Comme des Garçons - A Brand with Many Faces
What do punks have to do with the 18th century? At first, it might seem like nothing at all, but when you enter the world of Comme des Garçons, you will quickly understand how the two are connected.
After all, in the fall collection of 2016, these were the inspirations for designer and managing director of CdG, Rei Kawakubo. High-quality materials and articles from the 18th century such as wigs and corsets were combined with pink bondage straps and flower-embroidered upholstery fabrics in this collection.
This is Rei's understanding of prêt-à-porter, and with this in mind, she has been redefining what it means to create fashion every season with Comme des Garçons for decades.
What is Comme des Garçons?
In contrast to the French-sounding name, Comme des Garçons is in fact a Japanese fashion brand that makes mostly prêt-à-porter clothing. The label was founded in 1969 by Rei Kawakubo and is now run by her husband Adrian Joffe.
The French name means "like boys" in English, and one might suspect that it has a deeper meaning to it. In fact, "Comme des Garçons" is derived from a 1962 French song by the artist Francoise Hardy entitled, "Tous Les Garçons et Les Filles".
There is a line in it that says, "Comme les garçons et les filles de mon âge", which provided Rei Kawakubo with the necessary inspiration behind the name seven years later.
In all those 50 years since CdG has been around, the brand has grown a lot and many things have happened, so here is a simplified outline just for you.
A Short Chronological Overview of Comme des Garçons
Rei Kawakubo began producing fashion in 1969 under the label Comme des Garçons and registered the company in 1973 under the name Comme des Garçons. In 1976, she opened the first Comme des Garçons store in Tokyo, Japan. Initially, she only produced clothing for women, but in 1978, she introduced Comme des Garçons Homme, a menswear line.
In 1981, the time came for Comme des Garçons to have its very first show in Paris. This was then followed by Comme des Garçons Homme Plus in 1984 and Comme des Garçons Noir in 1987. And, in the same year, Adrian Joffe joined the company as Commercial Director for Operations in Europe. In 1988, Comme des Garçons SHIRT was introduced, which produces shirts mainly in France.
In 1993, the womenswear line Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons was launched, and Adrian Joffe became Chairman of the Board of Directors of the company. In the next year, 1994, the first CdG perfume was launched. Eight years later, in 2002, the first collection was launched under CdG's most successful brand, Comme des Garçons Play with its distinctive heart logo.
Dover Street Market in London, founded by CdG, later opened its doors in 2004. In 2008, a unisex line, BLACK Comme des Garçons, was released, which provided cheaper than the usual pieces of CdG. In 2009, another Comme des Garçons store in Hong Kong followed, and in 2012, one at Rockwell Center in Manila, Philippines.
In 2017, Rei Kawakubo had the honour of being the second artist to have an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during her lifetime.
While in the past, there were only the "crows", as the followers of Rei's fashion were often called, that attracted fashion, fashion has evolved over time and now also attracts artists like Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, and Drake. We definitely owe the lion's share of this to Rei.
Who is Rei Kawakubo?
Rei was born in Tokyo on October 11, 1942, as the oldest of three children and her parents' only daughter. Her father was an administrative clerk at Keio University, which was founded by Fukuzawa Yukichi. He was highly educated in Western culture and women's rights, of which he was a strong advocate.
At this university in 1960, Rei studied a course called, The History of Aesthetics, which included the study of Asian and Western art. During this time, she also learned more about visual arts and literature.
After graduating in 1964, she worked for the advertising department of Asahi Kasei, a textile company. There, she had a lot of creative freedom and started collecting props and clothes for photo shoots. When she couldn't find a suitable costume for a photo shoot, she finally designed one herself and started working as a freelance stylist in 1967.
Two years later, she started designing and selling her own fashion under Comme des Garçons. Influenced by a strong female role model, that of her mother, who left her father because he did not want her to work, she developed fashion for independent women.
