In March, the cherry blossom – known as sakura – blooms in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park, next to Harajuku station and a few streets away from the anonymous red-brick building that houses the headquarters of Comme des Garçons International. The Japanese dub this period hanami – ‘flower viewing’ – and warm weather meant that the hanami of 2018 happened a week earlier than the idiosyncratic official cherry blossom forecast indicated. The entirety of Japan in spring is saturated with sakura-pink: the shade is ubiquitous, colouring everything from Starbucks drinks to McDonald’s burger buns. Except in the aforementioned Comme des Garçons enclaves, where black dominates with a similar ferocity. It especially dominates the work of Kei Ninomiya – to such a degree he even prefixes his label’s name with the word Noir.
The clothes labelled Noir Kei Ninomiya are intense: pleated and folded and twisted from a multitude of tiny fabric scraps that often wind up looking oddly like masses of blossoms themselves, although they’re never pink. Sometimes white. One season, red. Mostly black, as the name suggests. But that kabuki colour palette doesn’t limit Ninomiya, rather it focuses his aesthetic. His clothes are all about construction, they bubble and bristle around the body, inventing their own shapes. Others are bolder – flaring columns, or great sculptural shapes bowing out from the shoulders, like the spathe of a calla lily. Sewing is kept to a minimum – instead, pattern pieces are attached via studs or rivets, or ingenious internal systems of interlaced straps and steel rings that wind up partway between intricate craft knitwear and the ‘metal couture’ designs of Paco Rabanne from the 1960s. Except there is nothing retro at all about Ninomiya’s arresting, Modernist forms – brave new shapes emerging from a mass of unexpected ingredients like fashion alchemy.
For Ninomiya’s first full-scale Paris show in March, staged in the Faculté de Pharmacie de Paris by the leafy bowers of the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Japanese floral artist Makoto Azuma – who works in splendid isolation in a subterranean botanical laboratory in Aoyama, Tokyo – created sculptural headpieces and full-on, full-face gimp masks of flowers. They appeared to either grow from or smother the models, just like the clothes, which reiterated the scrunched and bunched aesthetic Ninomiya has been refining since his debut in 2012, of garments like moving topiary sculptures that bloom around the body. Hitherto, Ninomiya presented his clothes under the radar, in the tiny Comme des Garçons showroom on the Place Vendôme. There, his gravity-defying designs often seemed to devour both their wearers and the space around them, like some kind of mutated, carnivorous plant. Despite all those allusions and their appearances to the contrary, these clothes were not built to resemble flora. “It looks like flowers, but that comes later,” says Ninomiya.
“Black is just the word, but it really has a meaning, very strong and very beautiful, and very deep. It has such a feeling” – Kei Ninomiya
Every look for Autumn/Winter 2018 was black. “It’s my favourite colour,” Ninomiya says. “Black is just the word, but it really has a meaning, very strong and very beautiful, and very deep. It has such a feeling.” The designer’s appearance is unexpected, bar the fact he is, of course, wearing black. It’s teamed with a white shirt, and hair gelled into a series of soft spikes like a raised hackle across his otherwise shaved skull, kind of resembling one of his prickly dresses. His hair is black. His use of red and white is, he says, only to “enforce” the black. The meaning is strength and punchy graphic impact – not the associations with death, or gothicness, or witches, which, although Ninomiya’s clothes often end up weighted with those allusions, are not part of his thought process at all. “It’s about a strong image,” he says.
Ninomiya is 34 years old; he grew up in Japan, his parents were teachers. There was no connection to fashion: he first studied French Literature at Aoyama Gakuin University in Shibuya, Tokyo, graduating before he began any fashion studies. He wasn’t particularly interested in fashion either. “It didn’t start in my childhood – that, as a child, I wanted to be a designer or something. I’m not such a person.” As a teenager, however, he encountered Rei Kawakubo’s work and became fascinated – “I wanted to work with her in some way,” he recalls. “But at that moment I had no idea how to make clothes or any technology of how to make patterns. But I did want to come to Comme.” That instinct triggered further study, this time of fashion at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. However, when he was offered a job at Comme des Garçons during his summer vacation, he left before completing that second degree, joining the company in 2008 and working behind the scenes there for four years before his own label was established under the Comme des Garçons umbrella. Ninomiya has described his vocation during that time as a “pattern-designer” – that hyphen proving all-important. Making patterns for Comme des Garçons is far from purely technical, requiring their creators to engage with abstract concepts to devise designs rather than the parameters of specific outfits, or fashion references past. “It’s really abstract,” Ninomiya says. “Sometimes it’s just a word, like ‘new’. But you have seen so many things before, so that means that new is very, very difficult.”
