Rei Kawakubo on the Record

The mind behind Comme des Garçons and one of fashion’s most influential and reclusive figures.

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Rei Kawakubo always aims to push the limits.

This story first appeared in the January 4, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The mind behind Comme des Garçons and one of fashion’s most influential and reclusive figures says that with each collection she is out to create something totally new — a goal that is becoming harder and harder the longer she is in fashion. And that is just one of the many provocative admissions Kawakubo made during a rare interview pegged to the opening of I.T Beijing Market, her new multibrand store in the Chinese capital.

The 68-year-old designer admits she is starting to ponder a succession strategy for her business and indicated that she doesn’t oppose the idea of selling her company. Surprisingly, she said she doesn’t think anyone would be interested in it. Her husband and the company’s chief executive Adrian Joffe, on hand to translate the designer’s words from Japanese to English, said half-jokingly: “We’re waiting for an offer.”

In another burst of humility — a rare commodity in the fashion world — Kawakubo concedes that even she has her creative limits.

“The motivation has always been to create something new, something that didn’t exist before,” said the diminutive, bob-haired designer, sitting in a chandelier-lit private room in the basement of The Opposite House, a Kengo Kuma-designed boutique hotel in the Sanlitun retail complex housing her new store. “The more experience I have and the more clothes I make, the more difficult it becomes to make something new. Once I’ve made something, I don’t want to do it again, so the breadth of possibility is becoming smaller.”

Such a statement immediately prompts the question of whether the iconic designer could ever think about ending her career. Kawakubo, clad in a black sweater bearing the phrase “My Energy Comes From Freedom” and a pair of her signature drop-crotch trousers, went completely and awkwardly silent when asked about the prospect of retirement.

In other revelations, Kawakubo, who has collaborated with companies as diverse as Louis Vuitton and H&M in recent years, isn’t exactly showering compliments on the rest of the fashion world. For one, she isn’t all that impressed with most of the new designers out there.

“They lack discipline…They’re not strict enough with themselves,” she said.

Meanwhile, both Kawakubo and Joffe noted Comme des Garçons’ increasing popularity with Asian consumers and its continued momentum across international markets. Joffe said 2011 sales in Asia are expected to grow 45 percent while those in Europe and Japan are forecast to increase by 8 percent and those in the U.S. are seen gaining 10 percent.

Kawakubo said she feels vindicated by such growth.

“I never thought of limiting myself just to Japan. I had my eye on the entire world, and I think that was the right thing to do,” she reasoned. “My way of expressing things — not just through clothes but through direct mailings, shop design, Six magazine…I think that it’s all proved correct. For many years I wondered whether it was right or not but it seems to be that in recent years…it’s all been validated.”

True to her perfectionist self, Kawakubo was adjusting the aluminum frame display cases in the Beijing store just hours before Comme des Garçons and its Hong Kong-based retail partner I.T Limited hosted last week’s opening bash. Droves of trendy Beijingers braved the arctic blasts of wind to watch a traditional lion dance performance on an outdoor stage. Inside, they wandered the 20,000-square-foot store and took in its spotted columns and whimsical artworks. Two large sculptures figure prominently: a life-size black elephant by Stephanie Quayle and a white pelican with foldable paper wings by Michael Howells.

The store, reminiscent of the brand’s Dover Street Market complex in London, carries a range of apparel and accessories from various CdG lines, as well as merchandise from brands like Maison Martin Margiela, Rick Owens, Dior Homme, Ann Demeulemeester and Hussein Chalayan. The basement of the building houses a new boutique from A Bathing Ape, which connects to the I.T Beijing Market through a staircase.

Before the opening, the friendly yet serious Kawakubo — who was anxious to get back to work on her new store — sat down with WWD for a half-hour chat about fashion, China today and more.

WWD: How do you feel about the Beijing store?

Rei Kawakubo:
Well, this isn’t about the store, but I first came to China 30, 40 years ago, and I’ve been here many times in the past 15 years and I have witnessed many changes. Now with fashion, at the very least you can find all the brands in Beijing and Shanghai. So I wanted to do something new…a new method or expression…with fashion and Comme des Garçons in a place that has everything. I’m very happy to have worked with I.T in order to realize that.

WWD: You mentioned that you’ve been coming here for 30 years. What kinds of changes have you witnessed in China and its consumers over that time period?

R.K.: First of all, the administration [of the country] is totally different. Now, it has become more free. I feel that people are much more free to make new things and create new business than was possible before…and there are more people who are interested in these changes and who are aspiring to participate in the changes, so from that point of view I think it has changed completely.

