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.)
Given Kawakubo’s fearless, avant-garde approach to design and business, her tie-up with H&M was bound to produce more bristling than the retailer’s previous joint-label ventures with Roberto Cavalli, Stella McCartney and Karl Lagerfeld. “What’s interesting about collaborations is the possibility for one plus one to equal three,” Kawakubo says, warming up to the topic. “It’s interesting for me to sell Comme des Garçons in places it’s never been sold before, to people who might not have heard of Comme des Garçons.” Not that she ever approaches such a project as a brainstorming or a meeting of the minds. It’s more the case of a willful designer making a strong proposition with a partner who brings something new to the table, like production know-how or distribution muscle. A recent example is the elite Fastskin LZR Racer swimsuit for Speedo, for which Comme des Garçons created graphics while Speedo crafted the suits, billed as the fastest ever; this claim proved controversial. “For me there’s no compromise,”the designer says. “I do what I want, and they do whatever I couldn’t do myself.”
Kawakubo is a consummate fashion indie, designing collections and running her business on her own terms since she launched her label in Tokyo in 1969. If she wants blistering punk rock or no music at all at her fashion show, or if she feels like showing skirts and no tops one season, so be it. She always begins with the concept, with little regard for the commercial consequences. (And incidentally, her infamous pillow collection that distorted various body parts with assorted lumps and bumps “wasn’t a best-seller, no,” she concedes.) “Our business is creation,” she says, now fidgeting with a pair of black sunglasses. “I couldn’t begin to do anything if the first thing I thought about was the selling of it.” Kawakubo allows that Play Comme des Garçons, a line of T-shirts, polos and cardigans that she introduced in 2002, is very commercial, yet “the starting point was not to sell a lot of it. The starting point of this concept of Play was that it’s not designed—even that was a concept.”
At its headquarters in Stockholm, H&M starts each business day with a much different set of priorities, given that the retail giant operates more than 1,500 stores—stocked with 100 percent lump-free clothes—in 29 countries. Yet its customers will get a taste of deconstruction come November. Van den Bosch, an H&M consultant who helmed the design department for 30 years and masterminded its designer projects, is a longtime fan of Kawakubo, lauding her “unisex attitude toward fashion” and her “mix between elegant and quite sporty” clothes. Not coincidentally, the Kawakubo collection will arrive in stores just as H&M plants its first outlets in Japan: one in Ginza, another in hypertrendy Harajuku and a third coming next year in Shibuya. “She’s really respected by people in Japan,” says van den Bosch, a woman of few words with a penchant for dark clothing, much like Kawakubo. “They’ll be really happy about this collaboration.” For the rest of the world, Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons are hardly household names, but neither were Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren of Viktor & Rolf, guest designers for H&M’s 2006 holiday promotion. “It makes our brand stronger by doing surprising things and different things, and we also get different customers in the shop,” van den Bosch says. As for the clothing, regardless of a few exposed seams and some boiled wool, “it’s not difficult in itself for our customers,” she says. “The collection looks really great.”
Kawakubo says she didn’t water down her designs for the mass market, but she does acknowledge that “it’s an attempt to sell to the wider public.” Musing on the strength of fast-fashion chains today, which compete with designer brands, she says: “I think they have their rightful place in the world. Not everyone necessarily needs new things all the time and creative designs. It’s good to have luxury restaurants and fast-food restaurants. You need both.” Indeed, Kawakubo has checked out her low-price competition, notably Uniqlo and Gap, although she hasn’t bought anything from either store. And she can be critical of a marketing-driven approach to the fashion business. “Even companies that start out wanting to sell first are not necessarily successful,” she notes. “For me, it’s a long-term process. What doesn’t sell today might sell tomorrow.”
Certain fast-fashion chains are known to ape runway looks and steal designers’ ideas, but on this point Kawakubo is as calm as a lake. She harbors no anger toward such pilferers and insists they’ve never knocked her off —perhaps with good reason. “It’s strange that they would copy Comme des Garçons clothes,” she pronounces without even a hint of a smile. “They don’t sell that well."