If Swedish fashion chain H&M, with its affordable duds for the whole family, is from Mars, then Rei Kawakubo—maverick Japanese maker of clothes with humps and of fragrances named Tar and Garage—is most certainly from Venus. So if their work together this November on a Comme des Garçons for H&M collection falls short of a marriage made in heaven, then it’s at least an affair to remember between unlikely fashion bedfellows—and one that has produced some very fetching clothes.
“Certainly we’re opposite,” Kawakubo says, her blunt, black bob shuddering as she shakes her head for emphasis. “But I believe the success of H&M is that they not only start out on the basis of having to sell a lot of clothes at good prices to a lot of people; they also look for new ways of doing things, and that’s why I respect them. This idea of collaborating with designers—that’s something I can identify with.” And is there anything else she might share with the firm? “That’s probably it: the common ground,” she retorts, fiddling with a ruffle on the sleeve of her jacket (that she wears backward over a striped T-shirt) while waiting for the next question.
Limited though it may be, that common ground was enough on which to build a collection for women and men that is “pure Comme des Garçons,” as Kawakubo describes it, her sparse Japanese translated into English by her husband, Adrian Joffe, who is also president of the Paris-based Comme des Garçons International. Mostly black and with Japanese tomboy airs, the H&M collection includes a range of tailored jackets, many deconstructed, along with cropped pants, baggy shorts and a variety of skirts in stretch wool. On the perkier side are polkadot knits in jersey or merino wool, colorful shirts—some with dots—and a “showpiece” coatdress decorated here and there with dense Victorian ruffles. There are also accessories and a unisex perfume with notes of cedar and patchouli but, alas, no children’s wear, which H&M had promised when it announced the partnership this past April. “We wanted something for kids, but she didn’t feel like it, so we didn’t,” is how H&M’s Margareta van den Bosch bluntly explains why that part of the project fizzled. “They said no, and we respect that.”
Otherwise, Kawakubo’s vision for H&M was a complete one, extending to the selling floor, with curved, red walls and custom fixtures demarcating the designer’s zone as surely as a UFO in a Kansas cornfield. Seated in Joffe’s bare-bones, glass-walled office, she grabs a pencil, sketches a circle and then carves it into sections, explaining that 20 H&M shops in major fashion capitals will get the whole pie, with less prominent or smaller locations receiving only certain slices. Kawakubo also exerted tight control over the advertising, even though her first proposal was scrapped by H&M because it didn’t show any clothes. (This is typical in her world, where ads for the Comme des Garçons Shirt collection might show toy robots or dogs on a bench—all images purchased from under-the-radar artists.)