Lunch with the FT: Adrian Joffe
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.
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Photos by Bureau Betak