Peoples’ eyes constantly deceive them, and that was certainly true in Paris in the fall of 1996, when Rei Kawakubo, the designer behind Comme des Garçons, presented a collection of dresses swollen with huge lumps. In profile, the models looked like hunchbacks or camels tipped onto their sides. There were smaller, kidney-shaped masses on shoulders and arms, most covered in cheerful gingham. The clothes confounded critics, even those used to Kawakubo’s abstract methods. Amy Spindler wrote in The New York Times that Kawakubo had ”invented whole new deformities for women.” During the show, which was conducted in silence, one photographer muttered, ”Quasimodo.”
”Lumps and Bumps,” as the collection came to be called, illustrates the difficulties for a designer of being not merely original but also a modernist. Kawakubo said she was interested in exploring ”volume and space.” If you begin with the outline made by her shapes (the classic ”silhouette”) and then pull back — moving away, as it were, from the confinements of fashion — you realize that Kawakubo has in fact recreated a reality of the late 20th century: the individual seemingly joined to her backpack and her burdens; even the act of talking on a cellphone assumes a spatial connection, producing what appears in the abstract to be a growth. Kawakubo’s objective was not to distort the female body but rather to express a thought that probably, for her, began with a gesture or a glimpse. Some designers, like Alber Elbaz of Lanvin and Azzedine Alaïa, solve problems of dressmaking — putting darts in a skirt to give it softer volume. Kawakubo, working more in the spirit of an artist than any designer today, attacks the problems of consciousness.
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