Rare chance to see Kawakubo's catwalk collection

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Ever since taking the Paris fashion world by storm in 1981, Rei Kawakubo has enjoyed cult status and tickets to shows for her Comme des Garcons label are as precious as gold dust.

So it is a rare privilege to be able to see not just one or two models but a complete collection, what is more bang up to date, for spring-summer 2012, fresh off the catwalks last October.

"I think it is probably a world first to exhibit a whole collection that is so recent, not a retrospective" says Olivier Saillard, director of the Musee Galliera, Paris' fashion museum.

He was bowled over by the show, which Kawakubo titled "White Drama" because every single item is in shades of white and cream, and immediately asked to borrow it.

The Galliera is closed for renovation, so Saillard is exploring other venues to mount exhibits, including the edgy new arts and design complex, Les Docks, beside the Seine, which lent itself to a cutting-edge presentation in keeping with the clothes.

Kawakubo is notoriously reluctant to comment on her creations. "Like all great artists, she prefers you to look at her work," Saillard says, "but she did say White Drama referred to all the important stages in life - birth, adolescence, marriage and death."

The 33 pieces which comprise the collection are presented in small groups under futuristic clear plastic bubbles to protect the clothes but allow the viewer to examine them at leisure from all angles, even if they cannot be touched. A far cry from the frenetic pace of a catwalk show which is over in minutes.

The intricate construction and workmanship is closer to haute couture than ready-to-wear: elongated kimono sleeves almost brush the ground, cascades of artificial flowers cup shoulders like capes or are bunched together into bouquets to form a skirt.

Some dresses have crinoline cages of satin-covered hoops. A cream wool jumpsuit is spattered with black and white graffiti or "tagging" as it is known in Paris in a nod to teenage rebellion.

Strange, other-worldly, these quasi monochrome creations, with whimsical headgear signed by other artists, unmistakably bear Kawakubo's signature, although Saillard insists that her subsequent collection for next winter was "completely different".

But even the designer herself has admitted her vocabulary is limited: "Unfortunately my collections tend to be concentrated and focused on very few ideas, and this is a commercial problem. I try to get more variety but I can't and I mustn't. It is not my way," she told the then editor of Harpers & Queen Nicholas Coleridge back in 1988.

It is precisely her artistic integrity and dedication to creativity, untainted by commercial motives, that Saillard most admires.

He will go so far as to say "there hasn't been a bad collection for Comme des Garcons in the 40 years" since she created the label and found White Drama "poetic, spiritually moving."

"She is one of the most fundamental 'auteurs' of contemporary fashion," he said.

Not everyone appreciates her radical, austere aesthetic, however. WWD once tagged her designs and those of fellow countryman Yohji Yamamoto "the Hiroshima bag lady look."

Visitors to the exhibition which runs until October 7 will be able to make up their own minds.

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