Robin Givhan: Forming Tribes at Junya Watanabe and Haider Ackermann

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Photo: Imaxtree

It was hard knowing what to make of the first model to come stomping around the plywood centerpiece at the Junya Watanabe fashion show Saturday morning in Paris. She was dressed in what looked like a black jersey schmata that some malevolent wild child had attacked with a pair of scissors. Her feet were armored with black booties studded with silver spikes. And her hair was a thick, knotted mass of jet black braids, long twists, and matted strands. Other models followed, looking similarly disheveled. But as they emerged, the shredded garments began to evolve, taking on a more distinct form; they were cut with more finesse and the fringe was woven in intricate ways. The fabric mixes became more textured, the colors varied from black to taupe and the construction techniques became more refined. And the references became more apparent.

There was a reason Watanabe had chosen the Museum of Natural History – specifically, an exhibition space within its Gallery of Evolution – as the backdrop for his spring 2014 collection. His work was like an anthropological tour through early man, indigenous cultures, the less developed world, and the universal tendency to separate into tribes. 

Watanabe’s collection, with its fringed trousers, motorcycle jackets and voluminous peasant blouses, reflected a wide range of cultures from Native American and North African to urban punk. He stitched them together in an intricate collage that spoke to the ways in which humanity collides on a city street, in aggregated news stories that unfold like a series of nesting dolls, and in photographs Tweeted around the world.

Paris designers have always been fond of exploring other cultures. They tend to do so in ways that New York-based designers do not. In the States, there is a tendency to blend cultures – drawing inspiration from them but blurring the borders so much that the sources are often unidentifiable. In the States, we like to pretend that differences do not exist.

In Paris, designers often go wandering off into foreign cultures, captivated by a sense of the exotic. They relish the “otherness” of unfamiliar rituals, people and worlds. Political correctness has cast this tendency in a negative light. And indeed, there are real perils in exoticizing others. It can remove their humanity and leave some feeling like scientific specimens or coddled pets.

Yet, there are times in Paris when designers cast such an admiring or earnestly curious eye on other cultures that it is difficult to deny the beauty of the results. And it would seem churlish to declare the work insensitive. But it is a fine line between mimicking looks worn by those who live on the other side of the border and elevating them into an expression of awe. There were moments during the Watanabe show that gave one pause. Here were lines and flourishes clearly reflecting the sensibility of a wide swath of ethnicities – their history and origins – yet the models who wore the clothes were not equally diverse. Would that have made the collection, this pastiche of cultures, more powerful? Or simply more politically correct? The collection, after all, was rooted in the unpredictability of evolution and how we all seem to be converging into a single, uninterrupted line. 

Watanabe made one consider how disparate cultures came to be, how we all crawled from the same primordial muck, clamored onto two feet and marched off in different directions, yet somehow end up in the same place. How did we evolve from drawing on caves to separating ourselves into city-states to all posting selfies on Instagram? 

Watanabe’s clothes were intriguing because he pulled together disparate elements – wonderful little aesthetic jewels – in a seamless and enticing manner. He juxtaposed the raw, emotional quality of shredded clothes with their silhouette not far removed from prehistoric pelts with studiously distressed and faded designer denim. Exactly how far have we come? Where we once embellished ourselves with feathers and used them as a sign of power and authority, punks incoporated a different kind of embellishment – spikes and studs – in a snubbing of authority. 

We are our history. Forever organizing ourselves into groups, identifying by similarities, searching for order while suspicious of authority. Our clothes continue to tell our story as surely as they did when we were in fig leaves and loincloths. 

Haider Ackermann is a wholly different kind of designer. Watanabe dealt with history and its facts while Ackermann traffics in poetry. He’s tremendously skilled at crafting a sensory landscape against which he can present his work. His music usually has a hypnotic, rumbling beat; his models move with unrushed ease; his lighting is gentle and warm. And for spring 2014, he created an aesthetic that left one enchanted. The beauty of his collection was so convincing that the idea of wearing a free-flowing, practically see-through, floor-length dress with a gilded hem made perfect sense even if the most glamorous event one attends with regularity is a trip to the fancy espresso bar instead of the corner Starbucks.

It is a sign that a designer has succeeded in selling his dream when you start mentally restructuring your life to make room for a frock. Surely it’s reasonable to wear that long dress with the iridescent hem of smoky fuchsia to Whole Foods! Does a gold, cut-away jacket with a slight hint of tails work with Lululemon yoga pants?

Ackermann merged those two ever-confounding tribes – the masculine and feminine – into a single expressive whole. His trousers were close fitting and blazers were oversized. They had the serious lines of menswear but the fizzy sparkle more common in the world of womenswear. He topped narrow trousers with sheer, voluminous dresses and then layered on sharp-cut jackets. He grounded his models by giving them flat black oxfords but elevated them with sparkling belts.

Like other designers, such as Dries Van Noten and Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz, Ackermann made generous use of metallic fabrics. Van Noten favored gold. Elbaz used the entire spectrum of colors – including cherry red and fiery orange – and they were so bright they looked practically radioactive. They were overwhelming. It was almost impossible to see the woman. And while Elbaz’s runway interlude of sophisticated black dresses were emblematic of the modern woman’s new power uniform – one that Elbaz helped to create – they were more reassuring than inspiring. 

Ackermann’s use of metallic fabrics stood apart because the colors had undertones of black. The seductive nature of a woman was not merely evident; it was highlighted. Ackermann executed a difficult dance between extremes: male and female, bright colors and extreme darkness, rigid tailoring and sensual draping. Each pairing was made better by the exquisite tension. 

We may always divide ourselves into tribes. That is our nature.  That is how we define ourselves. Watanabe celebrated the distinct beauty of each competing group. Ackermann embraced the heat and energy generated by friction. But both of them respected the borders.