"Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else," Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Fashion designers are pretty different one from the other: some of them may focus on creating collections aimed to more or less all women; others hope to mainly dress celebrities; some may be more into commercial and functional garments, others opt to go for handmade pieces made by craftspeople with incredible skills. And then there's Rei Kawakubo.
A force on her on, she unleashed her vision for Comme des Garçons last week during Paris Fashion Week. The starting point for this collection was a brief and concise theme – "Invisible Clothes". Yet the clothes on the runway weren't invisible at all.
The show opened with a coat that featured a cutout porthole, a feature seen in Comme des Garçons' A/W 2014 menswear collection and slightly reminiscent of Paolo Scheggi's spatial studies into the dimension hiding behind his canvases.
As the catwalk progrssed, the silhouettes became more and more cumbersome and monstrous, occupying the entire space of the runway with wing-like extensions, walls of textiles, and padded tentacles of fabrics, challenging preconceptions, ideas and notions of beauty with their gargantuan volumes and sculptural elements.
Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3 (the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) played in the background, contributing to creating a dramatic and mournful mood, the garments disturbingly hiding the models, engulfing and swallowing their bodies in capsule-like soft padded cells (a reference to insanity?).
The only things left visible were their heads, covered or wrapped in plastic, a trick that called to mind the iconic headdress Stephen Jones designed a while back that reproduced the effect of splashing or running water.
There were obvious references to other collections: a giant Peter Pan collar here, Kawakubo's passion for tartan there, plus a nod to her love for black and white polka dots and hearts.
The solemn mood of her "Ceremony of Separation" show and the two-dimensional shapes from her A/W 2012-13 collection were combined with the rebellion of her 18th-century punks drowning in floral fabrics and pink vinyl (A/W 2016-17 collection), while a splash of red evoked the fashion horrors of her S/S 2015 collection that, as you may remember, seemed borrowed from Nicholas Roeg's nightmarish Don't Look Now.
The word invisible could have therefore been a reference to the fact that the garments made the models invisible or to the real garments that will be in the shops: though invisible on the runway, they will be appearing in a commercial environment in a few months' time.
Yet there was a reference to a different kind of invisibility that nobody seemed to have grasped, the sort of invisibility celebrated in a book that is often mentioned as an inspiration by many artists, architects and fashion designers, Italo Calvino's 1972 novel Le città invisibili (Invisible Cities; Download Calvino_Italo_Invisible_Cities), that somehow helps deciphering the mystery behind this collection.
In this volume Calvino tells the story of Venetian explorer Marco Polo who describes 55 cities to Chinese ruler Kublai Khan to show him the state of the emperor's expanding and vast empire. This tale of tales depicts fabulous locations, providing alternative views of what the city might become.
The metaphorical and allegorical narration often assumes philosophical tones, as Marco Polo takes the reader through a mind journey, transforming the streets, the buildings and the people he describes into a dream. The descriptions featured in Calvino's book have the power of stimulating fantasy and imagination. Listening Marco Polo describing the various cities, the readers form in their mind visions of those imaginary places, they make them real and dream, create and travel with him.
As Calvino once explained: "To see a city it is not enough to keep your eyes open. You must first discard everything that prevents you from seeing it - all your inherited ideas and preconceived images."
In the same way, fashion visions à la Kawakubo have the same aim of Polo's narration: they help discarding everything already seen and take people on a mind journey that stimulates the fantasy.
Were there other messages to decode at the show? Yes, there was a hint to a future event that will revolve entirely around Comme des Garçons: American Vogue's Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour and Andrew Bolton, curator of the Met's Costume Institute sat in the front row, silently confirming that Kawakubo will be the first living designer to be the subject of the next Costume Institute fashion display since 1983 when a retrospective was dedicated to Yves Saint Laurent (organized by editor Diana Vreeland). And while celebrities will be battling for the most extravagant look on the Met Ball gala red carpet, you already know that Kawakubo won't be there, but will be laughing behind the wings of her cumbersome creations.
Can't wait till then? Well, Kawakubo's fans should check out also the "Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion" exhibition opening in November at the Met Museum: it will feature around 60 designs from the early 18th century to the present 2007, including some Comme des Garçons as well.