Her fashion did not know high heels, and the models on the catwalk never had to wear them. She was much more interested in comfortable clothes for women in order to allow them to move easily.
In the late '70s, she had a relationship, both professional and romantic, with Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto. Together, they designed women's fashion and redefined the term. Mostly black, asymmetrical, and oversized, their fashion was not about revealing the body, but about making it a work of art.
How Rei Kawakubo Makes Fashion
Unlike traditional fashion designers, there are no trends for Rei but rather the exact opposite. After running her fashion label for ten years and building it into a thriving business, Rei began to feel dissatisfied. She was dissatisfied with what she was doing and wanted to design her fashion with more direction and more power, away from what was in the '20s and '30s. From then on, she realized that she had to start from scratch and design something that had never been done before.
This is also what best describes the fashion of Comme des Garçons. It embodies something that has never been seen before, something with a lot of expressiveness that does not adhere to any standards.
So in 1982, she created a show called, "Holes". In this show, the models wore sweaters eaten by moths and tattered knitwear—quite imaginably, a very unusual and new concept at that time. It was regarded as her unique kind of "lace trimming".
In an interview, she once said, "For me, new creations can only come from unhappiness. In Japan, they say that this thing, like the hungry mind—the hungry mind is what drives people forward." If you look more closely at their collections, you can see that this kind of controlled, heavy emotion was present at the time of creation.
You only have to look at her collection to see this. Take the Broken Bride from 2005, for example. In contrast to how a wedding is usually handled in fashion, this one isn't about "and they they lived happily ever after", but quite the opposite.
"Clothes are objects for the body."
As mentioned above, Rei does not design clothes to emphasize the body. The clothes she designs are more likely for covering bulges, and they certainly put the shape of the body in the background. Rather, she makes the body a work of art and regards the wearer as part of the whole, rather than just a bearer of fashion.
In her 2012 show, she has literally designed objects in two dimensions. The clothes looked like they were cut out of multi-coloured clay paper and then assembled, resulting in very flat and geometric outfits.
The fashion of Comme des Garçons is often described as a mixture between art and clothing. All catwalk pieces are designed as ready-to-wear, which means no further adjustments should be necessary. But, if we take a closer look at the fashion, it doesn't really look suitable for everyday use.
Another example of the fact that her fashion is all about how the human form is in the background and how it's much more about creating art is her 1997 collection called, "Body meets Dress, Dress meets Body". In this collection, mostly stretch dresses were presented, and they were put over inflatable pads, thus creating all kinds of unique shapes.
If you look at the earlier collections, you will quickly notice Rei's preference for the colour black. With her, it is not just ONE colour, but many different ones. She mostly dresses herself in it and has brought the colour black back to the attention of the '80s. It is not for nothing that fashion critics say that she invented the colour black. She may not have invented it, but she has indeed brought it to life.
Not Only Fashion Sense But Also Business Sense
In addition to her incredible ability to create new fashion every season and bring something that has never been seen before to the rest of the world, Rei also has a good business sense. A well-known quote from her is, "What doesn't sell today will sell tomorrow." Rei likes to have her hands in every department, be it in marketing or store design.
But, she does have a big helping hand, Adrian Joffe. As mentioned above, Adrian has been the CEO of Comme des Garçons and Rei's husband since 1993. He acts as a translator for her and anyone who wants to approach her cannot avoid Mr. Joffe. He also takes care of marketing, among other things.
Rei believes that no matter what they do in the company, it must be new. So, Adrian always takes it as a challenge to come up with new ideas on how to market CdG's products effectively and in novel ways.
Comme des Garçons Guerilla Stores Around the World
For example, there are guerrilla shops that existed from 2004 to 2011. Adrian came up with the idea of letting fans design and run pop-up shops in cities where there was no cdG shop yet. These concepts for the shops were designed by the fans themselves and Adrian gave them deadstock—what they had in stock anyway, so there was nothing to lose. There were some rules though:
- They were not allowed to spend more than $2000 on the store.
