Rei Kawakubo, Interpreter of Dreams

Above: An exploded metallic popcorn kernel. I approach and am reflected, distorted in its crinkly, convex foil surfaces. It is all outer space. The model’s fingers barely poke out of the “sleeves.” Inside, the space is lined in smooth, undyed cotton.

This is a persona I bring to cocktail parties. The figure I see in my head, caricatured from the inside out, trying to connect but only reflecting and being reflected. Foiling. It feels like my inability to retain what is said to me in the face of my self-absorption. Waking up in the night cringing at small talk, blurted inanities, perceived slights.

But it’s like a croquembouche of exposure and erasure. As a child, I had a nightmare whenever I had a fever. In it, I was miniature, enveloped in a large mass. It was suffocating and bulbous, this mass. Sometimes I saw it as if it were part of a cartoon panel: It filled the panel and ballooned out of it. I was a speck, and then less than a speck. It was a horrible dream. Sometimes I catch corners of it, when I am near sleep, or when I am overheated. I wonder if it is about being in the womb or the birth canal. Is it prenatal, or is it about love and death, outer space and deep space, sea anemone and siren?

What does Kawakubo dream?


Erik Madigan Heck for The New York Times. Model: Saskia de Brauw.

Above: A man sweeps his hands in an hourglass shape to describe a woman’s figure. Inside the piece, there is little space; it is hot when the model steps out of it. There is room for one elbow but not the other.

A designer’s female dummies are called Judy (males are called James). These come in different sizes and proportions, their silhouettes changing with the times — with the trends of idealized bodies. Is the dummy a canvas or a narrator? I wonder if, in this design, Kawakubo is writing auto-fiction, externalizing the experience of herself as a designer with her Judys.

I have two Comme des Garçons dresses that I bought secondhand. One is stiff white cotton, like a nurse’s uniform but wider, with translucent strips down the sides and a Peter Pan collar. The other is ivory cotton voile with a panel of green silk velvet wrapping halfway around the belly and ending in a long, gaping seam. I wore this once to a dinner. I had been concealing my pregnancy because a subchorionic hematoma made miscarriage likely. My friend saw the dress and raised an eyebrow.

My daughter is 4 now. Kawakubo’s designs remind me of my daughter’s peculiarities of dress. The sash has to be tied in the front. The trim on the sleeves can’t be blue. Seams are unbearable, and tags need to be cut out. She likes to wear the same dress every day. She doesn’t look in the mirror to see how she appears, so I think about how her choices must make her feel. Her body is not an image yet, not a projection or a pose — it’s a boundary.


Erik Madigan Heck for The New York Times. Headpiece by Julien d’Ys. Model: Saskia de Brauw.

Above: A red couch upturned to fit through a doorway, or to barricade it. It has no arms but is not armless. It stands at attention and slouches into its pockets. Royal Guard and Charlie Chaplin.

Kawakubo’s palettes are minimal and pure. A perfect strawberry red. Bubble-gum pink. Years and years of black, and deep naval, navy blue.

I’ve always had a kind of synesthesia for clothes: Sweaters have to be red. Collars have to be white. Trousers, blue. My school pictures show missing teeth and variations of pigtails, but the collars are always white, the sweaters are always red.

Sometimes I pull a sweater over my head and wait a moment before pushing my arms through the sleeves. I’m looking for a German word for the comfort, relief even, of not putting your arms through the armholes. It’s a form of self-soothing, generating something like the anxiety-reducing squeeze box developed by the animal scientist Temple Grandin, who has written about her autism. It calms my sensitivity.

When I get out of a pool after a swim, I pull a towel over my shoulders, binding my arms to my sides at the elbow in a swaddle. Again there is this moment of blissful containment.

Fashion media often insist on “What We Want Now,” a forecast of desire and perhaps the economic or political climate. But Kawakubo’s clothes erase the reality of my body within clothes. Hers remind me of innocence: not childishness, but the innocence that we have when we are 4 and we don’t know what we look like but know what we want to wear and why.

My daughter wakes yelling from her afternoon nap.

“Shhhh.” I wrap her up and hold her. “It’s only a nightmare.”

“Don’t look at me,” my daughter says, in her dress.

Then she takes off all her clothes.

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