Photo from theguardian.com
Four times a year, the Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo flies to Paris from Tokyo to show her men’s and women’s Comme des Garçons collections. In June this year she was in town for men’s fashion week, which was staged in a dilapidated mansion at 7 rue Meyerbeer. She never takes a bow at the finale. In fact she rarely gives interviews and hasn’t been professionally photographed since 2005. While she avoids publicity, she does meet the buyers who come to order from the collection each season. So we meet at the Comme des Garçons showroom at Place Vendôme, where she paces calmly, dressed in her trademark black, while staff in military-inspired garb accessorised with polka-dot shoes buzz around her.
Eleven mannequins, lined up like Qin Shi Huang’s terracotta army, display her most recent Comme des Garçons Homme Plus menswear collection, Broken Tailoring. They are adorned with neon-yellow hairpieces by stylist Julien d’Ys. The clothes include a tailored men’s blazer with a motif of golfers ripped three-quarters of the way down the back and paired with unfitted shorts. There’s a horizontally pinstriped tailored jacket obfuscated with metal buttons, shown with trousers which have one leg shorter than the other. Another pinstriped blazer has a ripped back and elbows so the shirt underneath shows through.
“The primary objective of this collection is not specifically for kids to wear the clothes as streetwear, but to comment on the current state of menswear, which is easy, casual and based on sports. I see the collection as an addition to the discussion on menswear,” explains Kawakubo, “where tailoring is broken down to add value to it. I want to show people that tailoring has value, which I don’t see any more in men’s fashion.”
We head to her office at the back of the showroom with her husband, Adrian Joffe, who is president of Comme des Garçons International and also acts as her translator. The glass-walled office is elevated so you can look down on the showroom, the universe Kawakubo has created. Her influence is such that it’s fair to say she has forever changed the way clothes are viewed, worn and bought. Usually when a designer challenges everyday ideas as radically as Kawakubo, it’s a commercial liability. But she is as much a businesswoman as she is a creative. “The first thing you need in order to make a business viable is to preserve a cash flow. I made sure I didn’t have any financial backing or support,” says Kawakubo. “I was always very careful to work within my means – I never departed from that. I was adamant to never carry debt.”
The brand has 230 storefronts and franchise outlets outside Japan, 17 unique brands under the Comme des Garçons brand, three flagship locations in New York, Paris and Tokyo, and an annual turnover of $250m. She has a fervent fanbase, not only among customers but also other designers. Karl Lagerfeld, Nicolas Ghesquière, creative director of Louis Vuitton, and Céline creative director Phoebe Philo are fans, as is Marc Jacobs, who wears her skirts for men. Jacobs has said he likes Kawakubo’s clothes because “it’s not about dressing for other people. It’s not about buying clothes to attract or seduce. It feels like a gift you’re giving yourself.”
For someone who has such singular ideas, Kawakubo has excelled at collaborating and diversifying over the years. She has nurtured the talent of her protégés, allowing them to develop labels of their own. Since his debut in 1992, her ex-pattern cutter Junya Watanabe has become one of the fashion world’s most innovative and influential designers. And in 2012 she launched a new collection by another of her former pattern cutters, Kei Ninomiya, called Noir Kei Ninomiya.
In 2009, Kawakubo even released a one-off bag collection called The Beatles Comme des Garçons in collaboration with Apple Corporation. She has collaborated with Mick Jagger, Cindy Sherman and Ai WeiWei. Last year she teamed up with Pharrell Williams to create the scent Girl. “Although I do not believe in fame,” she says, “what it brings me is the fact that I can ask someone to work with me and they do not say no.” Her fragrance business, begun in 1994, is booming.
‘There is no difference between creation and business’: Rei Kawakubo’s Broken Tailoring collection, with hairpieces by Julien d’Ys. Photograph: Emily Lemb / theguardian.com