Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons

An Enigma, By Design

Given fashion’s cyclical nature, you can almost predict what a designer will send down the runway each season. From McQueen and Galliano you expect drama, nothing short of a performance, complete with pieces that wouldn’t look out of place in a museum. For Donatella Versace and Dolce & Gabbana, it’s about sex and using it to empower women, while people such as Nicolas Ghesquiere, at Balenciaga, are always looking forward by creating something modern from the past.

Rei Kawakubo, however, is different. Attending one of her shows is a bit like going on a blind date; it’s almost always surprising. From her first show in Paris, in 1981, where she shocked editors with her haphazard silhouettes and all-black palette, to her most recent collection, dedicated to “bad taste”, with trashy 1950s net petticoats and puffballs of tulle, Kawakubo, the founder of Comme des Garcons, is “beyond” fashion. In fact, you could say she is fashion, with an influence that extends to almost every other designer.

“Everyone is influenced by Comme des Garcons,” Marc Jacobs told Women’s Wear Daily recently. “Anybody who is aware of what life is in a contemporary world is influenced [by the brand].”

Kawakubo is as elusive as she is talented. She rarely gives interviews and, if she does, journalists find it hard to break through her stony exterior and decipher her short answers.

“She simply has always preferred that her work does the talking,” says her husband and the president of Comme des Garcons International, Adrian Joffe, by way of explanation. “Comme des Garcons is not about personality.”

We meet in a little, dark cafe in Beijing’s 798 art zone, which has been booked by the Comme des Garcons team for a private event. The designer is huddled in a corner with her communications team, deep in conversation. She stands up and greets me with a polite nod, her blunt black bob framing her face. She is reminiscent of Edna Mode, the pint-sized, super-talented costume designer in animated film The Incredibles, minus the flamboyance and “dahlings”. She is wearing a striped blue shirt, cropped black harem pants and a larger-than-life scarf wound around her neck.

Her entourage stays close by as she sits back with arms folded across her chest, listening distractedly, avoiding eye contact. She answers in Japanese so it’s her husband who does most of the talking, translating her answers and explaining my questions.

“There’s been a huge change in the city,” says Kawakubo, who hadn’t been to the mainland for three decades prior to last year. “I like the big buildings, the scale and the broad avenues. The only thing I regret about modern Beijing is the fact they haven’t kept anything of the old, the authentic parts, the history. It would have been nice to have both.

“Of course, the real reason we are here is because we are about to start business in China. We only just opened a corner in [shopping mall] Seasons Place, and because of the timing, we decided to host [an exhibition] in order to explain the spirit of Comme des Garcons; the way it thinks, the values. I want the Chinese people to understand and know what Comme des Garcons means,” Joffe translates for his wife, presumably embellishing her significantly shorter response.

The Comme des Garcons team has come to Beijing to open Printed Matter, the brand’s first exhibition on the mainland. It is being presented in partnership with distributor and retailer I.T. The exhibition has been designed and conceptualised by Kawakubo and consists of seven rooms devoted to printed matter Comme des Garcons has produced and used in its 40-year history. This includes corporate advertising images and those used on T-shirts and greeting cards, as well as works by fashion photographers such as Peter Lindberg and Paolo Roversi. One of the largest parts of the exhibit is a room devoted to the work of an Argentinean group called Mondongo, whose graphics Kawakubo has chosen for all the company’s images this year.

“The creation of Comme des Garcons, the work of Comme des Garcons, isn’t only clothes,” she says. “I created the company to have different ways of creation; one is the clothes while printed matter is another. There are many elements to it. Instead of putting clothes on mannequins as a part of expressing the Comme des Garcons’ way of thinking, I thought printed matter [press releases, flyers, printed advertisements] was the best way to educate. It’s the first public exhibit we have done. We actually use these types of exhibitions [behind closed doors] as a way of staff education.”

Printed Matter provides some insight into the mind of Kawakubo. Through it you can see the designer’s constant need to explore and develop artistic ways to express her vision.

“I wanted to create my own business and be independent, but above all what I wanted to say is that there’s an alternative way; you don’t have to be like everyone else,” says Kawakubo. “I believe Comme des Garcons is a company that believes in creation and to wear its clothes is a way to express one’s individuality. I want more and more people to understand that there are alternative ways of being and expressing yourself. The spirit of Comme des Garcons is a means of expression for anybody. It’s not about buying the clothing but knowing that there is an alternative,” she says – or a few words to that effect.

