BLACK MAGIC: A conversation with Kei Ninomiya flies by. At first, he is as restrained as his palette of black, but as soon as conversation hits on the crafts that he uses in his work at Noir Kei Ninomiya, his brand under the Comme des Garçons umbrella, he opens up. All questions are answered — with self-deprecation and laughter — but it feels like he says more in his silences.
The day before his first full runway show, the mohawked designer was calm and collected. A week earlier, his collection for the Moncler Genius project was unveiled in Milan, featuring 3-D knitted effects on voluminous down jackets. A second round is already in the works.
The designer lights up when he talks about craftsmanship and the “technique povera” he uses to create his avant-garde looking designs.
An atypical fashion designer, Ninomiya studied French literature and then applied to the Royal Academy in Antwerp. During a summer break, he applied for a job at Comme des Garçons, and after clearing the interview process, quit his studies to join the company. After four years as a patternmaker, Rei Kawakubo bootstrapped the creation of his own brand, which was shown in the brand’s headquarters in Paris until this season.
His modus operandi is to seek innovation through craftsmanship techniques. Ninomiya designs in black, using white or red as occasional highlights. The starting point of his work is experimental techniques on textile. He then applies it to the body, before adjusting the ensemble to fit his fully realized vision.
He spoke to WWD about his lack of inspirations, how he started at Comme des Garçons and how to turn basic techniques into a source of innovation:
Tell me about your fall collection: the inspirations, the references?
Actually, I didn’t have an inspiration. This time, I tried to make clothes from very different fabrics, like tulle and faux fur. I tried to show the power created by contrasting elements. It’s a kind of theme for this time. For example, the biker jacket is very small, [paired] with a big skirt. The shapes also follows this theme this time.
Materials will be faux leather — I only use real leather occasionally — tulle and this “fake fur.” That’s it, I think. There will be knitting and studs. And flowers are one key of the season, too. I like flowers, so that’s all there is to it.
What fashion message do you wish to deliver in terms of attitude, silhouette?
It’s always the same. It’s strong, it’s new. I would like to inspire people.
What do you consider new in fashion?
I don’t think about this, actually. I don’t care so much about fashion.
Why a runway this season?
It’s a step forward. In a showroom, it’s a small presentation. I wanted to show more people. I hope it’s a sign of growth.
How is your business doing?
Actually, for me, I like to give my clothes to people who want to wear them. So that would make big business. It’s OK, I don’t care about this. I care about budget, but in creation; I don’t care about sales so much. Otherwise, the collection would not be as strong. Everything has a budget. For creation, I don’t care about prices.
How do you think the Moncler project will affect your notoriety?
I don’t care about it so much. (Laughs.) I did my best for them. I really wanted to make something new and strong for the Genius project. They contacted me directly by mail, because they didn’t think the brand was under the Comme des Garçons umbrella. But actually, Adrian Joffe has a connection to Remo Ruffini. From there, it started easily.
What did you learn from this experience?
The difference between the Comme des Garçons and Moncler. It’s really a strategic difference. At Comme des Garçons, we work right up to the moment of the show. Even now, nothing is fixed. Until tonight, perhaps even tomorrow morning. But Moncler has a strict timeline to make its production.
Why did you become a patternmaker at Comme des Garçons?
I wanted to work with fabric, to make something. Actually, I do design to make something. Comme des Garçons only has two-three designers: Rei Kawakubo, Junya Watanabe….If I wanted to do something with this company, my only choice was to become a patternmaker. I really wanted to work with Rei, so that’s why I quit Antwerp immediately and joined [after passing the interviews and tests successfully].
At Comme des Garçons, “patternmaker” is a kind of “pattern-designer” function. They will make a pattern, also for production, but they will contribute to the design also by finding solutions, not just executing a design.
Is that what made you like Comme des Garçons?
It was really the shop. The one in my hometown was a really small shop, but the clothes were really interesting, they were something strange that I was interested in.
How does this skill affect your ultimate designs?
It’s difficult to conceptualize my clothes with drawings. I start with the fabric, working it by hand. Then we use the pattern of the design. You can’t design [an item like his fall dress] by drawing. It’s by touch. That approach has worked well for me.
Are you considering other techniques, such as 3-D printing, to extend your “no sewing” method?
For my creations, I use new ways, not new technologies. They’re common techniques that anyone can use, not some kind of special technique. I just change the way these techniques are used.
For example, the [whipstitch that connects the tulle to the fur] is normally just a finishing stitch, but the tulle fabric gives this feathering, fraying effect. Here, the technique isn’t special, it’s what you find on finishing machines, but the fabric is.
Sewing is necessary, and I respect this technique, but it’s only one technique. My work is based on the idea that to make a new thing is to use a new way.