PARIS: The dress is spring green, its flat surface ruffled like wind on water. A pebble path and a few drifting leaves add to the zen-like tranquility of the Japanese garden.
This is not cherry blossom time in Kyoto, but a French couture outfit in a Paris museum. The pallid background, the pebbles and the spare setting, are meant to enhance an original take on East meets West, as rising sun embroideries or bare-nape evening coats are displayed beside the traditional kimonos and geisha prints that inspired them.
The result is an exceptional and thought-provoking exhibition called "Japonisme et Mode 1870-1996
" (Fashion and Japanese Style) at the Palais Galliéra costume museum until Aug. 4 
Although the show originated in Kyoto in 1994, the Paris version has a subtly different slant. It needs to explain the essence of the kimono to Europeans and also to show how high fashion from the mid-19th century on has absorbed the pure spirit of the East, just as Claude Monet was drawn to an aesthetic that "evoked a presence by its shadow, the whole by a fragment."
Themes from Japanese culture are isolated and given their fashion reflections: lacquer work as the shimmering geometrically constructed 1920s dress by Madeleine Vionnet, shown beside a Jean Dunand copper vase; symbolic chrysanthemum patterns as spidery gold embroidery on an emerald green silk 1927 coat by Coco Chanel, or as rich panels of Lyonnais silk. Or there are the Japanese designers' own interpretions in Hanae Mori's calligraphy patterns, Issey Miyake's origami of pleats and the paper-cutout dresses from Comme des Garçons.
The exhibition is in itself a marriage of two cultures, represented by Akiko Fukai, curator of the Kyoto Costume Institute and Fabienne Falluel, curator at the Paris museum. Falluel admits that she has altered the Kyoto focus to include playful pieces that show Japanese influence at its most popular, not to say vulgar. That means including a 19th century poster for an exotic Eastern perfume (complete with parasol and lilies) and cartoon printed kimonos from Jean-Charles de Castelbajac's current collection.
The clothing is reinforced with accessories and objects — René Lalique's Art Nouveau decorative hair combs, as well as vases, boxes and screens. One exquisite Edo screen shows folded kimonos; another kitsch 1919 version has a French society beauty against blossom branches.
"My dream was to show fashion along with other objects so that people would realize that we should not think about major and minor works of art," says Falluel. She had a frisson of excitement when she put together a dress by Charles Frederick Worth decorated with the same vivid fish pattern that appeared on a Dunand screen, and when she found a sample of the original butterfly print fabric used for a 1910 Mario Fortuny kimono. Other matches were serendipitous: a chariot-wheel pattern on a Japanese handkerchief and as Comme des Garçon's cutouts, or a Worth cape decorated with samurai helmets as seen in a warrior uniform on display.
The exhibition first informs the visitor about the kimono, its symbolism, its structure, its sleeves. Then the opening display shows Western variations on the theme from a crimson velvet Worth coat scooped away at the nape à la geisha, to John Galliano's 1994 mini kimonos — a sexy slither of skirt below the obi-sash.
Western designers are divided into those seduced by Japanese decoration — all the crysanthemum prints or the exotic fabrics used by Paul Poiret, and those who were fascinated by the kimono's geometry, like Vionnet's green dress cut in flat panels and decorated only with wave-seaming.
"Paul Poiret did wonderful things because he was so influenced by motifs, but Vionnet really understood the kimono and took the geometric idea to construct her clothes — and that brought such freedom into European clothes in the 1920s," said Issey Miyake, who was at the opening party.
"Kimono-mania" swept through fashion in the 19th century, when Japan was opened to the West. Kimonos were cut up and used as decorative fabric for Western dresses, or the corseted body was given a new freedom in kimono house robes made for Liberty of London or copied in India.
"When a new culture comes, people first copy surface decoration, then they study the technique and cut," says Jun Kanai, a curator at Kyoto. "Eventually they assimilate and use it for their own creativity, just as Van Gogh did."Suzy MenkesTUESDAY, APRIL 23, 1996
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