The key to Rei Kawakubo's collection was, she said, thinking about "the persona—what's in front, and what's behind." In other words, she cut her clothes—and extraordinary Venice carnival masks—into a visual essay on the complexities of the disguises we construct to represent ourselves to the world. Kawakubo's meaning snapped into focus with the arresting sight of a masked woman in a fedora, advancing along the runway wearing what looked like a man's coat with a huge, ruffled cape cascading from the shoulders. As operatic arias filled a lofty, chandeliered room at the Sorbonne, it was the beginning of a powerful study on masculinity and femininity—and the everyday theater of getting dressed.

Each of Kawakubo's outfits contained fusions of menswear and frilled silk and baroque Jacquard elements culled from Victorian women's clothing. Some of the tailored jackets were slashed under the lapels, with decorative fabrics forcing their way out from within; others were patchworks of flower-printed dress fabric at the front and plain suiting at the back, or had overblown leg-of-mutton silk sleeves attached to mens' argyle cardigans. The more conceptual opening passages of the show resolved themselves into some brilliant but wearable looks along the way. One, a checked tweed pantsuit, had a black corset implanted in the torso; another, a silky russet puffed-sleeve dress had a transplant of suit lapels at the neck.

It made for an impressive performance that saw Kawakubo pulling something rich, romantic, and dramatically new out of the recognizable materials of her own past body of work. That in itself made for a satisfying spectacle, while the way the collection glancingly referenced current subjects—such as the tension between male and female relationships, and the stylistic interest in suiting, baroque fabrics and Victorian sleeves—demonstrated Kawakubo's innately individual way of connecting with the fashion debate.