“For me, the dark beauty of the black rose symbolizes courage, resistance, and freedom”, Rei Kawakubo stated regarding her Comme des Garçons autumn-winter 2022 show presented a few days ago in Tokyo. The black rose in Irish culture is a symbol of resistance against British rule. It might be a bit hard to discern it in the Comme lineup – it only comes in, patterned on a sort of Victoriana brocade at the 12th of the 16 exits. It’s certain that anti-British imperialism in Ireland is what Kawakubo meant, though, because the haunting music – “a beautiful resistance song from Ireland, Roisin Dubh, the little black rose,” was recorded for the show by the Northern Irish slow flautist Ciaran Carlin. Possibly that’s the most political reference Kawkubo’s made in her work – it has no equivalence to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, except for the common factor of dangerously contested borders. But anyway: how to put words to her clothes? Was a sense of dark history, something primal, or even medieval going on? It seemed so to begin with anyway, what with Kawkubo’s use of thick, wadded, speckled-gray felt carpet underlay (or something similar) and headpieces created by Gary Card bulging with assortments of rough, rolled up fabrics. Other hand-crocheted floppy woollen hats had the air of bonnets, country-cottage style. Comme des Garçons hasn’t been showing outside Tokyo for two years, and Paris Fashion Week really misses its presence. Hopefully, Kawakubo (as well as Junya Watanabe and Noir Kei Ninomiya) returns to the French runway next season.
“For this collection, black is expressed through shadows,” said Kei Ninomiya in his spring-summer 2022 notes. “I wanted to express the ephemeral strength and beauty of things that are present around us although we cannot see them clearly.” The show was held in Aoyama, Tokyo, at the Commes des Garçons headquarters. Ninomiya has experimented with non-Noir color previously, most often via brilliant botanical worn installations that were absent today. Instead he expressed his notion of black’s shadow by creating a series of pieces in beige. The idea of something casting a paler shadow than itself implied a reversed polarity of some kind, and the paler procession of pieces did indeed mostly cover the still-breathtaking territory we have seen Ninomiya explore before. Sometimes, as in Look 15, they also looked to break new-for-Noir ground. Two more novelties were the use of woven hemp in rope-adjacent, wearable structures and the first written branding, beyond the garment label itself. The name of the brand was used to make rough white-on-black stripes and checks, which was fine enough on pants, shirts, and cycling shorts. When applied to a more sculptural piece, however, such as Look 9, this branding felt pretty extraneous. Noir Kei Ninomiya is a brand that doesn’t need logomania – those stunning, mushroom-y garments do the talking.
The big three names from Japan – Rei Kawakubo, Junya Watanabe and Kei Ninomiya – again skipped Paris Fashion Week, and they will probably do so until the pandemic completely winds up. From Tokyo, Watanabe treated the internet with a charming collection filled with gilded draping, filmy fabrics, disrupted tailoring and printed collaborations with Japanese, Chinese, Nepalese, and Thai contemporary artists. He called it “Eastern Reminiscence,” his term for his reminiscences of pre-pandemic travel. Looking through a collection of photojournalism that Jamie Hawkesworth, the British photographer captured in 2019 in Bhutan, India, and Kashmir, Watanabe “became nostalgic for Asia” and “the pure heart of people” he saw there. It was all there to read in the intersections of his gently-elegant folds, layers of glimmering asymmetric drapery, brocades and the fragments of biker jackets, kilts, and men’s tailored jackets. First up: a white dress printed with a skull artwork – part punk, part Chinese porcelain – by the Chinese artist Jacky Tsai, based in London. Watanabe had Japanese heroes working with him too: black-on-flesh-colored patterns in semi-translucent dresses almost as fine as second-skins were by the tattoo artist Nissaco, renowned for his geometric work. A dress with a psychedelic artwork of goldfish and stylized women’s heads came from a 1975 animation by Keiichi Tanaami, the legendary pop artist who has been working his hallucinatory visions since the ’60s. Powerful hand-drawn black calligraphy by Wang Dongling, director of the Modern Calligraphy Study Center at the China National Academy of Arts, scrolled a Tang Dynasty poem over white dresses. Ang Tsherin Sherpa, a Tibetan artist based in California, creator of modern artworks based on traditional Tibetan thangka iconography, collaborated in orange-blue-green grid patterns sliding sideways over a draped dress. A vivid orange smock emblazoned with flowers and a painted dragon is a Thai fantasia dreamed up for Watanabe by the Bangkok-based illustrator Phannapast Taychamaythakool. It’s obvious how much mutual respect Watanabe enjoys with his creative peers who are all exploring traditions and crafts in free-wheeling, sometimes surreal parallel. The fantastically textured metallic series of evening pieces beautifully related to Jamie Hawkesworth’s photographs of golden female temple deities. This was definitely one of Junya Watanabe’s most inspired collection for a long time.
Livestreamed from Tokyo, Rei Kawakubo went for her signature giant portable Comme Des Garçons sculptures this season, imprinted with exaggerated flowers, leaves and bows. There were huge shapes, which meant models had to squeeze or shuffle sideways to emerge through a door onto a set. It didn’t feel like one of Kawakubo’s dystopian, apocalyptic moments in which she has seemed to sound a warning about bad things coming. Was her popping-out scenario closer to suggesting a feeling of rebirth, re-emergence, maybe? If so, it’s into a world where – as other fashion designers have been saying – nothing makes sense. Randomness, surrealism and absurdity are registering as part of the mood of 2021. Kawakubo, in confronting her “present state of mind” went large, very, very large, occupying space in ways that no women is meant to (though to be honest, vast art-fashion structures have been her safe space for experimenting for years). She certainly met her own criterion of avoiding making clothes. Comme “dresses” were presented as abstract perambulating 3-D fabric structures, topped off with pastiches of plastic cartoon girly wigs by Gary Card. Some of them had a sort of curved prow; several had net-filled cones spurting from their backs; some were ovoid, another was a 3-D black trashbag flower. Eventually there was an impression of the weight of furnishing fabric and swishing curtain swags. In the end there was a piece that seemed to have entirely merged a woman with a comfy black and white upholstered armchair. Paris Fashion Week missed having the Comme de Garçons show to contemplate at a time when fashion needs fearless innovators to take it forward. Kawakubo sets an example for all: a designer who has been independent for a lifetime and is still pushing.
Entitled “Metal Couture“, Noir Kei Ninomiya‘s collection was all about excitingly unfamiliar silhouettes and extraordinary surfaces. This season, however, the designer takes a more aggressive approach. Those first looks featuring thin, stainless-steel spikes felt like an exaggerated, haute take on social distancing. The cylinder forms of tufty organza also seemed to say: ‘don’t bother me’. Black clusters of puckered organza (sea sponge–ish) look so tactile you wish you could actually touch them yourself to judge whether they are soft or razor sharp. Kei Ninomiya is a genius in creating organic-like garments that are both challenging and so, so intriguing.