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Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Vast, Mysterious Empire of Comme des Garçons

Rei Kawakubo's fashion house is full of plenty of shopper-friendly brands.

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The phrase “cult following” is often used when describing Comme des Garçons, the fashion house owned and led by Rei Kawakubo. While Comme des Garçons does have a small but dedicated core fanbase, cult following sells the brand short. It is a bonafide global phenomenon — a sprawling, prosperous empire that sells lots and lots of clothes.

Kawakubo is the subject of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s upcoming Costume Institute exhibit, which opens next week in New York City. The exhibit will explore Kawakubo’s “art of the in between,” which Met head curator Andrew Bolton has said refers to how the 74-year-old Japanese designer “changes our eye by upending received notions of conventional beauty and by disrupting the defining characteristics of the fashionable body.”

This notion of the in between, of seemingly contradictory dualism, certainly applies to the business side of Kawakubo’s operation. Comme des Garçons is known for designs that are avant-garde and noncommercial, and yet the company is a massively profitable entity that sees more than $280 million in annual revenue.

“One thing that differentiates Rei’s success is that she is successful,” explains Eric Wilson, fashion news director at InStyle. “So many stories of creative geniuses ended much more tragically because they weren’t able to balance their vision with their need to show up for work every day. But Comme des Garçons represents imagination in fashion and what creativity can be. It’s a different approach.”

A Comme des Garçons runway show in 2011.
Photo: Chris Moore/Getty Images

Comme des Garçons started in Tokyo, where Kawakubo was born. The designer had no formal fashion training when she founded the company in 1969, according to an extensive 2005 profile published in the New Yorker. Instead, she developed her eye and skill set while working in the advertising department of a textile manufacturer, where she chose props and costumes for photo shoots, and then later as a freelance stylist, where she designed her own clothing for assignments.

Comme des Garçons, which means “like the boys” in French, was an instant hit in Japan. By 1980, Kawakubo’s company had as many as 80 employees and 150 franchised stores, and it was earning $30 million annually. The early clothing Kawakubo made wasn’t as eccentric and offbeat as what we’ve come to identify with Comme des Garçons; as the New Yorker writes, it was “inspired by the loose and rustic garb of Japanese fishermen and peasants.”

Then things took a turn for the experimental. In April 1981, Kawakubo showed at Paris Fashion Week, as did fellow Japanese designers Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, the latter with whom she was romantically involved. The trio stunned the Western fashion world by defying design convention. Kawakubo’s collection was unlike anything anyone had seen before: The all-black clothing was oversized, deconstructed, shredded, and shapeless.

Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, notes that Kawakubo’s followers in Japan had earned the nickname “the crows” because they dressed in all black, but much of the fashion community in Europe and the US was initially appalled. “It was very controversial,” she says, “and a lot of the press hated it, saying it looked like ‘nuclear bag ladies.’”

A year later, Comme des Garçons’s next collection, “Destroy,” hit the runway and elicited an even louder response. The ragged neo-Gothic collection featured disheveled tunics and knitwear with giant holes. In a scenario that highlighted the East-versus-West tension of the time, the looks were mocked and dubbed “Hiroshima's revenge” by detractors.

“She came along and challenged the notion of what was glamorous and what was beautiful,” says Cathy Horyn, a fashion critic at New York Magazine’s The Cut. “The French establishment was very strong, like what Saint Laurent and Lagerfeld at Chanel was doing. But Rei and Yohji were doing a different type of beautiful, and people had never seen that in fashion.”

And Comme des Garçons did, in fact, take off in the West. Small boutiques, as well as department stores like Bergdorf Goodman, began to stock its clothing. For Wilson, the acceleration of Comme des Garçons had as much to do with timing as it did with Kawakubo’s unique and often unapologetic vision.

“During the early ‘80s, women were going into jobs beyond secretarial work and adapting to office attire. While the bulk of the American population was wearing skirt suits, there were women in the creative fields — in fashion, art, and media — who were looking to this moment,” he says. “With Comme des Garçons’s clothing, women started dressing in these super artistic-looking coverups, big capes, oversized black blazers, and sweeping black skirts that looked completely distinctive and unsexy, but were still very much about power, control, and creating an image.”

Rei Kawakubo and her husband, Adrian Joffe.
Photo: Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

Though Kawakubo has admitted some of her pieces aren’t necessarily for wearing, people bought (and continue to buy) her $800 skirts and $1,400 blazers — even if they didn’t totally understand them.

“Salespeople and buyers really had to be trained to be able to explain Comme des Garçons,” says Steele. “To explain, ‘Well, this doesn't have to be buttoned, you don’t use this sleeve, it’s actually supposed to be this size.’ Those of us who were buying it then still had to explain to other people who would say, ‘What are you wearing?’”

“When you look at the clothing, it's different, always,” adds Suzanne Golden, a Comme des Garçons superfan and collector. “The seams aren’t where they should be, the darts go in a different direction, the buttons are sideways, the collar is askew. Nothing is quite where it should be, and that’s why I love it.”

Unlike most of its peers, Comme des Garçons has remained a fully independent company. This has allowed it to pursue inventive design without needing to answer to demanding investors. Kawakubo is the sole owner of the company, and her husband, Adrian Joffe, is president and CFO.

