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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Paris Fashion Week: Junya Watanabe

Haidee Findlay-Levin...

When I think about what I miss most about living in Africa, there are a few things that immediately spring to mind: the quality of the light, especially in the early morning and after a summer thunderstorm, the sound of African men and women singing as they go about their work and the constant hum of crickets and chirping of birds in the warmer months. It was to this familiar sound of birds, followed by voices of women singing, that Junya Watanabe opened his show and his homage to the elegance of African dress. To this day, every morning I wrap a piece or two of African fabric around my body and remain like this until I need to leave the house. As I work from home, this form of dress has fondly become known to my friends as my African office skirt. So it was natural that I felt a pang of nostalgia for his deftness at tackling this very personal theme that so many designers get so horribly wrong.

A multitude of colorful Kenyan prints in cotton were twisted, bunched and gathered in his familiar and innovative ways, sometimes even pleated. What I loved most was the intricate shoulder detail or knitted yokes. These prints were also wrapped into beautiful turbans filled with wild grasses that the girls carried gracefully on their heads. He flirted a little with this spirit and also with some of these twisted or bunched silhouettes last summer, in bold block colors of pink and cobalt blue but most memorably in a variety of liberty prints. This season he exchanged those for the bold and colorful African prints, as well as a mix of leafy, leopard or zebra prints, fluorescent stretch jersey, bright ginghams, light men's suiting and faded denim. It seems he wanted to make use of accessible fabrics, those appropriate not only to Africa, but the developing world in general.

He revisited his deconstruction of denim, this time showing some fitted and peplum jackets but mostly as long ruffled skirts made out of men’s jeans and worn belted low on the hip. A zebra thong peeked out above one of them, a surprising and somewhat tacky gesture. Sometimes the denim was broken up with contrasting fabric ruffles in print, gingham or white eyelet—another accessible fabric that he made good use of combined with denim, and later in the show with natural colored linen.

While all the elements seem so familiar and commonplace, it sometimes takes a foreigner (Japanese is as foreign as any) with as deft an eye as his to appreciate the style of the culture and to see and show it from a different perspective. I do wish he had pushed it even further though, left those tiny touches of colonialism behind and let loose on the idea without any restraint or trepidation. All the same, he has already given my old African office skirt whole new meaning.

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