The first time I became aware of Rei Kawakubo, Comme des Garçons’ famously cerebral founder and designer, was many years ago when I was working on another newspaper. The fashion editor held up a garment that seemed to consist of nothing but a series of holes held together by disparate blocks of knitted stitches. How we laughed. I was too green to see it for what it was – the work of a genius who was busy reinventing our idea of what clothes could be and do. Since then, of course, her name has entered the hallowed halls of legend. Next spring she is even the subject of the Costume Institute’s exhibition at the Met in New York. She, with her fellow Japanese designers Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, completely transformed the way we think about clothes.
For those too young to remember the sartorial landscape before her arrival, it’s hard to exaggerate the effect that she and Yamamoto had when they arrived in Paris in the 1980s. It was a time when the most sought-after designers were busy giving their customers power dressing (for ambitious working women) or pretty frocks (for ladies who lunch). When Kawakubo held her first Comme des Garçons show, by coincidence on the very day that Yamamoto (a former boyfriend) opened his first small shop on Rue du Cygne, the fashion scene was rocked to its foundations. Here was a completely new aesthetic. The fashion press thought it “dirty and weird”, and Kawakubo’s followers came to be known as “crows”, a reference to her love of black.
Like all true innovators, Kawakubo couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. She has always insisted she never intended to start a revolution – she merely did what she thought was beautiful. It just so happened that her notions of beauty were entirely different to most of the rest of the world. Her husband Adrian Joffe, president of Comme des Garçons International, is clear that “she doesn’t set out to shock for the sake of it. Nor is her work art for art’s sake. There is nothing self-indulgent about her pieces.” Kawakubo – and Yamamoto – it turned out, were lucky. “People were waiting for a new wind to blow,” says Yamamoto, “and buyers were looking for something different.” So although the fashion press was mostly hostile, shoppers bought their clothes. It wasn’t long before those strange, flapping garments, those explorations of asymmetry, layers and folds, the playing around with seams, frayed edges and eccentric silhouettes, began to make conventional fashion look dull and out of date. Their haunting beauty began to seep into the consciousness of percipient observers, who realised the language of clothes at the time was played out and that it desperately needed the sort of shot in the arm that only a visionary designer such as Kawakubo could come up with.
Since then her power and influence have grown so that today her company employs 950 people and has sales of $260m a year. Comme des Garçons stores are on the must-visit list of anybody with a serious interest in the world of style and fashion, and there can’t be a designer working today who hasn’t, subliminally at least, imbibed something of her aesthetic, now an intrinsic part of the modern sartorial vocabulary. Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester and Helmut Lang are all known to have been directly inspired by Kawakubo, but less well known is that within the Comme des Garçons stable is a whole community of some of the most interesting designers working today. All of them have a distinct personality (and so their connection to Comme des Garçons isn’t always evident), but many of them have been mentored, nurtured and financed by Kawakubo.
The nature of each designer’s relationship with her varies enormously. Some, such as Junya Watanabe, Kei Ninomiya, Tao Kurihara of Tricot and Fumito Ganryu, have their own labels but are completely owned by Comme des Garçons. Others, such as young British designer Molly Goddard, are independent but supported and promoted by Kawakubo within her Dover Street Market stores; she describes their relationship as one of “mutual respect”. Yet others still, including Lewis Leathers and Paul Harnden, Kawakubo collaborates with on special collections.
Many of the designers considered part of the Comme des Garçons family began by working at the company – often as pattern makers, giving them a deep understanding of the craft. One such example is Junya Watanabe, the first of Kawakubo’s protégés to form their own company, and the best known and most established of them all. It quickly became clear that he was a highly talented designer and, supported by Comme des Garçons, he’s gone on to become celebrated in his own right. Almost as reticent as Kawakubo, he believes in letting his clothes do the talking. For autumn/winter 2016 he staged a beautiful show filled with exquisitely wrought origami-inspired pleats and folds: see it on dresses (knee-length tunic dress with origami neckline, £1,200), a very contemporary puffa jacket (£1,310) with three-quarter-length voluminous sleeves and a pointed collar, a striking triangular quilted-effect cape (£2,360), and elegant full-length skirts (balloon shaped with a nipped-in waist and origami-style pockets, £1,155), mostly in his characteristic black but also in pillar-box red and shocking pink.
Tao Kurihara trained at London’s Central Saint Martins and then spent eight years under Watanabe’s wing before creating her first small collection under her own label, Tao. For once, Kawakubo broke her usual silence to comment on Kurihara’s highly individual debut collection: “The Japanese don’t have the habit of praising their own family, but I thought the collection was good because it has a concept and youthfulness.” Though Tao stopped production in 2011, Kurihara continues as the design talent behind Tricot, a Comme des Garçons-owned brand that takes many Kawakubo codes (frills, holes, shirring, gingham, the juxtaposition of different textures) and creates an infinitely feminine look, lending a delicacy to black cotton trench coats (£660), and playing around with shoulder seams and adding panelling to give a more sculptured shape (polyester dress, £345). Prettiest of all perhaps is her stunning black lace shirt (£395) embellished with five giant pink roses, teamed with a black lace skirt (£525).