Nevertheless, what Ninomiya produces is new – startlingly so. His clothes are remarkable insomuch as the technique employed to create them eschews the limitations of traditional clothing manufacture. For a former pattern maker, there are remarkably few shapes in Ninomiya’s clothes that conform to traditional garment templates – instead, hundreds of tiny geometric forms in fabric are gathered and pinched into wild and wonderful volumes that grow organically, through the methodology. Often he is working blind, seeing where and how the technique leads. “In the beginning it’s just technique, I think,” Ninomiya says of this working method. “And then, when you have a big piece … ” He mimes a large swathe of fabric, a great arc. “Then I start to think about the silhouette. But with these small parts I can make whatever I like. I really follow the nature of the pieces.” Occasionally, the form of, say, a perfecto jacket cut in faux leather may emerge from a mass of tessellated textile. Sometimes, the clothes are entirely abstract: you can’t even figure out where the armholes are.
“I like to make something new. I think I should change the way to make clothes. It’s the best way to make new things” – Kei Ninomiya
There’s an obvious connection to be made between Ninomiya’s working process and Japanese craft traditions – specifically origami and kirigami (the latter, folded paper with cuts to create extra decorative depth). There is also a link to ikebana, the highly stylised art of Japanese flower arranging, or to the simple fact that when you buy anything from a store in Japan, it will be beautifully, fastidiously wrapped. The same sense is there in Ninomiya’s clothes, which parcel up the body in ever more complex manners. The designer dismisses connections between the culture of his birthplace and his work, but in their contradictory combinations of complexity and simplicity – straightforward fabrics painstakingly laboured, and coloured in a single shade – there is an ideological companionship that cannot be ignored.
But there’s a twisted illogic to Ninomiya’s overriding focus on black: as a colour, it washes out the details in his clothes, making it incredibly difficult for a casual observer to comprehend the depth of obsessive work. In the Comme des Garçons headquarters, a bunch of Ninomiya’s latest pieces sit, tremblant, on a rail. They’re all black. It’s only when Ninomiya himself begins to handle his clothes, turning them inside out, tugging at the fabric itself, that you fully understand their ferocious level of complexity. Some pieces have pleated concertinas of organza suspended from minute ribbons of leatherette (a favourite fabric). The organza isn’t attached, but slides along the ribbons like Addams Family doll’s-house curtains. “The only stitching is on the label,” Ninomiya says with a smile, idly patting one of his dresses as if it were a contented animal. Others are formed from lattices of fabric attached with nailhead studs, pleated in between. They appear entirely different inside – sometimes neater, when the exterior bristles like a blackened herbaceous border of frayed fabric; other times the inside is a complex web of textures and techniques. Regardless of their silhouettes, they are always ingenious and experimental but, more than anything else, they look different from any fashion around now, or in the past.
That stark, uncompromising sense of newness is drawing attention to Ninomiya: in fashion’s relentless quest to discover the next, his seems the only viable proposal. “I like to make something new,” says Ninomiya, quietly and simply. “I think I should change the way to make clothes. It’s the best way to make new things.”
Make-up: Sandra Cooke at the Wall Group using Lord & Berry. Model: Rue Ingram at D1 Models. Casting: Svea Greichgauer at AM Casting. Set design: Amy Stickland at Webber. Manicure: Saffron Goddard using Le Vernis and La Crème Main by Chanel. Lighting: Emma Ercolani. Photographic assistant: Fuminori Homma. Styling assistants: Charis Lorraine and Benedetta Baruffi. Set-design assistant: Nienta Nixon. Production: Webber. Post-production: D-Touch Studio.
This story originally featured in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of AnOther Magazine which is on sale internationally now.