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The Comme des Garçons "Universe"

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The Comme des Garçons "Universe" Empty The Comme des Garçons "Universe"

Post by xyz on Sun Jan 06, 2013 12:08 am

Let's explore and discover the deep Universe of Comme des Garcons and Rei Kawakubo.

one of my favorite little descriptions is this one:
The Comme des Garçons "Universe" Tumblr_m3z56mrcW41ruxooso1_500

it is a bit outdated since they already operate 3 Dover Street Markets - London, Tokyo, NYC.

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The Comme des Garçons "Universe" Empty Re: The Comme des Garçons "Universe"

Post by xyz on Sun Jan 06, 2013 8:22 am

The Challenge of Rei Kawakubo old japanese documentary on the house of Comme des Garcons

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Post by xyz on Fri Mar 29, 2013 12:53 pm

A downloadable pdf booklet with great description of Comme des Garcons concept


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The Comme des Garçons "Universe" Empty Re: The Comme des Garçons "Universe"

Post by xyz on Fri Apr 19, 2013 9:35 pm

A great presentation of COMME DES GARCONS "UNIVERSE"

The Comme des Garçons "Universe" 243538928_2c12c7f352_o

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The Comme des Garçons "Universe" Empty Re: The Comme des Garçons "Universe"

Post by xyz on Wed Apr 24, 2013 7:43 pm

An interview with Rei Kawakubo at STYLE.COM:

Chaos Theory
Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons says she isn't out to break the rules. That doesn't mean she hasn't left plenty of them crumbled in her wake
Interview by Matthew Schneier. Portrait by Mario Testino
Published April 4, 2013

The Comme des Garçons "Universe" Page1-image1

MS: Do you believe there are rules in fashion? Do you consider yourself to be a rule breaker?

RK: I'm not interested in rules, or whether they are there or not. I do not consciously set out to break rules. I only make clothes that I myself feel are beautiful or good-looking. People maybe say that this way of feeling is against the rules.

MS: You've spoken occasionally about the constant need for newness in your work. Is newness the ultimate goal of design? How would you rank it relative to function and beauty?

RK: What new means to me is something that doesn't exist already and that I haven't seen before. The image I have made once is already no longer new to me, so you could say the goal is not to be found in eternity. Beauty and function are different things, but luckily they have a mutual connection. But the fundamental values around which I built CDG, i.e., creation and new, have no connection to beauty and function.

MS: Do you feel that the fashion industry has become too corporate?

RK: The corporateness of the fashion industry tends to take away or distort the freedom of creation.

MS: Comme des Garçons is an independent exception. What are the benefits of independence? What are the downsides?

RK: The benefit is that I am free, and I don't take notice of the downsides.

MS: Given the state of the fashion world today, do you think a designer could start out independently, as you did, and maintain that independence even while growing to a global scale? Is the world today as hospitable to designers as it was when you began?

RK: I think the fashion world has never been a comfortable, easy place to be in. I mean, in terms of always having to fight to be free to make what one wants.

MS: Where do you see the next great designer coming from?

RK: ???

MS: When you first decided to show in Paris, were you apprehensive about what the reaction would be? Did the reaction you received surprise you?

RK: I always had good reactions from people with a good eye and a vision…and very terrible reactions from those who are afraid of people who are different to others—at the beginning and even now. I have never worried about it too much.

MS: You are one of a handful of designers who generally prefer not to give interviews. Does fashion—either all fashion or your own fashion—lose something in the explanation?

RK: I don't like to explain the clothes, how I made them, the theme, et cetera. It's because the clothes are just as you see them and feel them. That's what I want…just see and feel them. How I thought about them, where any idea came from, what the process is, is not something I like talking about to people.

MS: You have a reputation for seriousness, but in private, I've heard it said that you are very funny. And your collections are distinguished in part by their wit. Is humor an important component of your work and your process?

RK: Nothing to do with the work. The path to making things is tough. The process allows no margin for being funny. It is like a hand-to-mouth world.

MS: You come to New York rarely, but you'll be traveling here more this year to design and then to unveil the newest Dover Street Market. What are your impressions of the city so far, relative to Tokyo or Paris?

RK: Nothing special. Wherever I go, my work is one…the same.

MS: At your Dover Street Market stores, you showcase the work of other designers as well as your own. Why is that important to you?

RK: I have always liked the idea of synergy and accident…the idea of sharing space with other creative people or people who have something to say. We call it beautiful chaos…anything can happen, nothing is decided.

MS: Fashion is taking another look at punk this year, as the subject of the annual Costume Institute exhibition. What does punk mean to you?

RK: The spirit of punk lies in not ingratiating oneself to preordained values nor accepting standard authority.

MS: Some have complained that fashion has stagnated; you yourself have said that the media has enabled uninteresting fashion to thrive. Can this situation change? What would allow that to happen?

RK: I doubt the situation can change. It's because in the world where money rules, the appreciation of the value of true creation is low.

MS: Are advertisers too powerful now in the way that they dictate fashion coverage?

RK: Yes.

MS: Your Fall 2012 "flat" collection has been incredibly influential, and many are noting elements of it reverberating through several Fall '13 collections. Are you aware of this borrowing? Do you consider imitation the sincerest form of flattery, or disappointing?

RK: I am not really aware of this and not too interested either.

MS: How would you like to be remembered?

RK: I want to be forgotten.

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The Comme des Garçons "Universe" Empty Adrian Joffe, Tending the Garden of Comme des Garçons

Post by xyz on Thu Oct 31, 2013 4:58 am


Adrian Joffe, Tending the Garden of Comme des Garçons

Comme des Garçons has quietly grown a global multi-brand fashion business that now generates $220 million in revenue per year. BoF talks to Adrian Joffe — president of Comme des Garçons International, retail guru behind Dover Street Market and a member of the recently launched BoF 500 — about tending the precious root of creativity from which the company's unconventional collections and business strategies both derive.

The Comme des Garçons "Universe" Adrian-Joffe-Comme-des-Garcons-Thomas-Lohr-656x436
LONDON, United Kingdom — For Adrian Joffe, president of Comme des Garçons International and retail guru behind Dover Street Market — a shopping mecca in London’s Mayfair that’s part brand flagship, part luxury bazaar — building a fashion business is more like tending a garden than tuning an engine. “Rei Kawakubo created the company on the basic value of creation and everything else branches from that one root she planted. Creation stagnates without change. So you have to constantly grow and change, that is our goal. It’s natural, yet it’s also controlled.”

When we meet at the Rose Bakery on the top floor of Dover Street Market, Joffe is visibly excited for the store’s bi-annual tachiagari (“beginning” in Japanese). After three days of closure and re-construction, the six-storey building has just been reborn with a slew of tantalising new collections, installations and spaces created by designers including Jil Sander, Chitose Abe of Sacai, Delfina Delettrez and Kei Ninomiya (Rei Kawakubo’s newest protégé, whose line Noir Kei Ninomiya launched last Spring in Japan and has just arrived in Europe). The entrance to the store now showcases past issues of Comme des Garçons Six, the cult magazine published from 1988 to 1991. “It’s mad. Crazy stuff,” exclaims Joffe, with real thrill in his eyes. But closing the store to make radical changes every season is only one of the ways in which Dover Street Market has rewritten the conventional rules of luxury retail.

While most luxury fashion companies have been pouring money into temple- like flagship stores, specifically designed to deliver an unadulterated, monobrand experience, Dover Street Market — inspired by the now defunct Kensington Market, a three-storey indoor market that over the years, catered to various sub-cultural waves of hippies, punks, new romantics, metal-heads, ravers and goths — offers an unusual blend of products by both Comme des Garçons and a wide range of other brands, from Azzedine Alaïa and Céline by Phoebe Philo to Tokyo streetwear label Sunsea. What’s more, the store is housed in a former office space, split across six storeys connected only by a small elevator and a concrete stairwell, making it challenging to navigate. Menswear and womenswear collections are interspersed, confusing many newcomers. And while brands like Acne and APC have since followed Dover Street Market to this quiet stretch of Mayfair, the store is situated in what remains a low-traffic area, away from traditional luxury shopping areas like Bond Street.

