Comme des Garcons autumn/winter 2019 collection. Photo / Jonas Gustavsson — The Washington Post

Inside Comme des Garcons' Dark & Wondrous Autumn/Winter 2019 Show

Designer Red Kawakubo explored shadows, shapes and the existential angst that keeps you up at night

The finale of the autumn 2019 Comme des Garcons show spoke powerfully about courage and hope in the face of darkness — in the onslaught of political turmoil, failures of leadership, humanitarian disregard, worker disregard, climate change. The end brought a wave of reassurance. And so, considering the times, let's begin at the end.

At the end of a very dark show, there was light.

Designer ReI Kawakubo created a collection that explored shadows. The audience sat in a square. One by one, the models walked around inside its perimeter. They were almost all dressed in black with occasional jolts of purple or sunset-yellow interrupting the sober palette. The dresses were sometimes covered in ruffles like some sweet confection that had been reduced to shadowy textures. Other models wore harnesses and rubbery panniers-like attachments that distorted their hips or their torso the way a shadow offers a misshapen representation of the human body.

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The models reflected the weird and sometimes monstrous shapes of shadows. Kawakubo brought these two-dimensional figures from dark corners to full, three-dimensional life. They represent our fears and insecurities and fragments of childhood curiosity.

There's something both playful and terrifying about shadows. When a child first discovers theirs, it's almost like finding a phantom of a friend — an alter-ego that follows you everywhere, shrinking and growing, hiding and reappearing. Chasing one's own shadow is a bit like trying to find some elusive characteristic and finally realising that what you've exhausted yourself running after, you've possessed all along.

The fearful are afraid of their own shadow, afraid of their own place in the world. Terrified of their authority and autonomy. Living in the shadows means being unable or unwilling to live fully and honestly. A shadowy figure is mysterious and sketchy and not to be trusted. To be a shadow of one's former self is to have lost some essential quality of your personality and to be adrift.

The meanings and associations seem endless, and yet they all seem to swirl around the basic question of who we are and how honestly and vibrantly we live. Are we thriving in the light?

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Aesthetically, a shadow is really nothing more than a silhouette. For a designer, it's the most fundamental aspect of clothing: its shape. A shift in proportions, in volume, signifies a titanic change in the world of fashion. To go from skinny jeans to baggy ones, to move from shrunken schoolboy jackets to oversize, broad-shouldered ones, can shock the eye. Of all the changes that a designer can make to the same garment from one season to the next, a shift in the silhouette is what alters it completely. That's what makes it new, not a new colour or fabric or trim.

In looking at the shadows created by a million different body types, it's impossible for our prejudices to persist. Thin bodies don't necessarily create long, skinny shadows. The body is at the mercy of the light source, the angles, the distance. Shadows move with us. They are us. But they are different.

In exploring shadows, Kawakubo focused on the things that have always captivated her: the body, the way in which the culture embraces or rejects it, the rituals that a define us. But in this moment, the whole shadowy world seems to be a place of fearfulness, distortion, obfuscation, misdirection. We are reminded that the big, oppressive shadow is us. We are creating the darkness. We can't run from our shadow. We can only try to position ourselves in the center of the light. And look up.

— The Washington Post

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