Designer Kei Ninomiya doesn’t like black. Instead, he idolizes and is completely devoted to it. The universal hue stands in as a powerful concept that goes far beyond pigment and instead, represents a unique visual identity steeped in architectural shapes that challenge the very idea of wearability. “Black is a beautiful color,” the designer says, with his signature jet black mohawk, while speaking quietly, at the Comme des Garçons headquarters in Paris's Place Vendome, the day after his spring 2023 collection debuted during the city's fashion week. “The meaning doesn’t change. It’s always the same.”
It’s been more than two years since Noir Kei Ninomiya showed at Paris Fashion Week because of the pandemic—but his shocking and surprising spring 2023 collection was well worth the wait. Inside the tiny Oratoire du Louvre, the first look that came out was a jet-black, 3-D, tubular houndstooth dress with four cylinders connecting to the base of the dress, making the wearer look more like a mythical creature than a model. Paired with a top hat and heavy metal chained Hunter boots, it was totally Mad Hatter; all wonder, and definitely the most extreme single garment that had been presented at Paris Fashion Week so far. (It took a week to make, Ninomiya proudly tells me.) “It’s the basis of all of the collection,” he says of the piece. Much like Rei Kawakubo, the Comme des Garçons founder and designer whom he worked under for years before starting his own label beneath the Comme des Garçons umbrella in 2012, Ninomiya doesn’t work with mood boards or themes. “What she expects from her designers is very, very high level,” he says. “So you have to do your best to create what she expects.” He rejects any idea of marketing, and only started showing at Paris Fashion Week in 2018. He’s quickly become one of the most striking designers to watch, not just for Comme des Garçons fans, but for those who worship at the altar of the extreme side of fashion.
Noir Kei Ninomiya’s work is inherently big, for the most part. Waves of charcoal ruffles saturate harnesses and mountains of onyx tulle cover dresses—even wool pleated coats take up more than their fair share of space, and that’s purposeful. “It’s easier to convey feelings in bigger pieces,” he says. “It has a stronger impact. It's not really about taking space, but in order for an idea to come to life, it’s easier. In the end, my work always ends up very big.”
The rest of his spring 2023 collection was equally dreamy and dazzling, with each piece more surprising than the last: voluminous dresses made of tubes of black and white fabric, corsets with inky roses suspended in motion above the wearer’s heads, harnesses with tufts of glittering balls of tulle, and leather cut out dresses surrounded by thin, jumbled wires and shining silver pearls that moved every so slightly as the wearer walked–all in black. “I wanted to express this strength that is in things we find weird or strange, or fantastic in a way,” he says. “This kind of excitement is what I wanted to translate and convey into fashion.”
But even fashion’s king of black couldn’t resist getting a little bit celebratory with his return to Paris Fashion Week by adding oceanic blues and fluffy whites to the collection. For the past few seasons, Ninomiya has been using a single hue to highlight the darkest depths of his penchant for black: “In order to make black stand out more, it's interesting to use colors,” he says. This time, he opted for blue bloomers, crinolines and sparkly puffs suspended on silver chains. “It’s like wrapping, for a gift. I wanted to make it look like a candy, and the pearls remind me of things you can play with as a kid.”
It’s not unusual for Ninomiya to blur the lines of what’s considered conventional fabric (last season, he used fake nails). The final two looks done in white that closed the collection appeared to magically float down the runway. One might have mistaken the material for feathers or even fur, but it was actually fake hair. His approach to designing is indescribable, even in his own words: “I don't really think of anything, but the main idea behind my work is to create something big and round with an expression on top of the garments.”
That kind of thinking has led to his ultimate technique: not using traditional sewing in the majority of his garments. “I thought that at the very beginning of his brand, in order to create something different, you have to use different techniques,” he explains. Instead of thread, pieces are grommeted together, connected with chains or pins or combined with various fascinators.
Because of that, many may be quick to declare Ninomiya’s work as art rather than fashion, but the designer is firm in his feeling that the two disciplines are in their own categories. “I don't really think about that,” he says. “For me, it's two different things. I create things you're supposed to wear. The idea of it being art is not intentional.”
Most crucial to the Noir Kei Ninomiya universe, however, is newness. “I always say I’ll do something entirely new, but the black is always the same,” he says with a laugh. “It might not be physically visible, but for the people who have never seen my work, maybe they’ll learn something that they didn’t know before.”