PARIS — What would real people think of all this? The question comes up every now and then, usually after a show that even fashion people consider out there for one reason or another. The query was certainly bandied about on Tuesday night at the Conciergerie, where Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons and Martin Margiela staged back-to-back shows. Margiela showed first, and had any unassuming non-fashionites happened upon the scene, they no doubt would have found an irresistible metaphor in all those men in white coats, who may not have taken Margiela away, but they did take away his clothes — literally.
Never one for the raised runway, work-that-skirt approach to showing, Margiela presented the collection in a manner that left even many quite fashionable eyebrows raised in astonishment. Open seating — it’s just not done, but he did it anyway. And even when men came around with bottles of wine and pockets full of paper cups, it still wasn’t enough to keep everybody happy. Chairs were arranged around six tall, pristine white blocks, each behind a small chair with a can of red paint and a paintbrush on the seat. Throughout the show, dictionary-like explanations of various treatments were flashed on the blocks: “Displaced shoulder: The shoulder line has been brought forward onto the front. When not worn, the pieces are totally flat”; “Grocery bag: a series of elements based on the varying forms of paper bags….”
At the same time, the men in white (everyone who works in Margiela’s atelier wears a white lab coat on duty) came out holding the flattened garments on hangers. Sometimes, the video switched to shots of a model wearing the clothes, and often, roaring applause blasted from the soundtrack.
Pretentious? Many thought it the absolute height, while others considered the notion that Margiela might just have a sense of humor. But the underlying message was very serious. Margiela obviously wants his audience to be as fascinated with the process of construction as he is. This season, he shifted the shoulder line forward and the neckline down, for dresses, tops and sweaters. Some are the real thing, some, faux pieces that slip bib-like over the head. There were pants zipped down the length of the side, allowing “trousers to be totally opened and lie flat,” terrific denims, natural suedes cut to look exactly like pattern pieces and those grocery-bag clothes, cut with squared necklines and wide shoulder straps.
It all looked great — at least on the hangers, although one did long to see the clothes on the body. And it’s quite possible we will, next season on other runways. Margiela is tremendously influential, and notions like his flat-front pants and exposed shoulder pads have certainly made the rounds.
The men in white finally took the clothes away, but one stayed behind at each station to paint a bright red “end” on the block, each one in a different language. That was the cue for the masses to move on to the other side of the Conciergerie, where Rei Kawakubo was about to show.
In a season in which her influence is everywhere, expectations for a blockbuster were high. Of course, a blockbuster Kawakubo-style doesn’t mean that everybody loves it, but that nobody can stop talking about it. And in recent seasons, she’s had her share of those, most notably the Bozo and pillow collections. (Coincidentally, an ocean away at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, those pillows were about to make their stage debut in costumes for the premiere of the Merce Cunningham ballet called “Scenario”.)
This time, Kawakubo’s collection just didn’t pack the same punch. Of course, the clothes were interesting. They always are, and many were quite beautiful. Rei said her theme was “clustering beauty,” which she wanted to achieve in part, by “piling up and gathering together” fabrics. And pile she did — layer upon layer of gentle and rugged, all mixed in. There were heavy calico ruffles, pale florals, fluid silks and heavy pleats that looked like corrugated cardboard. Kawakubo used them all for idiosyncratic takes on chemises, bias dresses and skirts over skirts over more skirts, sometimes all fastened together with giant safety pins. And the models had poufs of white veiling on their hair. The mood was undeniably positive, a celebration of feminine strength, with virginal innocence still intact.
Nevertheless, there was the unmistakable feeling that we’d been there before. In recent seasons, Kawakubo has charted all sorts of new ground, in her manipulation of shapes and fabrics and in her glorious explorations of color. This time, however, she seemed to be revisiting familiar territory. And, while it has worked splendidly for other designers this season, from Kawakubo herself, it’s not quite satisfying enough.

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