At Paris Fashion Week, designers reworked the tuxedo and explored the meaning of colour

Robin Givhan

THE WASHINGTON POST – On a Monday morning, the Fashion Week crowd clambered up a dimly-lit stone staircase and into a low-ceiling room, where pinpoint spotlights pierced the murky near-darkness. The effect was a visual drumroll for a collection that transformed the notion of what a tuxedo can be. It gave new insight into how gender is expressed and how polite society has been redefined.

There are few items more firmly embedded in the fashion history books than this emblem of formality. Rooted in the menswear vernacular, it was among the first garments to cross the gender lines, delivering a frisson of appeal to a woman who chooses it over a flowing ballgown. It has been riffed on countless times by so many designers that it would seem impossible for it to take another form.

And yet designer Chitose Abe, in her fall 2020 collection for her label Sacai, transforms it yet again. She loosens the trousers until they form the free-floating train of a dress. The white tuxedo shirt is a lace top as delicate as a christening dress. Satin jacket lapels become mere suggestions through the luxurious shimmer of fabric.

The collection in its entirety explores the relationship between masculine and feminine traditions, between structured, nubby fabrics and soft, sensual ones. It eliminates the tailoring from trousers so that they can move as easily as a dress. And there is structure in dresses so that they can retain their trapeze shape when at rest.

As a designer, Abe exists at the halfway mark on an ever-shifting aesthetic continuum that stretches from the most familiar, reassuring clothes to the far reaches of conceptual design. She is a constant adventure seeker, always looking to jolt us from complacency. She makes us shake our head in wonder.

The Sacai fall-winter 2020-21 collection. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
The Noir Kei Ninomiya fall-winter 2020-2021 collection
Photos show the Comme des Garcons fall-winter 2020-21 collection
The Junya Watanabe fall-winter 2020-2021 collection

The space that Abe occupies is, perhaps, the most challenging of all. Her work asks you to think differently about how basic garments are defined – to move beyond what you understand about clothes and embrace something that asks you to move through the world differently. But still, she wants you to move with ease and confidence in clothes that relate to modern life.

This city is full of grand ideas – and no small number of half-baked ones, too. Which leads us on a brief detour to Kanye West, whose Yeezy 8 collection crash-landed for an outdoor mosh pit of a show on a Monday night on the cold, muddy grassy slopes in front of the Espace Niemeyer – the headquarters of the French Communist Party.

In a preview where the clothes could be seen up close and West could explain his thinking, the result was a disconnect between form and intention. The clothes, in shades of beige, tan and chocolate brown, consisted of slim trousers and leggings, cropped puffer jackets and vests as well as woolen jackets.

This collection, West said to a small media scrum, was meant to be in service to those who work in service – the working folks, as it were. It may or may not be actually manufactured. The confusion over this most basic fact stems from West answering a question about production with an existential meditation on the number of people on the planet and what constitutes mass production and the Gap. So the short answer is probably: Don’t hold your breath.

But is there breathless anticipation for West’s fashion? Not the Adidas-made shoes, but the clothes? Was there ever? His sharp right turn toward a kind of Trumpism that is more performative than political, and his intellectually uninformed monologues on slavery and abortion, have made that even more unlikely in an era when everything is connected and fraught.

His newfound faith influenced this collection because “I think about the way I present the models. I have daughters now”. He trailed off a bit at this point, but the idea seemed to be that he was wanting to be more respectful of women.

In short order, the show began in the cold, damp air. The models walked around the building’s glowing signature dome and cars honked as soundtrack and clothing faded into a blur under the harsh lights. And one could only shake one’s head at this heartbreaking work of staggering absurdity.

Let that serve as a reminder that fashion is hard. It’s the talented designers who make it look easy.

Stepping even farther away from garments and focussing on colour and composition, the designer Kei Ninomiya of Noir shifted from creating solely using black to exploring its very makeup. He burrows into an idea, repeating a single gesture again and again from a different angle or with greater intensity to see how that changes the final result.

For fall, that idea was about using endless shades of red, slowly piling them atop each other, until they combined to form black. On Saturday, his models were not always wearing clothes per se. Often they were lost inside what might best be described as clouds of wool. They were walking puffs of unspun yarn. Mountains of billowy feathers.

Ninomiya sent out shapes, wearable sculptures, artful projects that spoke to the audience about his fascination with colour, his love of textures and his sense of whimsy. Were these clothes meant to be worn on a coffee run? No. But then, neither were pajamas. And taken one after the other, they form an instructive aesthetic handbook.

For Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons, fashion might well be defined as the artificial construct that connects us to each other while also isolating us. That’s the tension that makes fashion so personal and so confounding. Fashion creates tribes. It delineates individuals. It connects us with its trends and with its ritualistic uniforms. It pushes people away with jarring aggression.

The theme for her Saturday evening show was “neo future”. She asked the question: “Is it not impossible to make something completely and utterly new, since we are all living in this world?” These missives from Kawakubo can read like aphorisms dispensed by a boardwalk fortuneteller. Or they can land like dense philosophical utterings. In truth, they are the musings of a designer who stepped away from creating clothes and decided to challenge her brainy imagination using fashion as her medium.

It’s impossible to conjure up something that has never been seen if the only thing that inspires you are the things that exist around you. That’s the same inspiration to which everyone has access.

New ideas, Kawakubo suggests, come by looking inward, by relying on the cacophony of ideas colliding in your brain. So she turned to the vernacular of Comme des Garçons that she’s created over the years: the lumps and bumps, the two-dimensional dress, the layer-cakes of texture, the bridal uniform, the totems of colour and shape.

It was a bit like seeing the building blocks that have been so carefully crafted over the years shifted around and restacked. It was a fashion shell game with the audience, in search of a meaning that really, truly, is only evident to Kawakubo.

She has created a language completely her own – one that’s recognisable and often mimicked.

For fall, she didn’t create something new. But she still created something we haven’t seen before.