WWD: What do you think of the way people dress here and their style?

R.K.: When I came here 10 years ago there were no people who would wear Comme des Garçons. I was just in the towns and didn’t go to the places where fashionable people gathered, but now it is much more casual. I used to enjoy seeing people wearing communist workers’ clothes and I don’t see that anymore.

WWD: How has the inspiration for your collections changed over the course of your career?

R.K.: Do you think it’s changed? For me it hasn’t changed at all. The way I approach each collection is exactly the same…the motivation has always been to create something new, something that didn’t exist before. The more experience I have and the more clothes I make, the more difficult it becomes to make something new. Once I’ve made something, I don’t want to do it again, so the breadth of possibility is becoming smaller.

WWD: Everyone is talking about how the Japanese market for retail and luxury goods is just terrible right now. Do you think that will change? Do you think there is a way to get consumers excited again?

R.K.: Now, with fast fashion, the value of creation is diminishing, and very expensive things are not interesting.

WWD: Is there any way out of that situation?

R.K.: I always think that I’d like to do something about the situation…it’s a very profound motivation…but I don’t think it’s something that can really be changed. I’m not powerful enough. There’s a closed-mindedness that prevents movement and change. I always think that I’d like to break that, and I’ve used it [this closed-mindedness] as a theme for collections, but I just can’t seem to break it. I want to wake people up, but I don’t think I succeed in doing this as much as I would like to.

WWD: Do you feel like other retailers and brands are missing a trick? Maybe things aren’t interesting enough?

R.K.: Definitely. But I don’t want to say, “Let’s do it together,” because everyone has to do their own thing. I’m not into creating movements.

WWD: You mentioned fast fashion. That’s been a huge story and obviously you had your collaboration with H&M. Would you consider doing something like that again?

R.K.: That was a special case. They were making a new store in Japan, so it was just a short, two-week relationship. It wasn’t a big thing, but I thought it was interesting because they asked me to do all the advertising and visuals as well. H&M has a very different way of thinking and a different business model, so it was interesting to see how much of a connection we could make. But in the end I realized that there wasn’t very much in common, so I don’t think I’ll do it again.

WWD: What do you think of Jil Sander’s work with Uniqlo?

R.K.: I don’t really know much about it, but each person has their own way of thinking. I haven’t seen it.

WWD: Where do you like to shop?

R.K.: At airports, because I don’t have time to shop. I buy my cosmetics at the airport and there’s nothing else much I buy. I just don’t have time.

WWD: Where do you want to see your company in five to 10 years’ time? What kind of future do you see for it?

R.K.: I just have to do the best I can do for right now.

WWD: Do you think the time will come when you don’t want to design anymore and you don’t have any more ideas?

[No answer]

WWD: So, for right now you’re just concentrating on your business? You’re not thinking about a succession plan?

R.K.: Of course there are things to be thought about. There’s nothing much I want to say now but probably the company will carry on with the staff that we have. The staff that I’m bringing up.

WWD: Would you consider selling it or listing it on the stock market?

R.K.: I don’t think there’s anyone who would want to buy it. I do everything on my own, so there are very few people who could do it. Do you think there’s anyone who would buy it? [Joffe interjected half-jokingly with a laugh: “We’re waiting for an offer.”]

WWD: How do you come up with a retail concept? Where do you start?

R.K.: Firstly, I want to make a shop that’s unlike any that already exists. And then, since it’s a business, we have to be able to get back the initial investment, whether it’s ours or whether it’s the partner’s, in as short a time as possible. So I don’t like to use expensive materials. I take care to make costs reasonable. It’s very similar to the way I make clothes. I give myself limits, not only financial limits but I also limit my method of expression, and from within those limits I try to come up with something new and interesting.

WWD: I remember reading in one of your previous interviews that you really don’t like being lumped together into a group of Japanese designers, but I wanted to ask what you thought of Yohji Yamamoto falling into bankruptcy protection. Obviously you had such strong links with him.

R.K.: I can’t really comment on that. His way of doing things is very different to my way of doing things.

WWD: Are there any young designers coming up through the ranks you’re keeping your eye on?

R.K.: There are very few. There are few people who, like us, have the values and the way of thinking to really try hard. They lack discipline. And it’s not just fashion, I think…[young people] get satisfied too easily. They’re not strict enough with themselves. They’re too soft on themselves.

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