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Behind fashion's Rei of light
IT is impossible to imagine what Adrian Joffe would be like, prior to meeting the president of Comme des Garcons's international business. A trained linguist, the South African-born practitioner of Zen Buddhism also happens to be the husband of Rei Kawakubo, the ultimate fashion avant-gardist who has retained her uncompromising approach to fashion over the past four decades. Suffice it to say, Mr Joffe is not your typically brash, testosterone-driven mogul.
"It is the character of Rei Kawakubo," says Mr Joffe, during an interview in the personal shopping salon of Club 21 at Hilton Hotel, when asked how Comme des Garcons continuously obliterates existing trends and breaks new ground in fashion and retail. "The brand is based on no compromise and creation, and she has never wavered since she started. This is the company she wanted to build and has built."
Genial and articulate to a fault, the man behind multi-label retail concept store by Comme des Garcons, Dover Street Market, has always been an advocate for organic growth. Even as the company has reportedly earned US$220 million in 2013, he claims, "We don't do five-year plans."
Instead, the first Dover Street Market in London came about when the lease for a Comme des Garcons store in the city ended in 2004. "We thought, let's try something new," recalls Mr Joffe. "So London, we chose, but the other cities chose us. Rei had a friend who had a building in Ginza and so that's where we had the next Dover Street Market. And we weren't looking to do it in New York but someone showed us a building and we said it was the perfect space, let's do it."
The retail concept has since been re-enacted in other cities, including Beijing and New York, and boasts art installations, pop-ups by other brands and, most recently, spawned a collaboration with the unlikeliest of partners - the rarefied jewellery house Tiffany & Co. The first collaboration in the US luxury brand's history, the 18-piece collection features objects and baubles inspired by Tiffany's archives.
Unsurprisingly, Mr Joffe has no idea where the next destination would be, and is even open to setting up the luxury bazaar here. After all, Singapore did house three iterations of the brand's guerrilla store concept, selling "seasonless" merchandise from past and current collections in raw, under-the-radar spaces that were antithetical to the brand's gleaming retail meccas in Aoyoma, Tokyo or Soho, New York.
"We had great success with the guerrilla stores. Singaporeans are very creative and open to new things," says Mr Joffe. "The building, however, is a challenge. We cannot be in a mall."
Having pioneered the entire pop-up retail concept, the idea of creating a temporary space has since been adopted by anyone with a souped-up shipping container and relevant regulatory papers to set up shop in an otherwise unused locale.
"We stopped the guerrilla stores because people were doing versions of it and it ran its course," says Mr Joffe.
"We do what we do and don't often look at what other people are doing. I never imagined it would go to that extent, with big corporations doing things like that. But they don't have the same spirit. It's the way it goes, sometimes you take copying as a compliment or a sign of respect, sometimes it's a bit annoying, I can't deny that, especially when they copy the clothes."
It's easy to pigeonhole Mr Joffe as the company's business honcho and his wife the creative mastermind. He is largely credited for upping the brand's commercial appeal - having pioneered the pop-up store concept and spearheaded its wallets line and fragrance offshoots, and popular Play diffusion line. But as he asserts: "She is also a businesswoman, without the business, there is no point doing creation." He has also admitted in previous interviews that Ms Kawakubo is very much his boss, and he consciously makes references to her by her full name, reinforcing her cult of personality.
Often translating for the inscrutable Ms Kawakubo during media interviews, Mr Joffe's own storied background - he majored in Oriental studies in London where he grew up from the age of eight, and moved to Japan to help license his sister's knitwear business. He later becoming the commercial director for Comme des Garcons in 1987, and married Ms Kawakubo in 1992. This may perhaps make him especially suited for the running of a multi-faceted business.
Much more than a fashion empire with a bunch of diffusion lines, Comme des Garcons is the umbrella company for standalone brands by designers who have blossomed within the house like Junya Watanabe, Fumito Ganryu and Kei Ninomiya.
"Rei is always looking for people with ideas, something to say," says Mr Joffe.
"Maybe they are people who did not have a fashion education, because the system suppresses talent. They work for years before they are given their own brands, and then are free to do what they like. It works for us, it's a way for the company to grow horizontally."
This unorthodox model for grooming new talent - Chitose Abe of Sacai, a brand beloved by fashion insiders, was also a protege who has gone on to start a label of her own - makes Comme des Garcons a fashion incubator of sorts for Japan. Which is perhaps why Mr Joffe expresses concern over the recent spate of designer departures at major fashion houses.
"I think it shows decay, that the fashion industry is not in good health," says Mr Joffe. "Maybe the system needs revolutionising, it needs changing. This merry-go-round of designers is strange, we can't conceive of doing anything like that."
But with fashion being the pragmatic beast that it is, one wonders about Ms Kawakubo's plans for succession, given how she "has a clear vision for each brand which permeates everybody", says Mr Joffe, and how she wields the sceptre over every detail - from the design of namecards to the layout of a store.
"Of course, there will be a Comme des Garcons, it will be a very different company but it will retain the values and spirit," says Mr Joffe about the future of the company after Ms Kawakubo steps down.
"She once said anyone could do CDG when she stops. The brand might end, however. I can't imagine the brand going on without her."
Contributing to just 15 per cent of the entire company's revenue, the core collection is just one element in the complex Comme des Garcons ecosystem. But it is the essence of the company, as its latest runway presentation demonstrates. A beautiful chaos of sculptural concoctions that defies the very notion of what we expect clothing to be, the Spring/Summer 2016 collection proves that creativity could still reign supreme in this cut-throat business of fashion.
In the world of Comme des Garcons, that is.