But these seemingly off-kilter decisions flow directly from that initial root which Rei Kawakubo planted at the genesis of Comme des Garçons, in 1973. “It all comes from the same source: the desire to create something different. Our kachikan, or sense of values, goes into everything the company does. Not just clothes but everything. It has to be new. It has to be creative,” says Joffe.

“Every shop we do is new, every interior different to the last one; communication through direct mailings is based on one-year collaborations with artists. Our retail strategies, such as Dover Street Market or the Guerrilla Stores, are completely new,” he continues, referring to the unconventional, temporary stores selling products from previous seasons which Comme des Garçons opened and subsequently closed in cities like Reykjavik, Warsaw, Barcelona, Singapore, Stockholm, Athens, Beirut and Los Angeles.

“Berlin was the first Guerilla Store. I had all this stock, dead stock, things like perfume bottles, it was always in our warehouse… We made rules like proper guerillas in the jungle, always moving. And we had a maximum limit on what people could spend in the store: $2,000,” he recalls. At another brand, this kind of excess inventory from past seasons might have ended up at a conventional outlet store. Joffe managed to turn it into a novel and compelling retail experience.

Indeed, under Kawakubo and Joffe’s guidance, Comme des Garçons’kachikan of creation goes hand-in-hand with a sense of pragmatism and business savvy.

During the recession of 2008, when many fashion companies were desperately slashing prices, Comme des Garçons took a different approach, launching Black, a line reprising best-selling styles from the brand’s archive at reduced price points.

Earlier this year, Comme des Garçons announced that the New York outpost of Dover Street Market would be housed, well off the beaten luxury track, in a seven storey neoclassical building at the corner of 30th Street and Lexington Avenue, an area best known for its curry houses and the South Asian taxi drivers they attract. “Of course, we can’t afford Fifth Avenue or Madison Avenue,” says Joffe. “It’s pragmatism and it’s new. It’s exactly that mix.”

Mixing pure creativity with business savvy isn’t always easy to do, however. “Very hard, very hard, very hard,” says Joffe. “That’s the dilemma [Rei Kawakubo] has and I have as well. The ways to make money and grow internationally depend a lot on her. I can’t do anything on my own… I can’t just go and make shops and build franchises. We’re very much [working] in sync. At Dover Street Market, everything visual is her, but because it’s growing and she’s got limited time, she leaves me more and more things: what we buy, how we do the business. But it has to be within the kachikan.”

Difficult as it may be, the approach is clearly working. Comme des Garçons currently generates about $220 million a year in revenues, according to numbers provided by the company, and has attracted a cult-like global following. “Our core business is with diehard fans. We produce at least 95 percent of what is shown on the runway,” says Joffe.

But critically, the company’s more accessible offerings feel equally imbued with Comme des Garçons’ kachikan of creativity as the brand’s main line. “We never liked the idea of diffusion because it kind of waters things down. It dilutes the idea. When you think of every single diffusion line, the name is shorter: Ralph Lauren becomes RL, Donna Karan becomes DKNY. When we did a second line for Comme des Garçons we deliberately made the title longer — Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons — because it wasn’t a diffusion line, it was an extension: the thing that comes off the real thing, so you keep the spirit. The concept behind it is not lesser than the first Comme des Garçons line.”

Even the brand’s fragrances can be highly conceptual and come with bold manifestos. In 1998, the brand, famously, released it’s first “anti-perfume,” Odeur 53, a blend of notes including “oxygen, flash of metal, nail polish and burnt rubber.” The company entered into what Joffe calls a “partial licensing” agreement with Barcelona-based Puig in 2002. “We do the perfumes, we do the boxes and Rei does all the graphics, and they produce it and sell it only to fragrance stores.” But he found a clever way to keep doing the brand’s more conceptual scents, thereby sustaining the kachikan, even in fragrance. “We divided the logo. We gave [Puig] Comme des Garçons Parfums, but we made a new label, Comme des Garçons Parfums Parfums, for all the weird things. No one knows this, but you will see Parfums Parfums [on some bottles] and on the other ones, you’ll see Parfums. It’s kind of a revolutionary license really.”

Play, a range of basics, including t-shirts, sweatshirts, knitwear and canvas footwear, is one of the company’s most lucrative lines, bringing in 12 percent of overall revenue. “Play was totally a business decision. We didn’t know it was going to be so amazing,” says Joffe. But with its quirky, bug-eyed heart logo, developed in collaboration with New York graphic artist Filip Pagowski, even Play manages to embody the creative spirit of Comme des Garçons.

Indeed, Comme des Garçons’ brand architecture is less like architecture and more like an ecosystem, where a dense forest of brand extensions and product lines can grow freely and directly off the main Comme des Garçons root, without defined hierarchies. “We keep things on a parallel level,” says Joffe. “We can’t grow deeply, we’re not big enough or rich enough to open flagship stores around the world like multi-national corporations, so we have to grow the company laterally. That’s why we’ve got 17 brands,” he continues. “We’ve just got to continue, organically and naturally. Slowly, slowly, little growth. We don’t want to double overnight. We’ve never had investors or anything like that.”

In fact, Rei Kawakubo alone still owns the vast majority of Comme des Garçons KK, the Japan-based parent company which owns the Paris-based Comme des Garçons International, which in turn, owns 100 percent of Dover Street Market International, Comme des Garçons SAS, Comme des Garçons New York and the overwhelming majority of Comme des Garçons Parfum SA.

But how much can this ecosystem grow before the connection to the original root planted by Kawakubo is weakened?

“There’s the danger of dissipation,” says Joffe. “How big can you get? Already Rei is worried… Because how do you keep that strength when you are growing? It’s a big dilemma. And there’s also the effect of her having to, one day, slow down a bit… Even Rei is not immortal.”

The company now employs over 800 people. “Most people stay forever; it’s like a family because of the strength of the belief system,” says Joffe. But, in particular, designers Junya Watanabe, Tao Kurihara, Fumito Ganryu and Kei Ninomiya have been instrumental in extending the company’s brand ecosystem (Tao closed in 2011, but Kurihara continues to design the Tricot Comme des Garçons label.)

In the future, might one or more of them tend Kawakubo’s original root?

“It depends on who you get to take over. I think it’s got amazing potential. Comme des Garçons is organic. But I think, without doubt, it’s going to change. Because once she’s not there, for sure, it’s going to be different.”

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The Comme des Garçons "Universe" Empty Adrian Joffe: The Idea of COMME des GARÇONS

Post by xyz on Wed Apr 09, 2014 12:17 am


Adrian Joffe: The Idea of COMME des GARÇONS

When Rei Kawakubo presented her first show in Paris under the name ‘COMME des GARÇONS’ in 1981, it was received as a ground breaking collection. However not everyone in the Paris fashion system was ready for this change as she approached the fundamental core of the fashion system from a much different angle. Many collections later, COMME des GARÇONS has proved its worth in becoming one of the most influential fashion brands to emerge. That particular collection several decades ago ended the French Fashion Syndicate’s influence in the fashion industry and sparked off a new era of creation and brand management.

As the emerging Chinese market grows leaps and bounds every few months, the fashion hungry recently enjoyed a great boost thanks to the partnering of COMME des GARÇONS and I.T on the creation of I.T Beijing Market. Sharing the spotlight with another influential Japanese brand in A Bathing Ape, the two will spearhead the foundation of progressive fashion in China.
At the recent opening, we spoke with COMME des GARÇONS International’s President and Rei Kawakubo’s husband Adrian Joffe and discussed the importance of having a coherent identity, the notion of creation, Kawakubo’s fundamental beliefs and the common misconceptions of COMME des GARÇONS and Rei Kawakubo.

Interview: Edward Chiu
Text: Eugene Kan
Photography: Louis Lau

The Comme des Garçons "Universe" Adrian-joffe-the-idea-of-comme-des-garcons-2

Interview with Adrian Joffe

Rei Kawakubo’s first collection “Lace” which debuted in Paris, 1981, marked the end of the French Fashion Syndicate’s influence in the fashion industry and began a new era of radical fashion. Did she achieve this by not referencing the old but by creating the new? Or simply the will to work against the fundamental core of the fashion system, which fashion has to be beautiful?

