Master Class: Comme des Garçons
Master Class: Comme des Garçons
- Words Rocky Li
- Date October 27, 2016
Comme des Garçons is an enigmatic force in the fashion world. Japanese designer and founder Rei Kawakubo has independently orchestrated the label's rise since its beginning in 1969. The success of Comme des Garçons is defined by Kawakubo's ability to challenge convention, not only through design, but also in the way she approaches the business of fashion.
She will soon become the second living designer—after Yves Saint Laurent in 1983—to be honored at the Met Gala with a solo exhibition at the Anna Wintour Costume Institute in 2017.
The Beginnings of Comme
Like many great designers, Rei Kawakubo had no formal training in fashion design. Instead, she studied art and literature at Keio University. In 1964 Japan, the post-war period had finally ended and with it came the beginning of new prosperity. Young people in Japan were participating in the youth culture of the '60s, which focused heavily on rebellion and counter culture. Kawakubo found herself in the middle of the bohemians and the elite; contradiction continues to be an ongoing theme in her collections to this day. She took her first job working in the advertising department at a textiles factory were she sometimes would style props or costumes for photoshoots. At the encouragement of her coworkers, she left the company to becomes a freelance stylist, often making her own clothing when she couldn't find the right piece for a shoot.
In 1969 she began making clothes under the label Comme des Garçons—whose typeface logo was designed by Kawakubo—with the assistance of a small team, including Tsunami Tanaka, now chief of production. The company became incorporated in 1973 supported by growing popularity amongst Japanese consumers. Notoriety quickly followed and an Aoyama boutique opened the same year, which is still Kawakubo's home base to this day. It’s windows were often kept empty with the merchandise displayed towards the back of the store. The boutique intentionally had no mirrors to emphasize the notion that one should buy clothes because of how they make you feel, not how they make you look. The clothing was predominantly rustic, based on the traditional dress of Japanese fisherman and peasants. For the remainder of the decade, Kawakubo worked to refine her aesthetic and build her company with menswear added to the roster in 1978.
Comme des Garçons made huge strides as a global brand when they presented their first show in Paris in 1981. The ground-breaking collection of all black, loose-fitting, asymmetrical clothing that was torn and had the look of rags received a controversial reception. Not everyone in the fashion establishment was ready for Kawakubo's unconventional approach to design. In the early '80s, the immaculate work of the French couture houses was considered the epitome of fashion: high-glamour looks like those worn by the actresses of Dallas and designed by Versace, Donna Karan and Thierry Mugler were what a modern woman of good taste would choose to wear. Comme des Garçons presented a collection in direct opposition of the ascetics of the time, and challenged the notion that clothes were intended for the sole purpose of making the wearer look attractive. Kawakubo's unfinished seams and asymmetrical cuts were deemed absurd. Critics derided her coats, dark palette and distressed fabrics as "post-atomic" and "Hiroshima chic." Kawakubo responded to to the criticism personally:
"Although I never went hungry I remember well the extreme poverty and devastation of those times. But this had no bearing on my work whatsoever. These critics had it all wrong. Being born in Japan was an accident. There is no direct correlation to my work. Growing up in postwar Japan has made me the person I am, but it is not why I do the work I do. It is a very personal thing – everything comes from inside."
The Comme des Garçons Aesthetic
Unlike most fashion designers of her time, Kawakubo looked to unlikely sources for inspiration. While other designers were cutting and draping their silhouettes, Kawakubo was slashing and shredding and twisting and sculpting hers. Soon, the label had become infamous in Japan to the point where her devoted followers, dressed head-to-toe in the label, were dubbed "The Crows" in the Japanese press. Despite Kawakubo's obsession with misfits and independence, she had developed a deeply loyal, unwavering fanbase. In everything she created, she challenged the notion that fashion was meant to to be beautiful. The clothes she created focused on personal expression and feeling. Her colors of choice were shades of black and the clothes themselves were simultaneously whimsical and gothic. Comme des Garçons had introduced the idea of clothing as wearable art rather than fashion.
Fashion would continue to move forward and Kawkubo continued to reinvent what defined the way women dressed, further experimenting with color, textiles and shape. In her Spring/Summer 1997 collection, "Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body," widely referred to as the "lumps and bumps" collection, she created deformed silhouettes with padded lumps placed on models' backs, shoulders and hips. "The feeling was to design the body," she said. She also worked with dancer Merce Cunningham the same year to make similar costumes for "Scenario," which altered the movements of the performers as well as their perception of their bodies. "The Broken Bride," another legendary runway show, debuted in 2005 with hauntingly sad models dressed in neo-Victorian details, antique lace and paper flowers. It was met by an emotional, seven minute standing ovation. Her 2012 collection, "White Drama," seemed to be a further iteration on the theme with models appearing to be imprisoned by sateen cages as white bows and gowns that obscured their face and arms.
Bringing Up Talent
Kawakubo has described her design process as "starting from zero" and "an exercise in suffering," admitting that, "For me, I haven't succeeded in any way whatsoever. Every time before a collection, I say, 'I don't want it to come out. I want to cancel it. It's not good. I haven't achieved anything.'" It begins with a one word vision or intuition of something she's never seen before, and she will give the design team clues about the garment to work around. Sometimes, clues may be something tangible like a crumpled piece of paper, or a phrase like "inside-out pillowcase," which is then translated as best they can into fabric. Ultimately, the first designs are often too literal or obvious and Kawakubo will continue to break them down. There are no fittings, instead Kawakubo tries to get her team to work on flat surfaces like sculptors and disregard the body. Many pattern makers find the work to be too obtuse to be successful, but others have reaped the benefits of staying the course. Kawakubo has nurtured a great number of proteges from her team and allowed them to develop labels of their own under the Comme des Garçons umbrella. Junya Watanabe, an ex-pattern cutter, has has come into his own as a visionary designer with his namesake label showing in Paris for both men's and women's fashion weeks. Tao Kurihara, Fumito Ganryu and Kei Ninomiya are all design team members now with their own labels within the Comme des Garçons brand.
