To say Rei Kawakubo is an experimentalist is like saying that Paris is a pretty city. She dares to storm into unchartered terrain, fearless and undaunted. Still, her ”Orlando” trilogy takes her work and our expectations to next-level wonderment.
Some time ago, composer Olga Neuwirth was at work on ”Orlando,” a new work for the Vienna State Opera. She’s the first woman to ever compose for that institution, making the choice of source material, Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel of gender identity and change across centuries, all the more intriguing. Her dream costumer: Kawakubo. Neuwirth has a contact who had a contact, one thing led to another, and when the production opens Dec. 8, the cast will sing their arias bedecked in Comme des Garçons.
Yet it wasn’t enough for Kawakubo to accept the commission in isolation, a project unto itself. Rather, she took a holistic view of the projects that would overlap time-wise, and approached them as a single creative entity in three acts, beginning with her men’s show in January and ending with the opera production. With Act II, the women’s collection she showed on Saturday, she delivered a major wow.
Kawakubo is an avant garde-ist with encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history who has long integrated tropes of centuries past on her runway, sometimes deconstructing and reworking them beyond recognition, and at others, flaunting her references with proud dissonance.
Surely in constructing her novel so that her protagonist would travel through time, Woolf was hyper-aware of the symbolism of clothes for women and men in each of the story’s eras, beginning with Elizabethan England. Kawakubo likely imagined the writer’s mental dialogues with herself about the way each period’s fashion might have impacted Orlando’s gender identity and opinion of him/herself. This collection opened with an extravagant Rei riff on the Renaissance, an out-there masterpiece-theater of constructions and materials presented in compilations of dazzling colors and textures, including some amazing 3-D floral embroideries. Kawakubo is a master at much, including doing things her way, no matter the source. Case in point: the back drape of a robe à la française, made from what looked like a flattened-out, strapless ballgown tacked on at the shoulders.
Kawakubo wended through Orlando’s 18th- and 19th-century stops with dandified dressing, including a vibrant fuchsia number and a giant floral red-and-white brocade, worn inside out. She ended up in some version of the present, moving toward the future with some looks that incorporated cloud-like poufs and others, trappings of armor. Their relative simplicity — mostly black with some white; less frenetic silhouettes — could be read as Kawakubo’s messaging the need to embrace elements of calm in an increasingly caustic world.
Then again, perhaps they foreshadow Act III of this complicated wonder of fashion performance. Oh, to be a fly on the wall as Kawakubo works through the process of adapting all of this distorted, opulent majesty into costumes that work onstage. Come holiday time, Neuwirth’s “Orlando” should be something to see. And spring retail in the world of Comme des Garçons, where somehow, the runway feasts get faithfully translated. That, too, something to see.