It’s always been the aim of not doing like everybody else or rather searching to make things that didn’t exist before. She basically founded the company on the premise of creation. You can see it like a tree, the roots won’t change but the branches will keep on growing, therefore the fundamental spirit has always stayed the same. Maybe sometimes, her creation is also a reaction to something, so in a way your second question does place into action. I remember about 13 years ago, she visited New York and she saw a lot of black in the GAP stores on every corner and was very astonished as the combination of fast fashion and black was not something she expected. She used mostly Black in ‘81 when the color wasn’t used at all in high fashion, so she was very shocked and said that after 20 years, suddenly everything turned black and gothic. As a reaction to that, she created her next collection “Bumps”, so in some ways it can be true. Sometimes its the reaction against what she sees, experiences and the feeling of shock or anger which can spark off another collection. So I think it’s a mixture of one and two, it has to be a mixture.

Rei Kawakubo has always challenged fashion norms such as fusing masculine and feminine motifs, introducing the distorted shapes and cuts in her silhouettes – specifically straying away from what constitutes the ideal. Design aside how do these values apply and shaped her identity as a brand?

Rei designs everything of the company. Her values permeate everything that constitutes the brand; The clothes, the shops, the printed matter, the way the clothes look in in the shops, the name cards and the retail strategy, all cannot be separated.

Similar to British artist Rachel Whiteread’s negative space sculptures, Rei Kawakubo’s clothing is not about the object but the space around the object. Does she see this as an easier route into designing or the fact that she wants to explore where other designers have overlooked?

First of all, there’s no easy route into designing. Forty two years ago when she first started, it was maybe easier because she had never done anything before. But as time goes by, the breadth of possibilities narrows and the weight of experience becomes heavy. So it’s more and more difficult to stick with the original concept of creating something new. It’s for her own self and trying to do something that she hadn’t done before. She doesn’t really look at other artists or designers’ work, as she isn’t interested in who it is and why it is. She will look at things and images and be moved or not as the case may be but she won’t analyze or define anything. She purely feels and strives for new grounds all the time because that is what she decided to base the company she founded on. She wants to be satisfied, but she’s never satisfied. This is the trouble for her, as she can never relax and she has to live with the dissatisfaction of her own work all the time, because being satisfied for one second might mean it would not be possible to strive any more.

The Comme des Garçons "Universe" Adrian-joffe-the-idea-of-comme-des-garcons-3

She once mentioned when bad taste is done by COMME des GARÇONS, it becomes good taste. Does she look out for the bad taste in life and purposely manipulate them to create a part of COMME des GARÇONS’ vision?

I think it’s really just a personal thing, she sometimes takes what most people dislike and when she does it for her, it becomes something different. She gives herself limits and borders as it’s really hard to create with unlimited space. So by taking bad taste and recreating in CDG style it becomes good taste, because it’s done by her. Every collections starts with one concept, a word or one feeling and what was interesting to her in that particular moment.

It is known that Japanese designers such as herself were not happy to be branded as the “Japanese” back in the 1980s. Can you explain why this was the case? And also what is the reason behind the fascinations of death, shapes and black amongst the Japanese designers?

We cannot answer questions about the so-called “Japanese designers”. It was a mere accident that Rei was born in Japan.

All of the early Japanese designers who entered the Paris fashion system belonged to the post-war generation, and were taught whatever Western was acceptable and good. Was this a major impact in her work? And was it hard working with these ethnic boundaries in mind?

She never gave herself any ethnic boundaries, nor let them interfere with her work. From the beginning, she dispensed with any preconceived notions about western and eastern social mores and cultures, as all these things are irrelevant to her world. I strongly believe her work is at the highest possible level of creativity; What one would call pure creation perhaps, as she deliberately casts away all questions of upbringing, nationality, sociology and the like. So many times it comes from just from a feeling, an emotion, not a concrete reference.

The Comme des Garçons "Universe" Adrian-joffe-the-idea-of-comme-des-garcons-4

Many Japanese designers are reluctant to show outside of their domestic confines. Is this a limiting factor in Japanese fashion?

To be honest, I have no idea about the Japanese designers in general. Although I imagine that Japanese designers, in not showing outside their domestic confines, are no different to Indian, Brazilian, Ethiopian or Russian designers who show only in their countries. I don’t think it is any more or less true about so called Japanese designers. I think it is a fallacy that Japanese designers are any less international than any other countries’ designers. I also think that any perceived similarities between designers from the same country are purely superficial, if not entirely accidental.

Junya Watanabe, Tao Kurihara and Fumito Ganryu all have their own unique label under the COMME des GARÇONS family. Does Rei have any sort of creative direction over them? Or are they in full control to expand the aesthetics of the COMME des GARÇONS world?

100% creative freedom. Rei feels that they won’t be able to create if they don’t have creative freedom because she, for herself, needs creative freedom. Therefore she can’t give herself creative freedom and not give that to others. For her, the reason why she wants to create is in order to be free. She’ll let them produce whatever they like. So yes, completely creative freedom and no interference.

Is the majority of the internal COMME des GARÇONS design team Japanese? If so is it because of an inherent Japanese sensibility that makes them best suited for the brand?

There are only four designers at COMME des GARÇONS. Rei, Junya, Tao and Ganryu. The so-called team is called patterners. Most are Japanese not because of any policy but because of language. But we have more and more patterners and other workers now coming through from China and Korea. We welcome this, as we do not think Japanese sensibility has anything to do with anything and true creation knows no boundaries.

The Comme des Garçons "Universe" Adrian-joffe-the-idea-of-comme-des-garcons-5

How does the PLAY line incorporate into COMME des GARÇONS? Does it lessen the design achievements of the rest of the other labels by relying solely on graphics?

Not at all, it doesn’t lessen anything. PLAY started 10 years ago and the idea of PLAY is creative but playful. It was a collection, created by not designing; it was the antithesis of design, based on prototypical forms. For her it was a fresh direction, as before her designs had to be new, but this time the idea itself was new for COMME des GARÇONS to do a collection that wasn’t designed, that it was only a t-shirt with one mark. There was only a one prototype, but with no design. Everything from graphics to shop, everything is an expression. In a way it is graphic, but it doesn’t lessen anything. It only adds to the expression of the company where everything she does its a way of expressing the values.

When it comes to collaborations, how important is it that the other party has longevity? Are newer artists/creative less able to enter the collaboration fold?

There’s no point to collaborate with another designer or artist unless there’s something that can be found in between. For example, we don’t make swimwear so we collaborated with Speedo who is the best swimwear makers. So there has to be some meaning to it. So many collaborations these days are meaningless, therefore we try to find collaborators who can have an added value for both parties. So the first collaboration we did was with Vivienne Westwood fifteen years ago. It was a shared philosophy, creation and freedom of expression. We hope for accidents and unexpected synergies that can be created through our collaborations.

Many established/high-end designer labels have gone the route of developing “Made for China” collections, what are your thoughts on this?

That is fine for them, but there are no plans for COMME des GARÇONS to make any specific collections for the China market, as we think of China and the rest of the world as one.

The Comme des Garçons "Universe" Adrian-joffe-the-idea-of-comme-des-garcons-6

How damaging is the problem of counterfeit products in both China and on a global scale?

It’s a major pain in the ass, but the real thing is undoubtedly the best. The government should definitely intervene and take action against the people who copy.

With the expansive scope of COMME des GARÇONS now, how much input does Rei maintain? Some things are beyond her control, but how does she deal with that?

Rei maintains total control of everything from the initial idea to the final outcome, especially for everything visual. And for the business side of things, she leaves a lot of that to me.

As Rei’s retail space concept has always been a continuation of her own ideals, how much has that changed since her early beginnings? And how will COMME des GARÇONS adapt to the online retail boom?