“Part of the discipline of Rei and Adrian is to run the business as they see fit,” says Wilson. “They resisted every urge to go public, unlike every American sportswear brand, maintaining their independence. Operating from Japan has kept them at a distance from fashion pressures, too.”

Being a private company — and one led by a notoriously private designer — lends an air of mystery to the endeavor. There are nearly two dozen labels within the Comme des Garçons family, and yet some of them are largely unknown. It can be hard, if not impossible, to parse what exactly the company is selling in any given season.

Kawakubo began expanding her business through the creation of sub-brands under the Comme des Garçons umbrella fairly early on. In 1981, a knitwear line called Tricot Comme des Garçons launched. Then the menswear label she started in 1978, Comme des Garçons Homme, saw various offshoots: Comme des Garçons Homme Plus, which featured loosely fitted pants and patterned blazers that contrasted with the era’s stuffy suiting, and Comme des Garçons Homme Deux, with more formal men’s suiting. In 1988, Comme des Garçons debuted Comme des Garçons SHIRT, a line of whimsical button-downs that has since added sweaters, jackets, and accessories to its offerings. And in 1993, the company introduced a diffusion line of sorts called Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons to sell more affordable basics.

Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Comme des Garçons now sells everything from brightly colored wallets to perfume with notes of “oxygen” and “flaming rock.” The most mainstream label within Comme des Garçons is Play, which launched in 2002 and is distinctive for its signature logo, a heart with two eyes. Play’s pieces are casual, and come with Comme des Garçons’s most entry-level prices (tees start at around $100). It’s sold at department stores including Nordstrom, Barneys, and Saks Fifth Avenue, but has managed to avoid overexposure because of its careful distribution plan. As Olivia Kim, the vice president of creative projects at Nordstrom, explains, it’s “only sold in the best stores around the world,” and since the line is seasonless, it never goes on sale or gets marked down.

Additional sub-brands have come about due to Kawakubo’s desire to incubate talent, allowing designers who work for the company to launch labels of their own under Comme des Garçons.

Junya Watanabe, who came to Comme des Garçons as a patternmaker, started his namesake label for the company in 1992 (and, in true Comme des Garçons fashion, spun off a more casual line, eYe Junya Watanabe Comme des Garçons Man, in 2005). Patternmaker Fumito Ganryu, who recently exited the company, got his own namesake streetwear label in 2007. Kei Ninomiya joined the company in 2008 and started his Comme des Garçons label, Noir, in 2012. While each sub-brand has its own flavor, they all fit within the Comme des Garçons framework, says Kim.

“One of the most fascinating things about the house of Comme des Garçons is that it has these multitudes of collections,” she notes. “There’s no other brand right now that simultaneously has a runway collection while also having multiple in-house brands that they oversee. It’s all brilliantly structured, built like a family network where everyone is involved.”

A Junya Watanabe look from Paris Fashion Week, fall 2015.
Photo: Catwalking/Getty Images

These sub-brands have contributed to the steady growth of Comme des Garçons’s business; sales rose from $130 million in 1999 to $150 million in 2005 to $180 million in 2008. Revenue has since jumped another $100 million to more than $280 million today.

While Play is reportedly Comme des Garçons’s most lucrative label, accounting for 12 percent of the company’s revenue, Dover Street Market is perhaps the most important piece of the Comme portfolio. The multi-brand boutique has five locations, one each in New York, London, Singapore, Tokyo, and Beijing. The venture accounts for 35 percent of Comme des Garçons’s revenue, according to the Financial Times.

DSM carries established labels like Jil Sander, Gucci, Supreme, and Dior, as well as up-and-comers like Gosha Rubchinskiy and Virgil Abloh. It also carries plenty of brands that even the most inside of fashion insiders have never heard of. “We are just as happy if one person is excited or a thousand people are excited,” Joffe said of the store in 2015. Whether it be working with a student designer or fashion’s biggest names, “everything is of equal importance and each interdependent to the construction, composition and evolution of the store.”

In addition to its impressively hip collection of brands, DSM is known for its innovative visual merchandising and in-store art installations; as the New York Times put it in 2012, “the idea is of a magical coalition of fashion, art, and commerce.” Twice a year, each location undergoes a redesign the company fondly refers to as tachiagari, or “beginning” in Japanese.

The Dover Street Market store in London.
Photo: David M. Benett/Getty Images

Comme des Garçons has also leveraged a number of big-brand collaborations to make money. The Comme des Garçons collab with H&M was its most hyped, while Play’s ongoing partnership with Converse is its longest-running. Play also put out an all-black Speedo collaboration in 2010, and eYe Junya Watanabe Comme des Garçons Man has worked with both New Balance and Levi’s. These partnerships don’t dilute the brand so much as add to its appeal, says Kim: “The world of Comme isn’t so rigid. Obviously there’s a seriousness to what they do, but I love how playful they can be, and they challenge and push the ways of how fashion can be approachable without threatening what they do.”

Comme des Garçons walks the line between being accessible but not too accessible, big but not too big.

“Comme des Garçons was never about everywhere, and for everyone,” adds Wilson. “It’s not a Calvin Klein or a Ralph Lauren business — it was never getting the point of selling underwear. It’s about being in the know, about being fashion-literate, and being confident enough to appreciate what any sane person would look at and think, ‘What on earth?’”

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