Carmen Emanuela Popa
at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Russia, Moscow

By Sanda Miller

A narrow corridor whose claustrophobic walls evoke the lunatic asylum or the prison, instead of the glamorous runway with which the public are accustomed at fashion shows; and instead of a succession of equally glamorous models to present the collection, a solitary presence: a woman carrying a bundle in her arms; perhaps an infant, but we shall never know. Adding to the uncanny effect is the noise of an old fashioned steam locomotive in the background, the most famous metaphor in the world to connote life as a journey, in this instance, the journey of a young person holding an infant in her arms, running away towards the unknown.

In the late 1970’s when the Japanese contingent of fashion designers reached Paris, their new way of representing their collections on the runway shook the Parisians to the core. For what they saw were skinny and pale models wearing flat sandals and black and more black clothes with uneven hems and holes in the materials and Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo (of Comme des Garçons fame) and Yohji Yamamoto were the culprits. Several years later they have been absorbed, holes in clothes and flat sandals notwithstanding. in mainstream fashion. 

Comparison with Carmen Emanuela Popa’s work during the first decades of the new millennium brings to the fore the dialectical nature of the trajectory followed by fashion and the way it moves forward whilst incorporating  previous developments and changes.

In this instance the similarity at visual level between the Japanese designers and Carmen Emanuela Popa is obvious but not so the causes which informed their creation. The reason is that in the aftermath of the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which brought the Cold War to an end and replaced it with the fast demographic changes which are at the bases of our way of life at present. Thus her new collection is not so much to do with the aesthetics of wabi sabi (imperfection) celebrated by Yamamoto and the Japanese designers, but it is about loneliness, dislocation and a peculiar savage beauty, as only Alexander McQueen understood.

 “It is a moto suit that has been converted into two-piece jacket and midi skirt pieces, including the diverse accessory, and migrated to its transfiguration in 18th century dresses from the royal court. 
This stylistic interpretation of the exclusively feminine line was based on taffeta and natural silk, so it can get an ecological dimension for this dynamic source of inspiration, like the golden silk dress, a very sensitive sport outfit. The cuts were over or sub dimensioned and the patterns were mostly made for three different types of texture, the original fabric, the sponge and the cotton on the inside. Matlases are made individually on each piece, then assembled. All this induce the idea of ​​camouflaging fragile parts of the body, but in metaphorical sense it is also a camouflage of spirit in the face of adversity in many ways. “ -  Carmen Emanuela Popa.

The collection consists mainly of black and white pencil skirts and corset- like tops which double as bodices, pioneered in the 1990’s by Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood but the most powerful element which dominates visually the collection is the headgear: each model wears a helmet which covers (to a greater or lesser extent) the face, evoking the hijab or in some instances even approximating the niqab, famously pioneered by Hussein Chalayan during the 1990’s. It is also Chalayan  who – as a Turkish Cypriot living and working in London - comes closest  to Carmen Emanuela Popa’s own concerns with alienation and rootlessness .

Thus in 1998 in the collection entitled Between Chalayan presented his models wearing black chadors: the first wearing a full length chador  and gradually becoming shorter with the following models until the last model, seen naked only with a black veil covering her face. 

But it was the 2000 collection entitled Afterwords which deals with the theme of rootlessness in a profound way: in it we see a sparsely furnished white stage and then the models appear and pick up the chairs and the central coffee table, transforming them into clothes; a powerful metaphor for having to flee one’s land with nothing but the clothes on their back. We find the same ‘conceit’ informing Popa’s young woman, baby in arms, carrying only a bag who is also fleeing!

The parallel can be also found in the monochromatic colour scheme: Popa chooses black and white geometrically organised on the body although in one instance a red garment creates a splash of colour, just for a moment and then we return to black and white. But the way they work it is neither monotonous nor repetitious for the subtlety with which they change from example to example engage the eyes and the mind. But ultimately this message is positive and energetic: these are the garments of the future!