Adrian Joffe, 60, may have the hardest job in fashion. Not because, as president of Comme des Garçons International, he is in charge of all the foreign operations of a Japan-based business with annual sales of $220m but because, if there is “a cult of Comme”, the iconoclastic and hugely influential label founded by Rei Kawakubo in Tokyo in 1969, then he is its high priest. Habitually dressed in a black Comme suit and white Comme shirt, he even has the ascetic style of a disciple, complete with shaven head and skinny frame.
It is Joffe, who is also Kawakubo’s husband, who acts as the bridge and the translator between the designer and the rest of the world. It will be Joffe standing backstage next to the designer after her menswear show in Paris this evening, relaying Kawabuko’s gnomic utterances to the waiting journalists and retailers. At last womenswear season, for instance, Kawakubo, speaking through Joffe, explained the genesis of her storm-cloud-meets-astronaut sartorial constructions by announcing, “I felt the only way to do something new was to try not to make clothes.” (Try saying that with a straight face during fashion week.)
All of which makes Joffe’s choice of Manhattan’s Russian Tea Room, an over-the-top crimson-and-gold Fabergé egg of a restaurant, stuffed with caviar and high-calorie blinis, a bit counterintuitive. “But I love this place,” he says with a smile, shuffling across a deep red banquette as I arrive for our lunch. “In my previous existence, I used to come all the time,” he says, talking not about reincarnation but referring to a former job.
Though Joffe may have chosen to meet in an environment that reeks of kitschy, tsarist decadence, he clearly doesn’t feel under pressure to overindulge. He orders the business express lunch: borscht and vareniki, a kind of Russian ravioli. I choose a beet salad and gravlax from the appetiser side of the menu.
This kind of confounding of expectations is not atypical of Joffe, who has studied and practises Zen Buddhism. On the one hand, he says he feels an affinity for simplicity, on the other, he runs a high-fashion company – high fashion being for many the epitome of the decoratively unnecessary. He insists there is more congruency between the two disciplines than my raised eyebrows suggest.
“My Zen training is pretty integral to me surviving in this business,” he says. “It’s a way of understanding the world, the constantly changing nature of fashion, and how interdependent everything is.” This may sound like after-the-fact rationalisation but Joffe is entirely serious. When he is not translating for Kawakubo, he speaks quietly and hesitantly, deliberating over his words. There’s no spiel.
It is true, in any case, that while Comme des Garçons’ fashion is largely about unbalancing people – making them question their expectations of clothes and beauty – its business is balanced on a broad base of more accessible lines. These include Play, a “non-fashion” line of T-shirts and basics that is one of its bestselling collections, and Shirt, made in France, and largely based on shirts. “The main line is the engine of the company, the inspiration,” explains Joffe, “but we know it is not for everyone.”
It is also true that Joffe’s life is about achieving a similar balance: between work and home; Europe and Japan; the imperatives of commerce and creativity, and being part of a company that, as he puts it, “breaks all the rules – but also is part of the industry”. Not that any of it was planned. “I thought I would be a diplomat,” he says, as our first course arrives. “Or an academic.” He swirls his soup. “I don’t know if I can eat,” he mumbles. “I get nervous talking about myself.” He is, after all, part of a company that has built some of its reputation on opacity.
Joffe says that one of the things Kawakubo has taught him is: “Never answer a question directly.” Or, rather, to answer any question “the way you want”, which is to say: not necessarily in a way that responds to what was asked. And even though I know we are talking theoretically, this makes me pause with a piece of beetroot halfway to my mouth.
I wish I had a thousand-yen note for every journalist who, over the past decade, has asked me whether Japan is still as futurologically sexy as it seemed to be in the ’80s. If I did, I’d take one of these spotlessly lace-upholstered taxis over to the Ginza and buy my wife a small box of the most expensive Belgian chocolates in the universe.
I’m back to Tokyo tonight to refresh my sense of place, check out the post-Bubble city, professionally resharpen that handy Japanese edge. If you believe, as I do, that all cultural change is essentially technology-driven, you pay attention to Japan. There are reasons for that, and they run deep.
Dining late, in a plastic-draped gypsy noodle stall in Shinjuku, the classic cliché better-than-Blade Runner Tokyo street set, I scope my neighbor’s phone as he checks his text messages. Wafer-thin, Kandy Kolor pearlescent white, complexly curvilinear, totally ephemeral looking, its screen seethes with a miniature version of Shinjuku’s neon light show. He’s got the rosary-like anticancer charm attached; most people here do, believing it deflects microwaves, grounding them away from the brain. It looks great, in terms of a novelist’s need for props, but it may not actually be that next-generation in terms of what I’m used to back home.
Tokyo has been my handiest prop shop for as long as I’ve been writing: sheer eye candy. You can see more chronological strata of futuristic design in a Tokyo streetscape than anywhere else in the world. Like successive layers of Tomorrowlands, older ones showing through when the newer ones start to peel.
The world’s second-richest economy, after a decade of stagflation, still looks like the world’s richest place, but the global lea lines of money and hustle have invisibly realigned. It feels to me as though all that crazy momentum has finally arrived.
So the pearlescent phone with the cancer thingy gets drafted straight into props, but what about Japan itself? The Bubble’s gone, successive economic plans sputter and wobble to the same halt, one political scandal follows another … Is that the future?
Yes. Part of it, and not necessarily ours, but definitely yes. The Japanese love “futuristic” things precisely because they’ve been living in the future for such a very long time now. History, that other form of speculative fiction, explains why.
The Japanese, you see, have been repeatedly drop-kicked, ever further down the timeline, by serial national traumata of quite unthinkable weirdness, by 150 years of deep, almost constant, change. The 20th century, for Japan, was like a ride on a rocket sled, with successive bundles of fuel igniting spontaneously, one after another.
They have had one strange ride, the Japanese, and we tend to forget that.
In 1854, with Commodore Perry’s second landing, gunboat diplomacy ended 200 years of self-imposed isolation, a deliberate stretching out of the feudal dreamtime. The Japanese knew that America, not to be denied, had come knocking with the future in its hip pocket. This was the quintessential cargo-cult moment for Japan: the arrival of alien tech.
The people who ran Japan - the emperor, the lords and ladies of his court, the nobles, and the very wealthy - were entranced. It must have seemed as though these visitors emerged from some rip in the fabric of reality. Imagine the Roswell Incident as a trade mission, a successful one; imagine us buying all the Gray technology we could afford, no reverse engineering required. This was a cargo cult where the cargo actually did what it claimed to do.
They must all have gone briefly but thoroughly mad, then pulled it together somehow and plunged on. The Industrial Revolution came whole, in kit form: steamships, railroads, telegraphy, factories, Western medicine, the division of labor - not to mention a mechanized military and the political will to use it. Then those Americans returned to whack Asia’s first industrial society with the light of a thousand suns - twice, and very hard - and thus the War ended.
At which point the aliens arrived in force, this time with briefcases and plans, bent on a cultural retrofit from the scorched earth up. Certain central aspects of the feudal-industrial core were left intact, while other areas of the nation’s political and business culture were heavily grafted with American tissue, resulting in hybrid forms …