Comme Des Garçons, Kenzo, and More Japanese Designers at Paris Fashion Week

A group of Japanese designers are challenging the classic aesthetic of Paris Fashion Week, delivering powerful and outlandish collections filled with originality and technical wizardry.

Stephane Mahe/Reuters

Among the historic French houses—think Dior, Chanel, and Valentino—that present at Paris Fashion Week, another contingent of designers has become the must-sees for original shows that are more spectacle than traditional runway. The Japanese contingent, including designers like Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and Kenzo’s Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, bring their Eastern heritage and otherworldly, artistic perspectives to the historic Parisian salons, presenting collections that are outlandish and particularly unwearable in the most intriguing and powerful way. And again this year, they didn’t disappoint with their Fall/Winter 2014 presentations.

For his Fall/Winter 2014 ready-to-wear collection—set in a vast tent in the Jardin des Tuileries—Issey Miyake sent models down the runway in simple black outfits, while carrying circular clutches. The collection could have been all about the bags—which were a statement in and of themselves—but instead, Miyake put on a show: think a minimalist performance reminiscent of a Maiko dancer twisting a fan set to an avant-garde live music set.

The models took their places on the runway and opened their clutches to create a circle on the floor, putting on the garments—made in the house’s signature pleats—that had been folded flat inside. Flowing off the models’ bodies, the pleats cascaded into unusual silhouettes that sometimes bounced up and down like wings. The models walked among one other, like rare autumnal birds adorned in fine shimming feathers, fluttering through a desolate landscape.

There were pleated, poncho-style tops worn in layers with curvy hemlines and rounded arms that bounced around a pencil-like skirt. Roll-neck designs were made in fine pleats with arms buried in folds of curved material. Dresses, too, were made of panels of pleats that came together like waves smashing into one another. One standout piece was a grey dress with a tunic-like shoulder panel that expanded into a circle of pleats, seemingly inspired by the wood block print of “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.”

On the other hand, Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons show—which was set in a bare bones interior with concrete walls—featured models prancing down the runway in oversized coats with elongated arms that hit below the knee. Some came wrapped in what looked like puffed up fabric worms, with hair just as knotted and twisted.

One eye of each model was visible through a black hood that covered the face like a lop-sided Burka that was knotted in two pipes hanging over the stomach. Another look covered the model’s entire face in a black hood. Material was bunched and ruffled like a turban that descended around the torso, and was twisted and knotted to encase the body and arms. The pieces were brilliant in design, but in what form would, or could, they sell?

At Yohji Yamamoto, the proportions were also theatrical but perhaps more wearable. One look resembled a duvet cover thrown around the shoulders like a long cape. There were multiple plays on padded, duvet-like designs—from shapelier, minimalist puffy grey coats to pieces that resembled plumped up French smocks and were worn with a seemingly giant beret.

GALLERY: Maiko Takeda’s Fall/Winter 2014 Collection (PHOTOS)

There were knitted trouser suits with tassels of wool tied above the ankles with chunky ribbed finishes and wooly hats that looked like a Rastafarian’s dreads. Slightly more conventional black suits were also present, but decorated with bright patches of art. The painterly aspect of the patterns transformed as the show progressed, becoming more urban, with, for example, capes covered in modern day demons. These were women of all histories: peasants, artists, and wartime heroines reaching far into future.

Carol Lim and Humberto Leon’s collection for Kenzo, exhibited a similar art-inspired presence, showing pieces that were a modernized version of its conventional feminine-meets-sporty wear—think a mini-cape that fell behind the shoulders to reveal a strapless, shapeless dress in yellow, worn over a black long sleeved top. Other times, garish-looking patterns were given a modern twist with, say, a wide skirt ballooning over a patterned suit, or panels in some of the house’s beautiful designs used to decorate edgy sports jackets. Shiny patterns were combined with opaque continuations to tone down the ostentatious feel of some of the materials, making them more suitable for the modern day girl.

Continuing the edgy display from Japanese designers at Paris Fashion Week was milliner Maiko Takeda, who presented her latest in unusual headpieces crafted from what looked like silver porcupine bristles. Handmade by the young designer, some of pieces radiated like an aura around the head, while others looked like blue feathers pointing forward over the eyes or a silvery wrap around a hat made of plastic. “I see certain themes in my work like the ethereal and transparent that are Japanese but don’t see myself in a typical Japanese sense,” said the designer, who collaborated with B’jork last summer.

Other Japanese brands that will bring their Eastern influence to Paris this week include Sacai, Junka Schimado, Tsumori Chisato, Junya Watanabe, and the Tokyo-based designer Julien David.

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The work of Miyake, Yamamoto, Watanabe, and Kawakubo, along with newer names in Japanese fashion—including the funky shoe designer, Masaya Kushino and menswear designer Miharayasuhiro—will be on display later this month in Kyoto as a part of the latest installation of Akiko Fukai’s landmark Japanese exhibition, “Future Beauty.” The exhibit will celebrate the unique work of Japanese designers who present their avant-garde collections in the fashion capital of the world.

“In 1970, Kenzo showed his collection in Paris, and soon after his works were accepted by Paris,” Fukai told The Daily Beast. “Then at the beginning of 1980’s when Kawakubo and Yamamoto jolted Paris with their very different clothes to Western aesthetics. Japan had very rich tradition of clothing appreciation for wearing clothes and for textile. It was natural that Kawakubo and Yamamoto wanted to show their works in Paris to get a good evaluation, good or bad. As Kawakubo said just after she debuted in Paris that she did just what she did in Japan and was rather surprised by the reaction of Paris. Kawakubo always tries to find ‘beauty’ which is not deja-vu with her strong intention like artist.”

The exhibition, on display until May, will also include material showing the relationship between Kyoto craftsmanship and fashion from, for example, Yamamoto’s collaboration with Art Nishimura and Chiso, a 450-year-old kimono company based in the city.