Comme des Garcons: The Woman Behind The Boys
Daily News Record
Monday, May 9, 1983
TOKYO (FNS) — At Comme des Garcons’ understated new headquarters in the Aoyama district of Tokyo, no one claims to know where the boss lives, or even what she does with her spare time. Just four of a staff of 80 have her home telephone number. And the boss herself, after a couple of hours of questions, slumps back into the recesses of a leather couch and sighs. “I feel like I’ve been interviewed by a psychiatrist,” she says.
But if the boss, Rei Kawakubo, behaves like a recluse, it may be because of her singleness of purpose. Comme des Garcons is a $30-million-a-year operation she founded alone in 1973. It now boasts four lines — Homme, for men, and Comme des Garcons, Robe de Chambre and Tricot, for women. The company is so well established in Japan that Comme des Garcons does absolutely no advertising here. Its presence abroad, anchored by the Paris ready-to-wear showing and the Designers Collective showing in New York, is growing quickly — this year’s overseas sales will triple those in 1982.
Still, Kawakubo, the firm’s diminutive designer and president, is in no hurry to grow. Sales of her largest single line, Comme des Garcons, will actually be scaled back to about 7 per cent this year in Japan (to about $11 million); Homme will grow about 10 percent (to about $9.1 million). Tricot and Robe de Chambre are both small, but growing, with about $6.3 million expected between them in 1983.
Kawakubo concedes that she intends to make slow growth a policy, as she wants to continue both to preside over the company, which has more than 150 shops in Japan, and remain its chief designer.
To those who know her, that shouldn’t come as a surprise, because Kawakubo defies many of the cliches characterizing the successful businessperson and designer in postwar Japan.
“No,” she says firmly through an interpreter, “I was not deprived of too awfully much in the immediate postwar years, and so that experience did not have a decided impact on my later life, and my determination to found and run my own company.” (Other contemporaries, including Mitsuhiro Matsuda of Nicole and Issey Miyake, say the experience of having little to eat but sweet potatoes had a profound influence on their lives.)
“No,” she says again, “I was not influenced by any one major artist or movement in the 60s and 70s” — and certainly not by Yukio Mishima, the author and playwright, for whom Kawakubo’s contemporaries among the artistic community claim a particular affinity.
Artists as diverse as Tamasaburo Banido, the Kabuki actor, and Tadanori Yokoo, the graphic poster artist, have said Mishima was a major force. Kawakubo’s analysis of him, like many of her responses, is short and succinct: “He had a narrow view of people. I don’t much like that kind of viewpoint.”
Finally, there was (and is) no patron, no manager to direct the artist as she built her company. Nonetheless, Comme des Garcons is a tightly structured, well-run organization. It has five directors (each has been with Kawakubo at least seven of the 10 years), each of whom reports directly to her. Running the company is a hands-on experience. Kawakubo is almost certain to show up at one of the far-flung boutiques at any moment. She interviews each job applicant, and personally approves all hiring.
Though the company dates from 1973 (she chose the name for its phonetics, not the literal translation, “like the boys”), the concept came earlier. The only daughter of a Tokyo educator (she has two brothers), Kawakubo finished a fine arts major at Tokyo’s Keio University in 1964 and went to work as a stylist for mammoth Asahi Chemical, japan’s largest producer of acrylic fibers and fabrics. Experience with a large company led her elsewhere — into a free-lance stylist career in 1966. Seven years later, she began her firm.
A favorite Kawakubo line — “you have to know me through my clothes” — is often repeated in interviews, though in fact, she is one of the few Japanese designers able to articulate the feeling of her collections. Homme, for example, is certainly far less the offshoot of a successful women’s collection than a label unto itself. The feeling of the men’s line, though, is similar to the radical and often avant-garde Comme des Garcons’ women’s collection — not surprising, since fabrics for each collection are developed in tandem.
The palette for Homme invariably revolves around four colors — black, navy, gray and a natural beige. The form is traditional, though often oversized. The collection also occasionally carries some of the iconoclastic fashion for which the women’s collection, with its exposed seams, holes, layers and wrinkles, is better known. A popular Homme linen jacket for spring, for example, included nonfunctional vertical slits down each flank.
“(Homme) is my conception of what a man is, subtle, not over-styled like so many men’s collections,” Kawakubo says. “It’s for the kind of man I like working with.” Of course, Kawakubo’s sense of beauty is like no one else’s, and she insists that you have to look far beyond design details to appreciate it. “I try to reflect my (sense of beauty) not just in the clothes, but in the accessories, in the shows, in even this office and building. You have to see it as a total impression, and not look just at exposed seams and the black.”
The Comme des Garcons office, a two-floor affair in the heart of Tokyo’s fashion district, is in fact a strong reflection of the owner. Dominant pieces — the Italian leather furniture in the guest room, the replica of a 20s French studio lamp, the desks, chairs and shelves — are black or grey, and set off against washed gray concrete walls. The Homme corners of the office seem to carry a far more relaxed and open feeling than the sections for the women’s lines. Even staffers concede that the Comme des Garcons men are, well, a bit looser, both in dress (most women wear the house label and at least three are virtual carbon copies of Kawakubo) and attitude. On a single floor, there are four stereo systems, each playing (though quietly) a different sound: Ella Fitzgerald, Al Jarreau, New Wave and the American Armed Forces Far East Network Top 40.
