Noir Kei Ninomiya: The Look of Strength

Posted October 4, 2018 12:06 a.m. EDT

PARIS — Women and power — and women in power — has been one of the backbone themes of fashion week here. How could it not be? The world is consumed by the topics, and fashion, even in its dreamy, extraterrestrial realm, is not immune, although it often prefers to imagine so. What if it is strength, not glamour, that becomes a legend most?

As the shows wind to a close, one in particular has stuck with me: Noir Kei Ninomiya. Ninomiya, with a Mohawk like a rooster’s comb and a wispy goatee, is a protégé of Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons; he left design school in Antwerp, Belgium, to work with her and never returned. In 2012, she gifted him his own line under the auspices of her empire; this March, he showed it on the runway for the first time.

At Comme, Ninomiya worked his way up to pattern cutter, and a Comme pattern is not easy. (The old joke about Comme is that the pants might have three legs or the jackets three arms, which is more joke than truth but not strictly inaccurate, either.) For his own collections, Ninomiya limits himself in some ways (the use of almost all black, for example) to go more fully wild in others: namely, pattern, technique and shape.

Ninomiya mainly works in three dimensions, sculpting his collections more often than sketching them, engineering them like aircraft. (In a walk through his showroom, he pointed out the jointures of a coat: Riveted, not sewn.) The result is frequently astonishing. He worked PVC into coats of crumpled rosettes and layered sheaves of petals made of polyester organdy until the women wearing them seemed part human, part landscape, entirely elemental.

Which is not to say that his collections do not feature clothes. There were great pieces: motorcycle jackets in faux leather, bib-front blouses in silk georgette, Frankensteined day dresses and spiky, lace-trimmed harnesses to overlay them. But, unusually, Ninomiya’s clothes save their aggression and their punishments for the world, not their wearer. The fixtures attaching the rosettes to his PVC coat were the tiny spines of traditional corset boning, here exploded outward. He showed the looks with flat oxfords and little ankle socks.

Coming down the catwalk on the far end of town, their seedpod wigs pollinating the runway as they went, his models looked fierce and formidable: half-human creatures, their articulated sleeves — telescoping rounds of leather — breathing like gills. Clothing is no stand-in for strength, and neither justifies nor forestalls the indignities and assaults all too often inflicted on the women wearing it. But at a moment when an extra girding helps, Ninomiya offers one. He follows his mentor in preferring not to speak for his clothes, but I asked him how he hopes a woman will feel in them.

He said he didn’t think about that; “I try to make something new and beautiful. That’s it.”

Powerful, I told him, that’s how I thought a woman would feel. A video of his show a few days before was playing in the background, and it caught his eye. He watched a few of the models in his intricate sculptures, none of whom had sacrificed beauty for power, or power for beauty. “That is pretty powerful,” he said.