Her ideals have always stayed the same way and will never change. She will simply search for new ways to express her feelings, thoughts and ideas. However, she won’t be adapting any time soon to the recent online retail phenomenon, although we’re not ignoring that fact and have started some experiments. On the other hand, our Dover Street Market online shop’s sales figures have increased by 250% from 2009!

How much longer can COMME des GARÇONS remain with a limited online presence? Why has the brand stayed offline for so long?

She’s experimenting with each outlet. For example she’s letting me expand the Dover Street Market online shop and she just launched the COMME des GARÇONS website, but she doesn’t show anything obvious, just image and information. The time will come, but she takes her time with technology because she doesn’t feel it yet. She believes clothes have to be touched, so I doubt COMME des GARÇONS’ main collection will ever be on the website, however there are many creative possibilities which we’re looking into.

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In a recent interview, Rei was quoted as being dismissive of the current crop of younger designers. Could you shed some light on what exactly she meant?

I believe you mean the interview that was published from the establishment rag known as WWD. We were rather upset if not shocked by the way they twisted the words of Rei and made it sound like she was dismissive of young designers in general. Everyone knows that Rei respects enormously all-young designers that work hard and believe in creation. COMME des GARÇONS are constantly on the lookout for creative talent to have in our multi mark shops, and anyone who knows Dover Street Market London will know we have many young designers there. She was merely making the comment about a lot of young people in general these days, not just in fashion, as they hope and expect for success too quickly and are too impatient. In her time, it took years and years before she was really able to make a proper living at making clothes. However she knows that the times are very different now and she knows how hard it is. She is in no way dismissive of young designers, as she only wants to encourage them to be strong and creative and follow their own vision. Sharing spaces with people like them is the fundamental idea behind Dover Street Market London and I.T Beijing Market.

Throughout the years, Rei has sparingly offered English language interviews, in reality is she less of a secretive person as many may believe?

This is another fallacy. Rei did at least ten or fifteen interviews in 2010 alone. We did five in Beijing just last week, even though WWD falsely called their particular one “rare”. What nonsense! She is not so much secretive as simply unwilling to talk about her private life and she doesn’t like being photographed. She basically doesn’t trust journalists because they often twist what she says and turn it around to make their point. She has very often been deceived by journalists in this way. The scandal mongering WWD’s article of last week is a case in point. Not only did they dare to publish a totally unauthorized photo of Rei, they also twisted many of her own words, or taking them out of context, to make them sound revelatory when they were not. For example, they made it sound that COMME des GARÇONS is for sale, which it totally isn’t. They called my 100% joke about waiting for an offer, a “half joke…”.

Looking at the current avant-garde landscape, who would you say is breaking the molds of the conventional notion of fashion?

We cannot mention anyone by name, since that would be unfair on the people who we simply may not be aware of… We can only wish anyone who works with their heart and soul and looks for something new the greatest of luck, because without creation there can be no progress.

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The Comme des Garçons "Universe" Empty Rei Kawakubo: the first lady of fashion

Post by xyz on Wed Apr 09, 2014 1:04 am


Rei Kawakubo: the first lady of fashion

Ahead of Comme des Garçons AW14, we uncover an archive interview with the designer from Dazed & Confused issue 16, 1995

Text Paul Smith

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In anticipation of the Comme des Garçons AW14 show on the 1st March this Paris Fashion Week, we look back at an interview Rei Kawakubo did with fellow fashion designer Paul Smith, in a special issue Smith guest edited. Never before published on Dazed Digital, the 'interview' is a snappy back-and-forth conversation between contemporaries, underpinned by Smith's clear admiration for the avant-garde designer – and Kawakubo's dry humour.
Taken from Dazed & Confused issue 16, 1995.

Kawakubo's international label Comme des Garçons, formed in Tokyo in 1973, is notably famous for setting the monochromatic style and changing the face of fashion in the early 80s. With "as never seen before" silhouettes – shapeless shapes for her simplistic tent-like shrouds poised in black austerity, her clothes are never about accentuating or revealing the body, but allowing the wearer to be who they are.

Kawakubo has always de-prettified the models who have stomped down the catwalk in a sombre wake, wearing clothes which initially had to be explained to customers on how they should be worn. The notorious black T-shirt, for example, which appeared to have four sleeves when placed flat, yet turned into a chic double tunic when worn. Comme des Garçons' hand-knit sweaters full of holes came close to punk, and appeared anarchistic at the time of 80s retentive power-dressing. She sees fashion as art, and designs sculpturally, considering the fabric first. Her minimalist, asymmetric clothes are the epitome of deconstructionalism (seams raw-edged, incompatible fabrics bonded together), inspiring a host of European designers, most notably John Galliano, Martin Margiela, Helmut Lang and Ann Demeulemeester.

Comme des Garçons' kaleidoscopically-themed women's collection for Spring Summer 96 maintains Rei Kawakubo's position at the forefront of sensationalism. Linda Evangelista, Kate Moss and Nadja Auermann wore Ronald McDonald crazy-colour, candy-floss wigs and neon knitwear on the catwalk.

Kawakubo has always run the business side of Comme des Garçons and outsells either of her Japanese peers Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto by two to one. She has won several awards, held many exhibitions and had various books written about her. Her futuristic vision; her designs for "a way of life" through clothes, furniture, architecture, interiors and perfume and the former Comme des Garçons magazine Six, (which always overlooked her clothes, in favour of features, such as a ten page piece on Gilbert and George), have all established her as one of the 20th century's most important, innovative and influential designers.

Paul Smith: Thanks for letting me interview you. I thought, if it is OK with you, I'd just ask questions that I wish people would ask me, not typical interview questions. Who is your favourite artist and why?

Rei Kawakubo: No one in particular. I am usually more attracted to the way they lived their lives rather than their actual works.

PS: I recently went to see Christo's wrapping in Berlin. Have you seen any of his work? Do you like his work? If so, why do you like it?

RK: I find his concept interesting. Recently I saw a documentary on Christo working on his latest piece in Berlin on BBC which, amazingly, we are now able to see in Japan.

PS: Have you wrapped anything yourself?

RK: Yes. I have wrapped everything conceivable on a body while making clothes.

PS: Do you get time to travel for pleasure and, if so, where do you enjoy the most? If you go on holiday do you prefer to relax, sunbathe, sail, walk or explore new places?

RK: I like to travel to places that stimulate me but I never have enough time.

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PS: Is there anywhere in particular you'd love to go but just haven't had the time or opportunity?

RK: Uzbekistan.

PS: Do you fancy Disneyland?

RK: It is the last place on earth I want to visit.

PS: How important is music in your life? What type of music do you like? Do you listen to music while you work? Do you go to watch live bands? Do you go to concerts? Do you own a Walkman?

RK: I never listen to music while working nor do I go to concerts. I like the sound of silence.

PS: I think I'm right in saying that, like me, you're a great fan of Le Corbusier. Are there any living architects whose work you admire? If so, why?

RK: I like the simplicity and spaciousness of Le Corbusier.

PS: Do you find time to go to the cinema or watch videos/television? If so, what subjects do you prefer?

RK: I enjoy films which have strong visuals. I certainly do not watch horror, SF or comedy.

PS: Have you ever been involved in the making of a movie in any way?

RK: No.

PS: Do you have any plans to get involved in film in the future, or would you like to?

RK: No.

PS: What are your three favourite movies? What makes them special for you?

RK: Films by Theo Angelopoulos.

PS: Do you find time to read? Do you read Japanese or Western writers? Who is your favourite author? Did you read comics as a child?

RK: I have a tendency to buy books I want to read and they end up piling up on my desk, since I have little time to read.

PS: Do you have any sisters or brothers?

RK: Two younger brothers.

PS: Are they involved in Comme des Garçons or in fashion at all? What are their professions? Did they have an influence on your career?

RK: No, they are not involved in fashion. No, they do not influence my work.

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PS: What is your earliest childhood memory? Mine was at the age of 11, incident of given bicycle.

RK: The seasons. Glaring sun and its heat. Snow piled up as high as one metre.

PS: Many people in Japan ride bicycles; do you?

