Rei Kawakubo is one of the very few living designers who can command the rapt attention—even the adoration—of the inner fashion crowd by doing something deliberately demented on a runway. To describe: A projection of naïve anime cartoons was playing on the floor; a jerky soundtrack of circus whizbangs, rock 'n' roll, the theme from the James Bond films, and traditional Japanese tunes filled the air. Then a girl walked out, made up like a clown, in a pink patchwork pantsuit apparently created from square, synthetic ruffle-edged drink coasters. There followed a bewildering mash-up of layers: coats printed with African hairstyle ads, vertically sliced half-jackets, dippy skirts with knotted rags tied to the hems, drawstringed sweat pieces, frothy nylon tutus patched to the front of pencil skirts, petaled T-shirts, menswear tailoring, fragments of magicians' sparkly capes, and frilly bloomers dangling from ruffled ribbons.

How to make sense of this? Don't try: The madness was the message. "Clusters." "Randomness." "Cacophony." These were the words Kawakubo used to explain her inspiration, and then, of course, it all fell into place as a figurative observation of the state of modern urban consciousness. It was suddenly easy to imagine Kawakubo walking to work in the center of Tokyo, taking off her mental filters and letting in all the noise, clashing color, and fragmentary simultaneous imagery of the city crowd. Doubtless, within all this there are near-sane simple pieces Kawakubo will fill her stores with, and sell, too. But that was not the point the happy-looking crowd left the building discussing—rather it was the fact that, though many may emulate her, there is no one to touch the free-thinking experimentalism Kawakubo can bestow on fashion.