Then ask why. Ask why, again. That’s the starting point of a conversation.


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