RK: I prefer walking, but I have been able to ride a bicycle since I was a child.

PS: Over the years you have worked with many of the world's famous photographers. Do you take photographs? If so, do you prefer to use black and white, or colour films? Is it to record your and your friends' lives, or is it an art form?

RK: I enjoy looking at photographs but loathe being photographed. I'd rather make clothes than take photographs.

PS: Other than Japanese, what food do you enjoy?

RK: Spicy food, especially Thai.

PS: Do you cook at home?

RK: Sometimes.

PS: Have you ever eaten real English food? What do you think of it?

RK: Yes, I have eaten full English breakfast, which I like very much.

PS: Do you enjoy married life?

RK: I enjoy my life.

PS: Do you have any children?

RK: Yes, 425. They all work at Comme des Garçons.

PS: Are you an animal lover? What is your favourite animal? Do you have any pets? If so, what and how many?

RK: I like all animals, especially wolves.

PS: What do you fear the most?

RK: The next collection.

PS: What do you feel you'd still like to achieve in life?

RK: The next collection.

PS: What car do you drive?

RK: A big old Japanese car.

PS: What is your favourite month and why?

RK: The ones that do not have collections.

PS: What is your favourite number and why?

RK: Odd numbers, because they are asymmetric and strong.

PS: What is your lucky charm? Mine is a rabbit.

RK: I don't have one. I never even thought about it.

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The Comme des Garçons "Universe" Empty The Misfit | Rei Kawakubo is a Japanese avant-gardist of few words, and she changed women’s fashion.

Post by xyz on Mon Oct 06, 2014 4:12 am

The Misfit

Rei Kawakubo is a Japanese avant-gardist of few words, and she changed women’s fashion.

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Does it really matter what one wears? I sometimes think my life might have been different if I had chosen the other wedding dress. I was getting married for the second time, and until the overcast morning of the ceremony I dithered between a bland écru frock appropriate to my age and station, which I wore that once and never again, and a spooky neo-Gothic masterpiece with a swagged bustle and unravelling seams in inky crêpe de laine, which I still possess: hope and experience.

The black dress—and other strange clothes in which I feel most like myself—was designed by Rei Kawakubo. In 1981, when she brought her first collection to Paris, Kawakubo was nearly forty and preëminent in Japan but largely unknown in the West. Mugler and Versace were the harbingers of a new moment: of a giddy, truculent materialism embodied, in different guises, by Margaret Thatcher, Madonna, Princess Di, Alexis Carrington, and Jane Fonda, and by legions of newly minted executives who wore block-and-tackle power suits to the office and spandex stirrup pants to the gym. These women were tough and glitzy and on the make without apologies, and so was fashion. Then, the following year, a collection that Kawakubo called “Destroy” hit the runway. It was modelled by a cadre of dishevelled vestals in livid war paint who stomped down the catwalk to the beating of a drum, wearing the bleak and ragged uniforms of a new order. Few if any spectators were left blasé, and some went home dumbstruck with rapture, while others lobbed back at the invader what they perceived as a blast of barbarity, tagging the look “Hiroshima’s revenge.” Kawakubo has never quite lived down (she has at times played up) that show of audacity, whose fallout is still being absorbed by fashion’s young, yet which was much more Parisian than it seemed—a piece of shock theatre in the venerable tradition of “Ubu Roi” and “The Rite of Spring.”

Kawakubo works under the label Comme des Garçons (“like some boys”), though she has never wanted to be like anyone. There are few women who have exerted more influence on the history of modern fashion, and the most obvious, Chanel, is in some respects her perfect foil: the racy courtesan who invented a uniform of irreproachable chic and the gnomic shaman whose anarchic chic is a reproach to uniformity. They both started from an egalitarian premise: that a woman should derive from her clothes the ease and confidence that a man does. But Chanel formulated a few simple and lucrative principles, from which she never wavered, that changed the way women wanted to dress, while Kawakubo, who reinvents the wheel—or tries to—every season, changed the way one thinks about what dress is.

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A dress from the 2005 “Broken Bride” collection. PHOTOGRAPH BY SARAH MOON

Early Comme, as devotees winsomely call it, gave comfort to the wearer and discomfort to the beholder, particularly if he was an Average Joe with a fondness for spandex stirrup pants. Kawakubo’s silhouette had nothing to do with packaging a woman’s body for seduction. Nearly any biped with sufficient aplomb, one thought, might have modelled the clothes, though especially, perhaps, a self-possessed kangaroo, whose narrow shoulders and well-planted, large feet are a Comme des Garçons signature. The palette was monochrome, with a little ash mixed into the soot, and one hears it said that Kawakubo “invented” black—it is one of the “objective achievements” cited by the Harvard school of design when it gave her an Excellence in Design Award, in 2000. What she objectively achieved was the revival of black’s cachet as the color of refusal.

The French Old Guard, needless to say, reviled Comme des Garçons, but it immediately became popular among women of the downtown persuasion. In Kawakubo’s voluminous clothes one felt provocative yet mysterious and protected. They weren’t sized, and they weren’t conceived on a svelte fitting model, then inflated to a sixteen. Their cut had the rigor, if not the logic, of modernist architecture, but loose flaps, queer trains, and other sometimes perplexing extrusions encouraged a client of the house to improvise her own style of wearing them. Shop assistants showed one the ropes—literally. A friend of mine who included Kawakubo in a course on critical theory suggested that these “multiple open endings” were a tactic for liberating female dress from an “omniscient male narrator.”

Conventional fashion, and particularly its advertising, is a narrative genre—historical romance at one end of the spectrum and science fiction at the other, with chick lit in between—and Kawakubo doesn’t have a story line, insisting, not always plausibly, that she works in a vacuum of influence and a tradition of her own creation. “I never intended to start a revolution,” she told me last winter. “I only came to Paris with the intention of showing what I thought was strong and beautiful. It just so happened that my notion was different from everybody else’s.” Yet so many entitlements were challenged by the black regime of Comme des Garçons that it is hard not to see its commandant as a Red. The hegemony of the thin was one target, and the class system that governed fabrication was another. Kawakubo ennobled poor materials and humbled rich ones, which were sent off to be reëducated in the same work camp with elasticated synthetics and bonded polyester. She crumpled her silks like paper and baked them in the sun; boiled her woollens so that they looked nappy; faded and scrubbed her cottons; bled her dyes; and picked at her threadwork. One of the most mocked pieces from 1982 was a sublimely sorry-looking sweater cratered with holes that she called (one assumes with irony, though one can’t be sure) “Comme des Garçons lace.”

Kawakubo’s most radical challenge to the canons of Western tailoring lay in her cutting. Couturiers before her had experimented with asymmetry in the one-shouldered gown or the diagonal lapel, though they were still working from a balanced pattern with a central axis—the spine. She warped her garments like the sheet of rubber that my high-school physics teacher used to illustrate the curvature of space, and she skewed their seams or closures so that the sides no longer matched. Just because a torso has two arms, she didn’t see any reason that a jacket couldn’t have none or three, of uneven length—amputated and reattached elsewhere on its body. Among the many mutants that she has engineered are a pair of trousers spliced to a skirt; the upper half of a morning coat with a tail of sleazy pink nylon edged in black lace; and her notorious “Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress” collection, of 1997—“Quasimodo” to its detractors—which proposed a series of fetching, body-hugging pieces in stretch gingham that were deformed in unsettling places (the back, belly, and shoulders) with bulbous tumors of down. The historian and curator Valerie Steele sees “a kind of violence—even a brutalism—to Rei’s work that made most fashion of the time look innocuous and bourgeois, and from that moment an avant-garde split from the mainstream and hurtled off in its own direction.” Steele was, she adds, “an instant convert.”

