Rei Kawakubo is one of the most influential designers of her generation. Never one to court the limelight, she allows her clothes to do the talking. Her designs question our conception of gender and beauty, and tread the fine line between fashion and art.
Kawakubo founded Comme des Garçons in 1969. Following her debut show in Tokyo 1975, she opened the first Comme des Garçons shop in Tokyo’s famous Aoyama fashion district. When she made her Paris debut in 1981, Kawakubo was accompanied by her then boyfriend Yohji Yamamoto, also there to present his first Paris collection.
Their designs were the antithesis of the fashion of the day: monochromatic palates, abstract shapes, asymmetric cuts, and unfinished hems. This was the birth of the Japanese avant-garde, and whilst Yohji has negotiated regular access visits, Kawakubo undoubtedly holds custody.
Following the success of her women’s line, Kawakubo launched her first menswear line in 1978. Comme des Garçons Homme has the brand tagline ‘Good Sense Good Quality’. Following a rapid ascent from pattern maker, Kawakubo’s precocious protégé Junya Watanabe took over as chief designer for Comme des Garçons Homme in 1987, aged just 26. The original brand labels were grey for lightweight items and very dark blue for the heavier pieces, such as jackets and coats. Depending on the item, the brand labels now vary, but the most common is a deep, slightly iridescent shade of blue.
Helpfully the care labels in this line often (but not always) include the year and season of production.
Comme des Garçons Homme Plus was launched in 1984. The clothes tend to be more loose-fitting and experimental. Rei Kawakubo has maintained her position as chief designer and so this line can be viewed as her most direct expression in menswear. The black brand labels are made from a leather-like fabric and are easily recognisable.
Comme des Garçons Homme Plus Sport is a subline of the main menswear line, dealing with sporty streetwear.
Comme des Garçons Homme Plus Evergreen was started in 2005. This line can be viewed as a ‘best of compilation’, with pieces from past collections reinvented and given new life.
Comme des Garçons Homme Deux – launched 1987, mixed Japanese production techniques with western suit design, to produce formal menswear. This is perhaps the most staid of all Comme des Garçons clothing lines.
Comme des Garçons SHIRT – created in 1988 as home to Comme’s wacky shirts. It swiftly expanded to form a distinct clothing line, producing sweaters, jackets, trousers, and accessories, but shirts have remained the central product.
Comme des Garçons SHIRT Boy, launched 2015. An extension of the SHIRT line, aimed at younger men.
Play Comme des Garçons, has one of the most recognizable logos within all the company’s brands. Designed by New York-based Polish designer Filip Pagowski, it appears on all manner of goods, including T-shirts, polos, cardigans, shoes – the list goes on. Described by Comme president Adrian Joffe as “a collection, created by not designing; it was the antithesis of design, based on prototypical forms.” Unfortunately, because many of the pieces use quite simple materials, and owing to the logo’s iconic appeal, there are quite a few fakes around. Buyer beware.
Black Comme des Garçons is a unisex line, started in 2008, right in the middle of a recession. The idea was to create lower priced pieces, in response to the economic conditions of the time. The line was well received, and continues to offer some nice, fairly affordable pieces.
Kawakubo has provided a home for many up-and-coming designers over the years. Some of them have gone on to start successful brands of their own, such as Junichi Abe of Kolor, Chitose Abe of Sacai, (though married, they have both developed independent brands), and Kei Ninomiya of Moir Kei Ninomiya. Others have chosen to stay and work under the Comme des Garçons umbrella, most prominently Junya Watanabe.
Having taken on the chief designer role for Comme des Garçons Homme in 1987, Watanabe went on to start his own women’s line, Junya Watanabe Comme des Garçons, in 1992. This was followed by the launch of Junya Watanabe Comme des Garçons Man in 2001. Watanabe has been described as a ‘techno couture’ designer. He embraces the use of new fabrics and design methods, and is known for his fondness of patchwork and mixing fabrics.
eYe Junya Watanabe Man Comme des Garçons, launched in 2005, is a sub-line of the main brand. The clothes tend to be a little more casual, and could be said to have a slightly broader appeal.
Watanabe has worked on numerous collaborations, with heritage brands such as Levi’s, Mackintosh and Seil Marschall, as well as sports brands like Nike, New Balance and The North Face.
Wallet Comme des Garçons, started in 1980, offers wallets in all colours and shapes, from card holders to iPad cases.
Comme des Garçons PARFUMS, launched in 1994, and described as “anti perfume” by Kawakubo. Many of the scents offered are unisex and most are fairly bold in nature. I love the original ‘Comme des Garçons Eau de parfum’, which has the tagline ‘works like a medicine and behaves like a drug.’ It’s said to defy the traditional three-tiered perfume descriptions, reacting differently depending upon the skin of the wearer. With a strong cinnamon scent (for me at least!) – best used very sparingly. My other favourite is ‘Amazingreen’, which as the name suggests, is a scent deeply rooted in nature, with lovely verdant top notes and a smokey gunpowder base.
Over the years Comme des Garçons have collaborated with many brands, but they insist these pairings have never been just about cashing in. Instead, there’s an underlying impetus to produce something greater than the sum of its parts, by combining each brands’ corresponding area of specialism with Comme’s artistic flair, such as the swimwear crossover with Speedo. Some other notable collaborations include: Vivienne Westwood, Nike, Louis Vuitton, H&M, Lacoste, Fred Perry, SUPREME, Chrome Hearts, J.Crew, Kaws, Visvim, Cutler and Gross, The Beatles, Undercover and Levi’s.
With global revenue of $240m, and rising yearly, there seems no stopping Comme des Garçons. But how have they managed to remain relevant for so long? One key thing is that they’ve never allowed the brand to stagnate, mainly through embracing in-house talent and allowing their designers the freedom to express themselves creatively. The real reason though is more straightforward: Rei Kawakubo.
To this day, Comme des Garçons – much like its creator – maintains an air of inaccessible cool. Kawakubo only very recently agreed to creating a brand website, but visit it and you’ll see it’s more art instillation than online store. Her husband and Comme des Garçons co-owner Adrian Joffe says he doubts they’ll ever sell the main line clothes online, for the same reason that the original Comme des Garçons shop had no mirrors: [Rei] “believes clothes have to be touched.”