Kawakubo is often cited as an inspiration to countless other designers who did not have the privilege of working directly under her wing. The clothing of the Antwerp six, Japanese streetwear or any label making a claim to the avant grade aesthetic can trace its roots back to the revolutionary ideas that Comme des Garçons has birthed.
Comme des Garçon's retail footprint can only be described as an empire. With 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 $250 million.
In addition to flagship Comme des Garçons stores, there have been other retail concepts that have flourished as well. The Dover Street Market concept was inspired by London's now defunct Kensington Market, showcasing seemingly unrelated brands side-by-side in the way one market stall is not informed by its neighboring vendors. The stores offer an unusual blend of products by both Comme des Garçons and other brands, often providing a space for brands to be more experimental than what is expected of them within their own retail locations. Since opening the original DSM in London over ten years ago, Dover Street Market has since added additional locations in Tokyo, Beijing (in partnership with I.T) and New York. The now defunct series of Guerrilla pop-up stores, were among the founding fathers—along with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's shop Sex—in temporary concept shops, appearing in unlikely cities, such as Berlin or Warsaw, for a limited time period of up to a year.
Comme des Garçons not only revolutionized immersive shopping experiences through its unconditional retail environments, but was an important pioneer in designer collaborations and cross-marketing which was not so common until the later 2000s. Comme des Garçons has collaborated with hundreds of designers, brands and artists, including Nike, Undercover, Hermes, Speedo, Barbie, Ai Wei Wei and Cindy Sherman to name just a few. In 2008, fast-fashion giant H&M announced an unlikely partnership with Comme des Garçons. The resulting capsule collection held within it a full assortment of men's and women's clothing, accessories and even a fragrance. It was one of the first major fashion collaborations that H&M executed and it helped raise the profile of Comme des Garçons to a new worldwide audience that may have not been familiar with the Japanese label prior to the collaboration.
Comme des Garçons Parfums
Fragrance is the most profitable and perhaps mostly widely distributed line with in Comme des Garçons. In 2002, the company entered into a partial licensing agreement with Barcelona-based fragrance specialist Puig. Comme des Garçons CEO, president and Kawakubo's husband, Adrian Joffe, described the agreement this way: "We do the perfumes, we do the boxes and Rei Kawakubo does all the graphics, and they produce it and sell it only to fragrance stores." With expanded offerings coming as a result of collaborations with everyone from Pharrell to Monocle, the fragrance line itself boasts annual revenues of over 5 million Euros a year.
Comme des Garçons Parfums, as the line is called, is known for their conceptual packaging and notes, and have been highly regarded for their innovation. The first scent, Eau de Parfum (technically unnamed) was originally released in 1994 and is considered by many fans to be the company's finest. The scent came through the result of a collaboration with veteran perfumer Mark Buxton, resulting in a blend of Labdanum, Styrax, Cedarwood, Cardamon, Cinnamon, Black Pepper, Honey, Rose, Cloves, Nutmeg, Incense, and Sandalwood housed in a pebble shaped bottle that lays flat. The tagline for the original Parfum was "works like a medicine, behaves like a drug."
Since then, Comme des Garçons has released scents that have been even more radical. In 1998, they set out to make a scent that strayed away from traditional notes. The result was Oduer 53, which features 53 synthetic notes that include oxygen, flash of metal, fire energy, mineral carbon, sand dunes, nail polish, cellulose, pure air of the high mountains, ultimate fusion, burnt rubber and flaming rock.
Odeur 71 pushed the concept even further with the idea of anti-perfume. The notes are inspired by dust on a hot lightbulb, bamboo, metal, electricity and lettuce juice. Further experimentation and variations continued with multiple series of fragrances based around synthetics, incense and sherbert. The fragrance 8 88 lists its inspiration/scent as simply "gold." The namesake fragrance, Comme des Garçons, released in 2011, was an unexpected mix of synthetic and natural notes in a wilted glass bottle reminiscent of a factory reject and posed the question: "What qualifies anything for the right to exist? Who has the right to decide what should be rejected?"
At the age of 74, Kawakubo shows little signs of slowing down. Her company is still firing on all cylinders, toeing the line between growing the business and continuing to defy convention. As the fashion world consolidates under major players like Kering Group and LVHM, Comme des Garçons remains fiercely independent. The lines under the Comme umbrella are increasingly diverse, reaching an even broader audience. For example, "recession brand" CdG Black, which launched in 2009 using budget friendly existing patterns from past collections, putting prices 40% lower than main collection, or Russian streetwear brand Gosha Rubchinskiy, which appeals to a more trend driven youth culture. At this point, the breadth of the Comme des Garçons brand extends far past Kawakubo's designs, yet her influence is felt in every move the company makes. As Kawakubo once told Interview in one of her rare press appearances: "Comme des Garçons has always traveled at its own pace and will continue to do so. In good times and bad times the company is more or less the same."