Yet if Kawakubo consents to call her style “rebellious” and “aggressive” it is also intensely feminine in a bittersweet way. Her clothes suggest a kinship with a long line of fictional holy terrors: Pippi Longstocking, Cathy Earnshaw, Claudine—motherless tomboys who refused to master drawing-room manners and who, when forced into a dress, hiked up their petticoats and climbed a tree. Crushed frills are a leitmotif at Comme des Garçons, as are fraying ruffles; droopy ruffs; distressed pompoms; drab roses of wilted tulle, eyelet, crinoline, and broderie anglaise; and the round collars and polka dots that Kawakubo wore as a fauvish girl. In March, she showed a Fall-Winter collection whose theme was “The Broken Bride,” which was almost universally admired. (I doubt that she was entirely happy with the reviews—when everyone understands her, she seems to get depressed.) The models wore whiteface and antique veils anchored by floral crowns. The ensembles, despite their sovereign refinement, had an eerily familiar air of desperate, last-minute indecision. They were trimmed with passementerie that might have been salvaged from a Victorian steamer trunk in which the finery of an old-fashioned maidenhood had been abandoned along with its illusions. The show, in its melancholy romance, captured the tension between vigor and fragility which dominates most modern women’s lives, including Kawakubo’s.

Tokyo was enjoying an unseasonable warm spell when I arrived at the beginning of February, and the famous allées of cherry trees in the Aoyama cemetery had been lured into bud. In the labyrinth of paths that fret the verdant tract of incalculably expensive real estate, which is sacred to Buddhists, Shintoists, Christians, and fashion photographers, I kept running into an old man and his two whippets, all three in Hermès coats. The dogs upset the great flocks of crows—karasu—that nest in the foliage or perch insolently on the tombs and whose bitter cawing fractures the peace. A karasuwas said to be the messenger of the sun goddess, Amaterasu, Japan’s mythical progenitress, from whom the imperial family claimed descent. Through the millennia, this brazen and potent female deity hasn’t been much of a model to her countrywomen, particularly once they marry. Of the numerous characters for “wife,” the most common, okusan, means “a figure of the inner realm.”

Japanese girls still tend to sow their wild fashion oats before they settle down with a mate and disappear, if not into the shadows, into a Chanel suit. But Kawakubo started out making clothes, in the seventies, she said, for a woman “who is not swayed by what her husband thinks.” (She was then deep into her black period, and her devotees were known in Tokyo as “the crows.”) Two decades later, and shortly after her own wedding, to Adrian Joffe—a South African-born student of Asian culture ten years her junior, who is the president of Comme des Garçons International—she told an interviewer from Elle that “one’s lifestyle should not be affected by the formality of marriage.”

Kawakubo owns an apartment near the cemetery, in one of the modern towers on its perimeter, not far from her headquarters and the three stores she has in the smart Aoyama shopping district. The apartment’s precise location is a secret (very few friends and none of the longtime employees whom I met had ever crossed its threshold), and she lives alone there with her twenty-year-old cat, the last of five. Joffe, who is based in Paris, sees her, he says, at least once a month, and between collections they take a week to travel—generally choosing somewhere off the fashion radar screen, like Yemen or Romania. He is a slight, intense man who speaks five languages, including fluent Japanese, and he acts as his wife’s interpreter. Small talk—indeed any talk—is not Kawakubo’s forte. She doesn’t take invisibility to theological extremes, like Martin Margiela, fashion’s Pynchon, who is, with some of his fellow-alumni of the Antwerp School (Ann Demeulemeester, Walter van Beirendonck, Olivier Theyskens, and Raf Simons), one of her acolytes, though she rarely poses for a photograph or gives an interview anymore, and, several years ago, she stopped taking a bow after her shows. From the beginning of her career, she has insisted that the only way to know her is “through my clothes.” Her employees, including Joffe, treat her with a gingerly deference that seems to be a mixture of awe for her talent and forbearance with her moods.

Kawakubo is now sixty-two. She is the sole owner of a company with a dozen boutiques and some two hundred franchises on four continents, which manufactures twelve lines of clothing, and grosses about a hundred and fifty million dollars annually. But, despite her wealth, her only apparent major indulgence is a vintage car, a monster Mitsubishi from the nineteen-seventies, which attracts the kind of stares in Tokyo that her clothes attract in Houston. The recreations common to designers of her prestige, such as collecting villas or art and socializing with celebrities, don’t appeal to her, and the atmosphere of her office “is more monastic than commercial,” as the journalist Deyan Sudjic puts it in a monograph on her career that was published in 1990. But she recently learned to swim, and on her way to work she sometimes takes a detour through the Aoyama cemetery to feed the stray cats.

Before I met Kawakubo in Paris, Joffe and I spent a day in Berlin at a Comme des Garçons “guerrilla store,” which then occupied the former bookshop of the Brecht Museum, on a seedy block in the eastern sector of the city. It is part of an experiment in alternative retailing (inconspicuous consumption) which the company launched in 2004. There are now seven such outposts, most in Northern Europe, in cities like Helsinki and Ljubljana. Each of the stores is an ephemeral installation that opens without fanfare and closes after a year. Their decorating budgets are less than the price of some handbags at Gucci and Prada, and original fixtures, including raw cinder block and peeling wallpaper, are left as they are found. Brecht might have approved the poetic clothes and the proletarian mise en scène, if not the insurrectionary conceit. “But the word ‘guerrilla’ as Rei understands it isn’t political,” Joffe says. “It refers to a small group of like-minded spirits at odds with the majority. She’s fascinated by the Amish, for example, and the Orthodox Jews.”

Part of Joffe’s role is to help make his wife intelligible whether or not she is present, and an unease sometimes creeps into his tone: the anxiety of a parent who resents the injustice yet accepts the inevitability of having to subject an antisocial prodigy to a school interview. “Are you scared of her?” I asked him bluntly over a Wiener schnitzel at the Café Einstein. “No,” he said, “but she can be dictatorial, and I’m sometimes scared of the way she might treat people.” Kawakubo treated me with a courtly if reticent politesse, and our conversations weren’t unlike a tea ceremony: exquisitely strained. She is a tiny woman with taut cheekbones, a graying pageboy, and an aura of severity. When we were introduced in her showroom, last January, she was wearing a pair of trousers most easily described as a hybrid of a dhoti and a jodhpur, with a trim cardigan and a corsage of safety pins. Though she cultivates a reputation for being both timid and intimidating, some of her friends—among them Carla Sozzani, the Milanese retailer and gallerist, and Azzedine Alaïa, the couturier—assured me that, in private, Kawakubo can be a charming pal, congenial and even “hysterically funny.” (I duly asked her what she laughs at, and she answered deadpan, “People falling down.”) She patiently entertained the speculations with which I tried to prime her, and allowed that some of them “might be true.” “But I’m very grateful that you haven’t asked me about my ‘creative process,’ ” she said, as I was leaving one afternoon. “I couldn’t explain it to you. And, even if I could, why would I want to? Are there people who really wish to explain themselves?”

Kawakubo was born in Tokyo in 1942. She was the oldest of her parents’ three children and their only daughter. (One of her brothers works as a director in the commercial department of Comme des Garçons, and the staff refers to him as Mister, to differentiate the two siblings in conversation, because there can be only one Kawakubo-san.) Their father was an administrator at Keio University, a prestigious institution founded by the great Meiji educator and reformer Fukuzawa Yukichi, a champion of Western culture and, according to Kawakubo, of women’s rights. She admires Yukichi as an “enlightened man,” but she has never belonged to a movement, followed a religion, subscribed to an ideology, or worshipped a hero, “because for me belief means that you have to depend on somebody.”

Sudjic relates a few anodyne details about Kawakubo’s girlhood (that she bunched her socks down as a revolt against the conformity of her school uniform, for example). Her home was “comfortable,” he writes, and her family “a close one,” and she told me that her mother made all the clothes. The trauma of war and the privations that Japan suffered in its aftermath didn’t, she thought, have an appreciable effect on her. Yet however ordinary she felt her upbringing to be (“You think I’m not normal because you’re looking at the clothes,” she said to me somewhat plaintively when we met in Tokyo. “But I am. Can’t rational people create mad work?”), her biography neglects to mention that she grew up with divorced parents. Her mother was trained as an English teacher—Kawakubo understands and speaks the language better than she lets on—and when the children were of a certain age she wanted to work. Her husband disapproved, and for almost all Japanese wives of that class and era his word would have been law. Kawakubo’s mother left him, however, and got a job in a high school. “She was unlike other mothers,” Kawakubo says. “I always felt like an outsider.” But she also had a model of defiance and autonomy.