Launched under the Comme des Garçons umbrella four years ago, Noir Kei Ninomiya is a label designed by 32-year-old Kei Ninomiya, who studied at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts before dropping out to work as a pattern maker for Kawakubo for four years. All in inky black, Noir’s technically brilliant pieces (sometimes there isn’t a single visible stitch) come in strikingly original shapes and textures (polyester dress, £2,275), and though often challenging, are surprisingly flattering to wear. Last season’s transparent trench in lace-like PVC, for instance, freshens up this classic design, while this autumn’s sleek, sheeny bolero (£300) is a cool take on the ubiquitous bomber jacket. At Dover Street Market in London, a striking belted faux-fur coat (£3,300) sports huge enveloping pompoms on the sleeves and collar.
Fumito Ganryu – yet another designer who started out as a pattern cutter, this time for Watanabe – launched his own label in 2007, specialising in basics and streetwear with bold and unusual details. His easy but deconstructed silhouettes have given the brand a special role within the Comme des Garçons family, and like many of the designers, he chimes with “Kawakubo-san’s pursuit of what is new and interesting”. What he likes most is that no matter how difficult the concept he comes up with, the company will “always try and translate it into reality”. For this winter that includes a cropped, two-tone take on the baseball jacket (£535) with wonky seams, and chunky knits (£585) paired with floor-length asymmetric dark denim skirts (£285).
Some brands, such as Brighton-based Paul Harnden and British motorcycle-jacket label Lewis Leathers, have been part of the family for years. Harnden started off making shoes but now creates extraordinary tailoring in heavy cottons and with a wrinkled American Civil War-meets-Victoriana aesthetic. Despite never producing a catwalk show, refusing interviews and selling at only a handful of stores (Dover Street Market, of course, as well as Leclaireur in Paris and IF in New York), his designs, which have been described by John Galliano as “very Greta Garbo”, sell for thousands of pounds and have a cult following. Lewis Leathers makes the distinctive Comme des Garçons leather jackets (about £2,700) with “Live Free, Die Strong” printed in artist’s graffiti on the back. Sold only at the Comme des Garçons stores in Paris and New York, as well as at Kawakubo’s shops in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, they have proved particularly popular.
The most recent Comme des Garçons fosterling is Simon Porte Jacquemus, whose poetic shows and sunny south-of-France-inspired aesthetic have made him a cult name on the international fashion circuit. Twice nominated for the LVMH young designer prize, he worked in Comme des Garçons’ Paris store for several years and acknowledges how much he has been inspired by the Kawakubo creative ethos. He also credits the support of Joffe, who made space to showcase his clothes at Dover Street Market and spread the word about his talent, as being a hugely important to his success. Favourites for autumn/winter include his striking knitwear: a pale-blue turtleneck (£310) has huge dropped shoulder lines and elongated sleeves, while a navy jumper (£405) features one buttercup-yellow sleeve attached by bows. Bows are something of a theme, also seen on a navy striped trouser suit (jacket, £405; trousers, £615) running sideways from the knee up to the opposite shoulder.
Other Comme des Garçons alumni, such as Chitose Abe (who worked first for Kawakubo and then Watanabe) of Sacai and Junichi Abe (Chitose’s husband) of Kolor, have moved away from the brand to become completely independent. For those who have yet to discover Sacai, many a fashion editor’s favourite brand, it’s a beguiling, playful and distinctly feminine mix of textures and patterns with a cool, sporty feel (from £1,075). Ask Chitose how working with Comme des Garçons has influenced her thinking and she doesn’t hesitate: “It challenged me always to do something different from everybody else.” She continues to use innovative fabric combinations and pattern techniques to put a fresh spin on classic designs – look out this autumn for a calligraphy quilted bomber jacket (£1,550) with chiffon cuffs and a navy and orange calligraphy embroidered shirt dress (£2,045) with contrast lace and strap detailing. And at Kolor, known for geometric patterns in block colours and contrasting textures, highlights this season include a luxurious take on the biker jacket (£1,000) in gorgeous deep-blue faux fur with a huge brown zip up the middle.
It’s plain to see the Comme des Garçons family is large and very extended. While the brand and its Dover Street Market stores have always been known for being highly unconventional (“We tend to do the sort of clothes that don’t go well with high heels,” says Joffe), there is an extraordinary variety of looks under its umbrella. From the youthful prettiness of Tricot and Molly Goddard – best known for her love of tulle and fairytale evening dresses, such as this season’s long tiered black gown (£2,965) with sheer three‑quarter-length sleeves and décolleté, but now introducing colourful daywear, including a mustard and green microfloral corduroy dress (£555) – to Ganryu’s edgy streetwear and the high sophistication of Kawakubo’s own Comme lines, many ages and many moods are catered for.
And while Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons often provide a wonderfully nurturing environment for fledgling designers, Joffe makes it clear this isn’t a philanthropic venture. “This is the way we grow the company. Rei didn’t want to grow it horizontally or vertically – instead she collaborates with and encourages designers who share her values. She never tells them what to do. There would be no point in a ‘me too’ operation. Rather she gives them wings and lets them fly. What she likes is independence of spirit and people who work with their heart and soul.” Kawakubo herself has famously said that she always starts from “zero”; she begins each piece afresh – and this way of working is what she treasures in her protégés. There is no room for laziness or copycats. And while she protects them and nurtures them, giving them time to develop a personal vision often at a critical point in their careers, they in turn enable her business to expand and bring youth and fresh ideas to the party. What connects them and binds them together, says Joffe, “is a sense of shared values that is so strong it gets deep into people’s psyche. The key quality, though, is creativity – that is our ultimate value. We need creation, because without it there can be no progress.”