PARIS — Move over, Miuccia and Helmut. This season, fashion’s driving forces are Rei Kawakubo and, in a more subtle way, Yohji Yamamoto. Their influences are everywhere, and, while the results may not shock as they did years ago when the two designers first shook up the world of Western fashion, they still have the ability to fascinate.
Love or hate the various concepts associated with the two — it’s both politically incorrect and just plain incorrect to lump them into a singular Japanese sensibility — you can’t shrug them off. Perhaps that’s because, global though we fancy ourselves, Westerners still must leap a certain chasm to embrace the more spectacular manifestations of Japanese influences. Why, as we approach the oft-invoked millennium, should we feel less undone by John Galliano’s redux of the Belle Epoque at Dior than by themes Kawakubo introduced in the Eighties? Corsets we get; our ancestors wore them and sprung free. But bound arms, layers that fold into each other with no easily discernible beginning or end, shredded fabrics and certainly pregnancy-simulating tummy bunching are nowhere to be found in the dusty photo albums.
Yet right now, not only does it all look as provocative as ever, it also looks exotic, exciting and, done well, incredibly chic. Just where this renewed interest is coming from is hard to pinpoint. Only last year, Kawakubo remarked in an interview that she thought her current influence was nil, especially “right now with everything being retro and easy-to-wear casual.” But certainly both she and Yamamoto have been among the strongest — and, at least within the industry, the most talked-about — designers over the past several seasons. She has been regarded as controversial by most objective standards and laughable by some, and he is credited with creating a glorious new glamour that looks back and ahead at once.
Coupled with the strength of their recent work are the forces of a bigger trend — anti-minimalism. For the time being, at least, fashion has had it with the bare essentials. Clothes have been pared and spared to a fare-thee-well, and now, what’s most inviting is anything with interest.
None of this has happened overnight. Rather, flourishes — both those intrinsic to cut and those purely for embellishment — have inched their way back into fashion. And they’ve done so to varying degrees, in everything from lace-edged slips and velvet Voyage borders to the glorious lavishness of John Galliano’s pile-it-on approach at Dior.
Even die-hard purists are adding on. After years of stripping away, two of fashion’s most renowned minimalists, Jil Sander and Calvin Klein, have taken to upping the detail quotient of their collections, most recently with Japanese references. Sander’s spring collection, which drew heavily from Kawakubo in terms of cut, was a brilliant tour de force, one that distilled arcane ideas into real-life clothes. And next month, Klein, too, will continue with artistic details like elasticized hems on long, casual dresses.
Two collections shown here yesterday exemplified the range of Kawakubo’s influence. Junya Watanabe, a former protege of hers, whose line is backed by Comme des Garcons, showed a collection vastly different than his fall effort, which was his most commercial ever.
This time, Watanabe said he wanted to do a collection that was fresh, simple and pure. While his take on simplicity clearly diverges from the way that idea is commonly perceived, the collection was indeed a beautiful, if studied, expression of purity. Almost everything was in white cottons, treated for various effects. And they were spectacular, from the simple heavy cottons to a dappled floral, tone-on-tone contrasts of matte and shine and those shot with silver brocade.
Watanabe showed draped, multilayer creations with voluminous knee-length skirts or girlish pleated skirts, hospital scrub T-shirts and loosely woven dresses and tops. Everything was swathed, wrapped and tied — including the models’ faces, each veiled behind a delicate filmy web. An aura of gentle madness prevailed, with visions of stylized Greek goddesses, ballerinas and nurses all blurring into each other. But the vision that remained in focus throughout was that of Kawakubo. Watanabe works under her umbrella, and obviously neither was bothered by the overt homage. And when it looks so good, why should they be?
Dries Van Noten took a far more accessible approach, one that meshed perfectly with his philosophy of mixing Eastern themes with smart tailoring. The result was one of his best collections in seasons. He opened with white dresses and separates, many bunched or gathered somewhere on the body, and sometimes worn under good-looking jackets. These, along with neutral-toned baggy sweaters, were the most direct Kawakubo references, and also comprised the strongest part of his show.
Then Van Noten reverted to what he does more often — those far-flung elements tinged with exotica and worn in all sorts of layers. While many of these looked quite lovely, we’ve seen others before, and they lacked the freshness of the show’s opening segment.
There’s every reason to think this Japanese influence will carry through to New York, and it will be fascinating to see how the direction plays out at retail. In the past, when such themes move into the broader market, the results have sometimes been disastrous. The most recent example: a few years back, when everyone in fashion jumped on deconstruction — hardly a mainstream concept.
While it’s unlikely you’ll see bound arms or deliberately thickened tummies coming out of 550 Seventh Avenue, you will see loosened shapes, inventive cuts and unexpectedly draped and folded silhouettes. And the times they are a-changing, so there may just be a healthy market — if not an enormous one — for the children of Rei.

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