In 1960, Kawakubo enrolled in her father’s university and took a degree in “the history of aesthetics,” a major that included the study of Asian and Western art. In 1964, the year she graduated, Japan hosted the Olympics. “The postwar period of poverty, humiliation, and, until 1952, Allied occupation was finally over, and the boom years of the economic miracle had begun,” Ian Buruma writes in “Inventing Japan.” Kawakubo’s generation discovered—and in varying degrees embraced—the counterculture of the sixties. At twenty-two, with a nod toward her mother’s act of lèse-majesté, she left home “without telling my parents where I was going or what I was doing,” and moved into a shared apartment in Harajuku, which was Tokyo’s East Village and is still a mildly louche neighborhood of clubs and boutiques where pierced teens (most of them home by dinnertime) hang out wearing outré street fashions and trying to look ghetto. Kawakubo was never a druggie or a rebel, she says, “though in my head I liked the bohemian life style.” On the other hand, she went to college with “a lot of rich people—that’s who goes to élite institutions, and they are generally conservative.” She found the solidity of their lives appealing, and she considers herself to have a dual character: the right half “likes tradition and history,” the left “wants to break the rules.” Nearly every statement Kawakubo makes about herself is hedged or negated by a contradiction, and she resists being defined even by her own words. The desire to be unique and the sense of isolation that the feeling generates are a predicament common to artistic people. What makes Kawakubo’s clothes so attractive to them is precisely her genius for wrapping up the paradoxes of being a misfit and a cipher in something to wear that is magically misfitting.

Tokyo in the sixties was not yet the world’s capital of luxury consumerism. Many women still made their own clothes or patronized a local tailor, and the best-known Japanese couturier, Hanae Mori, worked in a decorous Parisian mode. Kawakubo wasn’t thinking of a fashion career: her only vocation was for a life of self-sufficiency She found a job “at the bottom of the ladder” in the advertising department of Asahi Kasei, a textile manufacturer. Her boss was sympathetic to her ambitions. He accepted her unusual refusal to wear the standard uniform of an office girl, and he allowed her some modest creative freedom in helping to scout props and costumes for photo shoots. After three years, one of her older colleagues, Atsuko Kozasu, who later became an influential fashion journalist and an early booster of Comme des Garçons, encouraged Kawakubo to go freelance as a stylist. When she couldn’t find clothes suitable for her assignments, she began to design them, and she often says that she’s grateful to have skipped fashion school or an apprenticeship because, in the end, even if she can’t sew or cut a pattern, she had no preconceptions to unlearn, and no master to outgrow.

By 1969, Kawakubo’s work as a stylist had become a sideline that helped finance the production of the youthful sportswear that she sold through trend-setting shops like Belle Boudoir, in the Ginza, whose communal fitting room—“just like a London boutique”—impressed her. She rented office space in a graphic-arts studio and hired a few assistants. Tsubomi Tanaka, who is Comme des Garçons’ chief of production, has been with her almost from the beginning. Tanaka was then a country girl who had left home to work in a Harajuku shop and, she says, “do my own thing,” and she first noticed Kawakubo on the street. “Even in those days, she had an aura,” Tanaka says, “and I asked a friend if she knew her name, because I wanted to meet her.”

Sudjic writes, “Kawakubo’s experiences as a stylist had taught her the importance of creating a coherent identity”—a philosophy of design that is followed as strictly in the company’s Christmas cards as it is in the flagship stores. But the styling of that signature is a collaborative effort that demands an almost cultish attunement among the participants, and it is one of the paradoxes of Comme des Garçons that a designer obsessed with singularity and an entrepreneur allergic to beholdenness have spun such an elaborate web of dependence. In the workplace, Kawakubo’s laconic detachment—the refusal to explain herself—forces her employees, particularly the pattern cutters, to look inward, rather than to her, for a revelation of the all-important “something new.” Tanaka says, “The work is very hard, and I have to delve deep into my own understanding because her words are so few. But there’s always some give to the tautness. And I’m still moved by the collections. That’s why I’ve been here for so long.”

Comme des Garçons’ chief patterner, Yoneko Kikuchi, a thirty-year veteran of the firm, describes the arduous, if not mildly perverse, esoteric groping in the dark through which a collection comes into focus. It begins with a vision, or perhaps just an intuition, about a key garment that Kawakubo hints at with a sort of koan. She gives the patterners a set of clues that might take the form of a scribble, a crumpled piece of paper, or an enigmatic phrase such as “inside-out pillowcase,” which they translate, as best they can, into a muslin—the three-dimensional blueprint of a garment. Their first drafts are inevitably too concrete. “She always asks us to break down the literalness,” Kikuchi says. The quest proceeds behind closed doors, like a papal election, and successive meditations on the koan produce more or less adequate results. The staff calls the process by a deceptively playful English word, “catchball,” though as the deadline for a collection approaches, and Kawakubo is still dissatisfied, the “anguish and anger” mount in the cutting room. “We all want to please her,” Kikuchi explains, “and it’s sometimes hard for patterners who have come from other companies, because they just want you to tell them how wide the collar is supposed to be. But you can’t teach people to let go, and some end up leaving.” (“They make it sound more interesting than it is,” Kawakubo says, dryly. “The ideas aren’t as abstract as they used to be.”)

The business flourished, and was incorporated in 1973. By 1980, Comme des Garçons had a hundred and fifty franchised shops across Japan, eighty employees, and annual revenues of thirty million dollars. Fans of the house had none of the designer’s scruples about hero worship: they went on camping weekends together organized by the franchisees, and there was talk of a Comme des Garçons restaurant where the faithful could meet. The clothes they loved were inspired by the loose and rustic garb of Japanese fishermen and peasants. When I asked Kawakubo what those early designs looked like (she hasn’t kept many pictures in her archives), she answered after a long, perhaps embarrassed, pause, “Denim apron skirt. Very popular. I made different versions of it.” Their chicest detail may have been the Comme des Garçons label, typeset in a font created by Kawakubo, with a star for the cedilla, which hasn’t changed. It isn’t obvious how she made her evolutionary leap, but it occurred in the early eighties, when she abandoned representational fashion and introduced the notion of clothing as wearable abstraction.

Most people naturally assume that Comme des Garçons is not just a logo but a slogan, and when Kawakubo was still giving interviews she compared her work with menswear, in its ideals of comfort and discretion, although she has denied that there was any message to the three words: she had just liked their French lilt. They mean what they mean, however, and there are few women who personify the ideals of seventies feminism with greater fidelity. The phrase comes, with a slight tweak, from the refrain of a pop song, by Françoise Hardy, in which a wistful teen-age girl enviously watches happy couples walking “hand in hand” and wonders if the day will come when—“comme les garçons et les filles de mon age”—she will find someone to love her. One may have such yearnings at any age, and Kawakubo was into her thirties when she met the love of her youth, Yohji Yamamoto. There was something pharaonic about their glamour as a couple, that of two regal and feline siblings with a priestly aura, and they shared the regency of a new generation in Japanese design. Both are alumni of Keio University (Yamamoto was two years behind her) and children of enterprising single mothers—his a widow who owned a dress shop. Yet, as the eloquent idiosyncrasy of their work suggests, a match between equals is rarely a balanced pattern whose cuts and edges align.