Desks are arranged, Mitsui style, with division managers at the head of the “tee” and assistants arrayed on either side. Kawakubo is positively talkative when asked about her organization, which, despite appearances, is dominated by men (three of the five directors, all four line managers).
“Comme des Garcons is not like any other Japanese company,” she asserts. Hiring is strictly on merit, not sex or even educational background (a high school graduate may well be paid better than a college graduate at Comme des Garcons). Loyalty is intense, almost palatable. Even after the end of the collections season, staffers are still working from 9:00 to 9:00 or later — and the boss is usually right there, too.
Despite the firm’s track record as one of Japan’s most successful and growing labels, with influence on both domestic and foreign fashion, Kawakubo and her staff sometimes seem a bit insecure. They make careful inquiries about coverage planned for other designers, and especially Yohji Yamamoto, a close friend of Kawakubo and a designer who develops his collections from the fabric forward, a method considered the rule at Comme des Garcons.
But a little paranoia is probably good, given the numbers of people (80 in the home office, 80 in the boutiques) who now depend on Kawakubo for a living. She doesn’t even consider the time when she may have to choose between artist and managerial roles. “Because the company has grown this far, and because I am both president and designer, the company stands on what I design,” she says flatly. “That’s an inspiration. Commercial success is very important.” Burning out, of course, is “a reality. There is that fear of not being able to go on. But there is no one else — no one to give advice. Is that lonely, or difficult? Ah, so ne. But that’s reality.”
Denise Scott Brown on why she deserves Pritzker recognition.
I do not fear death
Roger Ebert (1942 - 2013)
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.
I don’t expect to die anytime soon. But it could happen this moment, while I am writing. I was talking the other day with Jim Toback, a friend of 35 years, and the conversation turned to our deaths, as it always does. “Ask someone how they feel about death,” he said, “and they’ll tell you everyone’s gonna die. Ask them, In the next 30 seconds? No, no, no, that’s not gonna happen. How about this afternoon? No. What you’re really asking them to admit is, Oh my God, I don’t really exist. I might be gone at any given second.”
Me too, but I hope not. I have plans. Still, illness led me resolutely toward the contemplation of death. That led me to the subject of evolution, that most consoling of all the sciences, and I became engulfed on my blog in unforeseen discussions about God, the afterlife, religion, theory of evolution, intelligent design, reincarnation, the nature of reality, what came before the big bang, what waits after the end, the nature of intelligence, the reality of the self, death, death, death.
Many readers have informed me that it is a tragic and dreary business to go into death without faith. I don’t feel that way. “Faith” is neutral. All depends on what is believed in. I have no desire to live forever. The concept frightens me. I am 69, have had cancer, will die sooner than most of those reading this. That is in the nature of things. In my plans for life after death, I say, again with Whitman:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
And with Will, the brother in Saul Bellow’s “Herzog,” I say, “Look for me in the weather reports.”
Raised as a Roman Catholic, I internalized the social values of that faith and still hold most of them, even though its theology no longer persuades me. I have no quarrel with what anyone else subscribes to; everyone deals with these things in his own way, and I have no truths to impart. All I require of a religion is that it be tolerant of those who do not agree with it. I know a priest whose eyes twinkle when he says, “You go about God’s work in your way, and I’ll go about it in His.”
What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes.
O’Rourke’s had a photograph of Brendan Behan on the wall, and under it this quotation, which I memorized:
I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to animals. I don’t respect the law; I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.
That does a pretty good job of summing it up. “Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.
One of these days I will encounter what Henry James called on his deathbed “the distinguished thing.” I will not be conscious of the moment of passing. In this life I have already been declared dead. It wasn’t so bad. After the first ruptured artery, the doctors thought I was finished. My wife, Chaz, said she sensed that I was still alive and was communicating to her that I wasn’t finished yet. She said our hearts were beating in unison, although my heartbeat couldn’t be discovered. She told the doctors I was alive, they did what doctors do, and here I am, alive.
Do I believe her? Absolutely. I believe her literally — not symbolically, figuratively or spiritually. I believe she was actually aware of my call and that she sensed my heartbeat. I believe she did it in the real, physical world I have described, the one that I share with my wristwatch. I see no reason why such communication could not take place. I’m not talking about telepathy, psychic phenomenon or a miracle. The only miracle is that she was there when it happened, as she was for many long days and nights. I’m talking about her standing there and knowing something. Haven’t many of us experienced that? Come on, haven’t you? What goes on happens at a level not accessible to scientists, theologians, mystics, physicists, philosophers or psychiatrists. It’s a human kind of a thing.
Someday I will no longer call out, and there will be no heartbeat. I will be dead. What happens then? From my point of view, nothing. Absolutely nothing. All the same, as I wrote to Monica Eng, whom I have known since she was six, “You’d better cry at my memorial service.” I correspond with a dear friend, the wise and gentle Australian director Paul Cox. Our subject sometimes turns to death. In 2010 he came very close to dying before receiving a liver transplant. In 1988 he made a documentary named “Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh.” Paul wrote me that in his Arles days, van Gogh called himself “a simple worshiper of the external Buddha.” Paul told me that in those days, Vincent wrote:
Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.
Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?
Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.
To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.
That is a lovely thing to read, and a relief to find I will probably take the celestial locomotive. Or, as his little dog, Milou, says whenever Tintin proposes a journey, “Not by foot, I hope!”
Take My Picture / Garage Magazine
Tim Blanks on street style photography
Thom Browne, Aoyama
Comme des Garcons, Tokyo,
Nick Helm with Nick Browne and Takao Kawasaki