- The shops could not be run by people from the fashion industry.
- They had to close after a year.
The concept worked for the most part. A total of 37 stores opened in cities around the world, from Berlin to Reykjavik and Singapore. But, the whole thing stopped working as soon as other people copied the concept.
The "Partial License"
Another one of those creative ideas Adrian had was the "partial license" for the Comme des Garçons perfume, now owned by the Spanish Puig Group. One day, they approached him and told him that they would like to license the perfume. He told them no, but in the same sentence, he told them that he would give them a "partial license". In disbelief, they said, "There's no such thing."
So, he opened two companies: Comme des Garçons Parfum, which has the rights to the second fragrance they made, and Comme des Garçons Parfum Parfum, which has the remaining rights. He then licensed the license of the first company to Puig, which now sells the perfume at department stores and Comme des Garçons perfume everywhere else. And, it has worked really well. Proof of this is that CdG's perfume division is responsible for about $10 million in annual sales.
Comme des Garçons does not rely on just one product and one brand for its turnover. There are perfumes, shirts, ready-to-wear fashion, and clothes in black with hearts, etc.
There's Comme des Garçons PLAY, which stands out for its heart-shaped logo with two eyes. There are T-shirts, knitwear, and accessories by PLAY, all with different applications of the heart logo. Sometimes, you can find it as a patch and sometimes there are multi-coloured, collage-like arrangements of it on the shirts.
Then, there is Comme des Garçons Noir, where women's collections appear, mostly in black.
Another ingenious gimmick was with Dover Street Market, which in fact had a "concept store" for many different brands, including Comme des Garçons' clothes, which redefines the relationship between customers and designers.
Comme des Garçons also sells the work of Gosha Rubchinskiy, Junya Watanabe, and other artists. They all produce their stuff under the CdG label.
Sneaker Collaborations x Comme des Garçons
A company as broadly based as Comme des Garçons has, of course, also left its mark on the sneaker business. CdG has numerous collaborations, be it as Comme des Garçons, Dover Street Market, or Black Comme des Garçons.
Below is a small selection of different collaborations with brands like Converse, New Balance, Nike, or Native.
Converse x Comme des Garçons PLAY Chuck 70
For this collaboration, the silhouette of the Chuck 70 was chosen, once as a hi-top and once in the standard version. This shoe was available in two different colourways, one in white and one in black. Both had the CdG PLAY heart logo on the side. It was a union of two icons in one simple shoe.
BLACK Comme des Garçons x Nike Blazer High SP
In all-black, the silhouette of the Nike Blazer High SP was presented here, with a white CDG lettering on the heel of the shoe. It was released in 2014 and was one of many other collaborations between the two brands.
Comme des Garçons SHIRT x Erik Schedin Sneakers
In the same year as the Nike collaboration above, a collaboration with Scandinavian designer Erik Schedin came to be. Together, they created a low-top sneaker made of high-quality leather with simple brush stroke graphics, such as a line, a dot, or something that looks like a pair of pants. With these shoes, you will stand out from the crowd in a very classic way.
Comme des Garçons x Native Shoes Jefferson Polka Dot
Released in the two colourways, Jiffy Black and Regatta Blue, this shoe was only available in Japan. The Jefferson silhouette was decorated with white dots. If you are looking for a classic shoe that is odour-repellent, machine-washable, free of animal substances, and from Comme des Garçons, you have come to the right place.
Comme des Garçons - Something That Stays
In almost 50 years since Comme des Garçons was founded, Rei Kawakubo has turned the fashion world upside down. Together with her husband Adrian Joffe, she manages to amaze people with her creations every season.
At 76, she still has a lot of creative ideas that will hopefully stay with us for many years to come. One thing must be true about her fashion, otherwise she wouldn't have become the second artist besides Yves Saint Laurent to whom an exhibition at the Met was dedicated during her lifetime.