In a rare interview, designer Kei Ninomiya delves into his creative process and the wildly imaginative beauty looks of his shows
Backstage at Noir Kei Ninomiya’s AW23 show in Paris, the make-up artist Amazing Jiro applies thick gelatin to the models’ faces. Swathes and droplets of baby-pink, inky-black and saffron-yellow covers their cheekbones, like a moving painting in process. In lieu of the traditional make-up materials you’d normally find backstage at a major Paris Fashion Week show, the gelatin is the superstar of this show. And on top of the models’ heads? Sculptural burnt-resin headpieces that looked like colourful metal, concrete washed up on the shore or perhaps even small meteorites fallen to earth.
“I think beauty is a part of my collections and my expression,” Kei Ninomiya says. “My shows are not just about the clothes. They’re about the place, the people gathering and wanting to bring something new. It’s the coordination. So the make-up and hair does that too.”
After working with Rei Kawakubo, Ninomiya founded his line under Comme des Garçons in 2012 and today the brand remains the youngest brand under the Comme umbrella, which also includes Junya Watanabe. And it is also one of the most boundary-pushing to show at fashion week – something that extends to the beauty which, season after season, displays a level of creativity to match the clothes.
“I always try to make something new,” says the designer. “It’s my life actually.” In the past, this has looked like roses piled high in wigs; palm fronds stacked across curls; black paint streaked across the eyes, and green smeared over lips.
Much like Kawakubo, he doesn’t work with moodboards, rarely conducts interviews, and shares very little insight into his collections, allowing the viewers to draw their own conclusions. This season, the show notes offered up the strong but simple description of “Noir in Bloom”, stating that “Noir Kei Ninomiya takes us on an exploration of a new dimension.” On the catwalk, massive silver foiled flowers surrounded models in a cocoon of bloom as the light refracted around the stark white venue. Sharp black plastic studs encasing chunky puffs of fabric flowers unfurled, and glittery bows toppled over pastel knitwear.
The day after the show, in Comme des Garçons’s Paris headquarters, Ninomiya shares his typical process of dreaming up the wonderfully bizarre beauty looks with his team. He provides the hair, make-up and headpiece collaborators with only a few words of direction representing the collection, and they then have freedom to create whatever they want, knowing Ninomiya’s work is anything but typical. “I just gave them some keywords because our clothing was not ready in time,” he says with a laugh. “They think in their own way. It’s very unconventional.”
But AW23 wasn’t the only collection in which the make-up looks were painterly and imperfect rather than airbrushed and atypical. In years past, make-up artists at Ninomiya’s shows have swept streaks of black (Ninomiya’s favourite colour) paint across eyes and lips. Models had their faces encased in orbs of delicate wire masks. And they also donned snow-white curly wigs and blotches of gold, pink and blue around their eyes that looked as if they had been painted on with fingers. In Ninomiya’s world, literal paint instead of pigments or ceramic pieces instead of the typical bobby pins and hairspray rule.
“I think it’s about total coordination,” he adds. “It’s also part of the atmosphere. I mean, it’s a kind of whole world, so it’s really important for me. This kind of make-up is quite different in a way. The team is also trying to make something new.”
Backstage, Ninomiya’s creations were so large, the beauty team ducked under and around the models for final touch-ups. “I took inspiration from the headpieces first,” the make-up artist Jiro, who is by trade a special effects make-up artist, told us right before the show. “So I tried to make something in harmony with that. I wanted to do something strong and hard, but not too much, and also add in some cute nuances to it.”
As with any Noir Kei Ninomiya collection, there’s an underlying darkness that the beauty looks exemplify. Noir means black, after all, and the colour is heavily coded into the heart of the brand, despite AW23 being one of its most colourful of all time. The ceramic artist Takuro Kuwata collaborated with the designer for the second season in a row, on the subversive headwear, which was contrasted with thick, blunt-cut sculptural bangs by the hair stylist Ryu Miyazaki. The hats resembled crushed cans, meteorites crashed down to earth and chunks of insulation material. “Usually with the ceramics, I work with my hands, but this time was different because I changed the materials, burning them,” he told us before the show. “I thought it was a very unique process also because it’s burning plastic, so with the environment and what’s happening today, I thought it was an interesting message.”