Usually you count on a Comme des Garçons show to plumb mysterious depths, but for spring, the mystery was slap-bang there on the surface. It looked like nothing so much as an homage to Vivienne Westwood's royal collections. Ringletted girls in crowns, wearing Union Jack-printed underwear and punkish tartans, proceeded up and down the runway to the strains of Coronation marches, Church of England hymns, and even, gorblimey, "Land of Hope and Glory." It was all—and this was the shock in this house of intellectual subtlety—puzzlingly literal. But why?

Backstage, Rei Kawakubo shook her head and denied that the collection was about England, or Japanese tourist souvenirs of Britishness, or a romantic gesture of support for a city that has been subjected to bombings and in which she has her Dover Street shopping complex. She conceded that there were references to "a lost Empire," but more importantly, she said, it was about "cutting without a pattern." All the pieces had been draped on the dress stand, creating whorls of tartan bunched around shoulder lines of jackets, wrappings of tulle that read as bulbous approximations of boleros, and bunchy skirts, swagged and ruched at the sides.

Some of it triggered recollections of Kawakubo's infamous "lumps and bumps" collection from the late eighties. But where those earlier clothes provoked the most adverse audience reaction of Kawakubo's career, these outfits didn't have it in them to cause offense. Instead, they were just plain difficult to fathom. It's odd to see Rei Kawakubo do anything on the mild side; then again, perhaps it's refreshing to discover that even geniuses have their off seasons.