This philosophy perhaps explains why Comme des Garcons appeals to individuals who wish to stand out from the pack, such as artists.

Her clothes raise eyebrows. Take, for example, her Persona collection, based on the different ways we present ourselves to the world. It included tailored menswear combined with feminine elements such as corsets and floral dress fabrics. Then there was the collection popularly known as Lumps and Bumps, in 1996, which showed dresses with huge bulges made from basketball-sized pads. The deformities were her way of exploring volume and space, and distinguishing the actual from the natural. These and the many others that have followed have not necessarily been aesthetically pleasing but they challenge traditional notions of fashion.

“[They’re] more than often not from the outside, [but] from the inside,” she says of her ideas. “I know that each time I want to do something that I haven’t done before, I have to start from inside my head to get a theme or concept. This is 65 per cent of the work. Afterwards it’s how to do it and what materials to use and how to express the theme. It’s about how I am feeling about things at the time – it’s about emotions and sensibility, what’s happening in the world and what’s happening inside me, and what’s new to me. It’s almost like an accident, no one particular thing each time. It’s more internal and more intuition.”

Kawakubo works independently, in solitude and is extremely secretive. Reports say her headquarters in Tokyo are as secure as Fort Knox and she insists on controlling every aspect of the company, from photography and the store interiors to catalogues and the runway shows. Few designers in the industry do as much.

“It’s hard to say why I need to oversee everything. For me, it goes without saying, it goes hand in hand. If I am making something, I have to make it from beginning to the end. For me, it’s almost unbelievable that everybody doesn’t do it the same way. It’s almost nonsense. For me, if I have an idea, I have to see it through to the end. I would never give [the brand] away or sell it.”

Such unwavering vision has steered Comme des Garcons to become one of the industry’s strongest multibrand companies. In 1992, Kawakubo gave Junya Watanabe, one of her pattern makers, a label of his own. She has since added Tao by Tao Kurihara and a youth-oriented label called Ganryu to the stable. According to a recent report in The New York Times, the side ventures account for 22 per cent of the company’s annual sales.

“It wasn’t a decision in the beginning [to set up a huge conglomerate]. Of course, there has to be progress and development in any company, and it was just natural. It was a business decision, a decision to grow the company.

“I chose Junya basically on my intuition. The same with Tao – I knew they could do it. It’s natural and it’s important for them to share their values; the fact they had been working for Comme des Garcons didn’t mean that necessarily they did. I wanted them to make their own expression while sharing the values of the company.”

Also on her plate are two collaborations this year that Joffe says are ways of “balancing business and creation, and appealing to a new range of people”. The first is with high street chain H&M, for which Kawakubo is designing a capsule collection that will include 17 pieces of clothing for men and women, as well as perfumes. Joffe says each piece will contain the Comme des Garcons “DNA”, from polka dots to the use of unusual fabrics such as boiled wool. It will go on sale worldwide, including in Hong Kong, on November 13.

The second, and more hyped project, is a joint venture with French luxury label Louis Vuitton. Kawakubo has designed six bags for the brand that will be sold at a joint-venture “pop up” store in Tokyo.

“For me, [both are] just an event,” she says brusquely. “Louis Vuitton, H&M, they are not long-term collaborations; they just promote my label. I’m asked if people will understand the philosophy since we are appealing to a mass market but no compromise has been made, just because we are making a lot of items and it’s a bit different, it doesn’t mean that it’s changing our vision. It’s not really a big deal. But, of course, the more people that understand what I am doing, the better,” she says – although that last statement would ring a little truer if she were to open up a little more to this reporter.

Also on the cards are a host of pocket stores, which will open in areas of Paris such as Montmartre and the Marais in September, selling small items such as perfumes, wallets and other leather goods. For China, she is developing a retail concept – a kind of multilabel Dover Street Market-plus boutique – together with I.T that will open next year.

“I can’t tell you the concrete plan but we are concentrating on China. We’ll never stop thinking of new ways to express the brand or the values of Comme des Garcons, whether it’s a collection or exhibition, or retail concept,” she says. Well, perhaps not “never”.

“The company will continue, but the [Comme des Garcons] label will stop when I stop,” the designer says.

“After all, no one else can do it,” adds Joffe.

As published in the SCMP