Like Kawakubo, Yamamoto is an anomaly in the fashion world on a number of counts, his proclivities among them. He married young and fathered two children. A different union produced a third child six years ago. For some years in between, he and Kawakubo were “travelling companions,” as Kiyokazu Washida coyly puts it in an essay he contributed to Yamamoto’s book, “Talking to Myself,” a sumptuous pictorial chronicle of the designer’s career which was published in 2002. Malcolm McLaren remembers Kawakubo and Yamamoto as a petite, stylish couple of “excellent customers” (he didn’t yet know they were designers) who, in the seventies, turned up at Sex, the mother of all guerrilla shops, an outpost of seditionary music and fashion that he and his partner, Vivienne Westwood, had opened at World’s End, in London. (Decades later, Westwood told Kawakubo that she considered her a “punk at heart.”) They made their Paris débuts the same year, and were invariably linked, or lumped, together as part of an emerging Tokyo school that was challenging the conventions of Western couture, and of which Issey Miyake was the doyen. Kawakubo bridled at the group portraits. “I’m not very happy to be classified as another Japanese designer,” she told Women’s Wear Daily in 1983. “There is no one characteristic that all Japanese designers have.”
Yamamoto was unavailable for an interview, but his friend and associate Irène Silvagni, a former fashion journalist, speaks of “the enormous competition between Rei and Yohji that she, I think, needed and thrived on.” As far as Silvagni knows, they never collaborated, but “they both wanted to break the rules, and Yohji likes to say that ‘perfection is the devil,’ which I think is true for Rei. Japanese temples were always left unfinished for that reason.” It is her perception that “they admire each other deeply, but there’s a lot of baggage between them.” She referred me to the baggage depot at the end of “Talking to Myself,” in which Yamamoto sets down some fragmentary aperçus on a variety of existential subjects, including alcohol, gambling, insomnia, and women. “I’m always assuming that if she’s my girlfriend she won’t create a scandal,” he writes of a nameless consort. “I’m sure of this even if it’s unfounded.”

The relationship ended in the early nineties. When a childless single woman nearing fifty suddenly starts to do her best work, she often has a broken heart. Joffe had joined Comme des Garçons in 1987, and on July 4, 1992, he and Kawakubo were married at the city hall in Paris. The bride wore a black skirt and a plain white shirt. That winter, she showed a hauntingly lovely collection that is still a favorite. It was composed of ethereal chiffon layers yoked to cone-shaped knitted turtlenecks that masked the face from the nose down, worn over flowing shifts with sorcerer’s sleeves. Their color was nightshade, and their inspiration the myth of Lilith—a female demon of Jewish folklore, whom God created of “filth and sediment” when Adam, like the girl in the Hardy song, complained that he was the only creature on the planet without a mate. In Robert Graves’s version, Adam and his first wife “never found peace together,” because she rebelled at “the recumbent posture he demanded.” When he “tried to compel her obedience by force, Lilith, in a rage . . . rose into the air and left him.” So much for girlfriends who don’t create scandals.

Lilith’s heretical divorce was a juncture for Kawakubo, too. She was tiring of black (but she tires of anything once it catches on, and being avant-garde, she said recently, has become a cliché). She began to play with the opulent fabrics she had once disdained: damask, brocade, and velvet; with brilliant, sometimes lurid colors; and even with the staples of drag and bimbohood—sheer lingerie (worn with winkle pickers) and campy bustiers (layered over bulky topcoats). For commercial reasons, she says, she started sizing the clothes and narrowing the gap between dress and body. She edited the guest lists for her shows to a sympathetic coterie of editors and buyers, in part, as Amy Spindler wrote in theTimes, because “multiplying the attendance figures . . . only serves to increase the number of people who don’t get it.” But Spindler also noted that Kawakubo “typically throws a bone to those who still believe clothes are for wearing outside fashion focus groups without being gawked at.” Her easier-to-wear subsidiary lines, particularly Robe de Chambre (now called Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons)—a microcosm of her own wardrobe—streamline the runway concepts to reach a broader public. “I’m not an artist, I’m a businesswoman,” Kawakubo says. “Well, maybe an artist/businesswoman.”

Despite the relative accessibility of “The Broken Bride,” Kawakubo denies vehemently that she has mellowed (“I am still as aggressive as I’ve always been”), and every few years she reasserts her militance by exploding another bomb on the Paris stage. In 1995, the presentation of her menswear collection, which included a series of baggy striped pajamas reminiscent to some critics of the prison uniforms at Auschwitz, happened to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the camp’s liberation. Kawakubo apologized for any offense she might, unintentionally, have given, and Jewish organizations who reviewed the videos were satisfied that no sacrilege had been committed. But she was perfectly conscious of the storm she conjured two seasons later with “Dress Meets Body.” (Her own staff loved the sexy and salable silhouette, but there were worries about its bulges, and Kawakubo ultimately decided to make the troubling wads removable, though she wore them herself, and adapted them as costumes for a dance by Merce Cunningham. On perfect bodies in motion, they transcend their morbidity.) The collection was inspired, Joffe says, “by Rei’s anger at seeing a Gap window filled with banal black clothes.” Kawakubo concedes, with an ambiguous grimace that might just be a grin, “I may have been especially angry at the time, but I’m more or less always angry anyway.”

Early one morning in Paris, the cobblestones of the Place Vendôme were varnished by a drizzle, and a row of limousines idled in front of the Ritz, waiting for clients in town for the menswear shows. The couture had just finished, and, in the terribly chic restaurants where fashion people eat their tiny portions of mediocre food, they were complaining that the couture wasfinished. Only eight designers had bothered to mount a show, and there was a sense that a once festive, feudal tournament of virtuosity had become a Renaissance fair with demonstrations of spinning and horseshoeing in period costume. But no one had informed Armani, a couture débutant. In Le Figaro, he discoursed with a quaint gravity on les tendances de la mode and affirmed his belief in “simplified lines that are easy to understand,” because “true success means pleasing everyone”—a succinct résumé of everything in fashion that Kawakubo doesn’t stand for, in both senses.

Across the square, in a narrow courtyard adjacent to the showroom of Comme des Garçons, the company’s Paris staff, joined by a contingent from the Aoyama headquarters, who were groggy with jet lag, assembled for the morning salutation—a monastic ritual of solidarity performed daily in Tokyo. They formed a circle, shivering a little, and waited in silence for Kawakubo. Her protégé Junya Watanabe, who has a wrestler’s physique and a cherub’s face, squeezed in near Mister, who looked, in his business suit, a little like the hired mourner at a rocker’s funeral. Joffe was surprised at his wife’s delay (“She’s a stickler for punctuality”), but she arrived at her habitual gait—the anxious scuttle of a sparrow with a broken wing—and took her place.
Kawakubo was sporting her favorite accessory: a dour expression. A collection, she says, is never not “an exercise in suffering,” and she “starts from zero every time,” destitute of confidence. It is ironic to her, she said at our last meeting in Tokyo, that a career she undertook “with one objective: to be free as a woman,” has become a Spartan life of self-imposed servitude. But sympathy and compliments both annoy her, perhaps because they rub salt into the incurable and necessary wound of her discontent. The only consolation she can imagine “is an hour to spend with animals.”

When she wants to, however, Kawakubo smiles through her clothes. That morning, she had chosen a black sweater strategically appliquéd with two white circles and a triangle that one could read either as a face or two breasts and a pubis, and which was meant as an homage to Rudi Gernreich’s bikini and its muse, Peggy Moffitt. On her way to the rehearsal of her menswear defile, Kawakubo threw on one of her cheeky biker jackets from Spring, 2005: a crudely sutured leather blouson bred to an unbroken-in catcher’s mitt, then taught some charm by a vintage couture bolero with a standaway collar. “Balenciaga on steroids,” as an assistant put it.

Cristobal Balenciaga, who died in 1972, was a chivalric holdout from a courtlier age whose passing he lamented. If anyone “invented” black, he did. The ecclesiastic lines of his sculptural couture liberated women from the tyranny of the wasp-waisted New Look, and later from the ruthlessness of the miniskirt. His clients were the kind of grandes bourgeoises at whom Parisian spectacles of shock theatre have always been aimed, but Balenciaga himself might have recognized Kawakubo as a kindred spirit. They are both idealists whose work devoutly affirms that it matters what one wears—something pure in its distinction—and in that sense they have a common ancestor. He was an aging and spindly Spanish samurai who, like Kawakubo in her faintly obscene trompe-l’oeil bikini, was never afraid to cut an absurd yet heroic figure in a cynical world: the ridiculous made sublime.♦

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