Friday, 6 December 2013

Fashion’s Purest Visionary

Rei Kawakubo is about to redefine shopping in New York City. Her latest

collection for Comme des Garçons is strange, beautiful, singular and, for most

of us, unwearable. Yet fashion’s most powerful provocateur is also one of its

savviest commercial minds. While she is silent about her own creative process,

Kawakubo is a keen nurturer of young talent, bringing unknown artists and

designers into her fold. With the opening this month of Dover Street Market New

York, the sleepy neighborhood of Kips Bay is poised to become the epicenter of

the city’s fashion map.

Three pillars — fantastically decorated by three different artists — run

vertically through six floors of a vast former school building in Manhattan’s

Kips Bay neighborhood. Surrounded by curry and sari shops, it will be the

unlikely new home of New York’s first Dover Street Market, the multibrand store

from Comme des Garçons.

But this noble old building on Lexington Avenue has two other metaphoric

pillars, and these are names that lie at the heart of the current fashion

establishment. Miuccia Prada is building a permanent space on the top floor,

while Louis Vuitton is creating a three-month pop-up store in the main entrance


“Prada have been amazing, and have created a special collection just for us,

with their iconic shapes in new materials and classic prints from 20 years

ago,” says Adrian Joffe, chief executive officer of Comme des Garçons

International and the husband of Rei Kawakubo, who, for once, has broken her

inscrutable silence.

The lauded Japanese designer, who recently turned 71, has a great deal to say

about this new Manhattan project as well as about the design transformation of

her existing flagship Comme des Garçons store in Chelsea.

“For Dover Street Market New York, I wanted to keep the no-rule, beautiful

chaos feeling of the first two Dover Street Markets,” the designer says in

Japanese as Joffe translates. She is referring to the existing stores, one in

London’s Mayfair section, which opened in 2004 on its namesake Dover Street,

and another that opened in Tokyo’s Ginza district in 2012. (They also have a

franchise in Beijing.)

“But in contrast to New York itself, I wanted to design it with extreme

simplicity, unsophisticated, almost primitive and with naïve artlessness,”

Kawakubo says.

The designer, who came onto the international fashion scene in the 1980s with

distressed black clothes that served as a counterpoint to the era’s thrusting,

androgynous outfits, has always led her own counterculture movement. It hasn’t

been so much a political as a visual challenge to clothes based on cut, stitch

and shape and definitions of current society. Kawakubo still thinks along those

lines and avoids pigeonholing or developing one particular style in her stores

as much as on the runway.

“In conceiving seven floors and the interior design of each space, I took no

notice of the traditional need to separate by category, by sex, by lifestyle or

by age,” the designer explains. “And by designing a transparent elevator that

pierces all seven floors through the middle of the store, I have tried to make

the whole shop as if it is one shop — one total experience.”

The sheer bravado of taking on this massive 18,000-square-foot building is

breathtaking. It once housed the New York School of Applied Design for Women,

which was for a time associated with Columbia University and helped young women

to pursue careers in arts and crafts. On the worn boards and plain walls you

can imagine the spirit of female endeavor. The pillared structure dates back to

1909 and is classified as a New York City landmark building. But none of that

was likely to put off a designer who never compromises her aesthetic vision and

continues to push the boundaries of what “fashion” is and whether that word

even has to translate into wearable clothing.

Her recent spring 2014 collection used elaborate workmanship to created

curvilinear designs that seemed more like body architecture than clothing. Like

her poetic 2012 “White Drama” collection and her 2005 “Broken Bride”

collection, these designs appear to be outside commercial conventions. Yet the

“hyper-imaginative” collection clothes are always on sale right alongside the

more commercial Comme des Garçons lines, like Play and Black, that provide a

sturdy base for the sales pyramid. The clothing that seems most unlikely to end

up in customer closets — like the now infamous “lumps and bumps” collection of

1997 — is similar to any other modern art form designed to stir the mind and

surprise the eye.

Kawakubo’s conception of the new Dover Street Market store as “beautiful chaos”

thus has a method to its apparent madness. The idea is of a magical coalition

of fashion, art and commerce. While the store will feature all 15 Comme des

Garçons brands (Homme Plus, Shirt, Junya Watanabe, to name a few), the list of

other designers who will be showcased in their own individual spaces reads like

a who’s who of inventive fashion today, and includes Prada, Saint Laurent,

Azzedine Alaïa, Thom Browne, Rick Owens, Sacai and Undercover.

The main floor is where Louis Vuitton is setting up its pop-up shop; and Rose

Bakery, the cult French bakery that is also in the London and Tokyo stores,

will be on the first floor and mezzanine. But just in case that might seem too

“establishment,” Joffe has installed an “experimental” sound system from the

Brooklyn-based musical artist Calx Vive, which will play from various

sculptures throughout the building.

Always ready to support new talent, Joffe and Kawakubo have made space for

burgeoning British talent like Simone Rocha and J. W. Anderson, and a fourth

floor “incubation” area with small customized spaces for young designers like

the Russian Gosha Rubchinskiy, known for his skate-inspired fashion, and Max

Vanderwoude Gross, the 27-year-old behind the up-and-coming New York label

Proper Gang. Other designers on the floor, which will be called the “Energy

Showroom,” include Lou Dalton, Phoebe English, Craig Green, Lee Roach and


“Dover Street Market’s core value is to share a space with people with vision,

people who have something to say,” Joffe says.

But what about this unconventional, out-of-left-field location, so uncool and

far from any stylish shopping zone?

Kawakubo has an exceptional sense of place. When Comme des Garçons opened in

Tokyo’s Aoyama district in 1975, the neighborhood was far from bustling, but it

eventually evolved into a fashion hot spot. Similarly, when she opened her

first Comme des Garçons store in New York in 1983, she chose SoHo, which was

mostly a place for artists, not the downtown epicenter of fashion. And since

she moved the shop to Chelsea in 1999, that area has evolved into a district of

high-end galleries.

Now it’s all changing in Chelsea, as the famous aluminum tunnel weaving through

a former automobile repair building is spun with gold. Make that GOLD! For in

order to emphasize the spirit of Comme des Garçons and redefine it for the

arrival of Dover Street Market, Kawakubo has gone on a gilt trip that starts

with golden tree sculptures designed by the Japanese artist Kohei Nawa inside

the store.

“For the renovation of Chelsea, I wanted to create an even stronger, even more

forward-looking, even more stimulating shop — to try to fulfill the hopes of

our core Comme des Garçons customers,” explains the designer, who sees the

actual Comme des Garçons stores as havens for “the fundamentalists,” as Joffe

calls the hard-core fans, the people who might have started buying the label

during the years when the Comme message was almost entirely black. But black is

now, apparently, no longer the signature color.

“I imagined this time a magical world using my third color after black and red:

gold,” the designer explains. “I know that when babies are given the choice of

colors, they often choose gold.”

“So in this spirit of gold being the most enjoyable color,” she continues, “I

have transformed the existing space and architecture to create a new intimate

and concentrated shop. And as well as Comme des Garçons, I have also chosen to

add personally, for the first time, some other brands and accessories that I

like. Everything here is 100 percent my eye.” The store will carry brands like

the Pop Art-inspired British designers Meadham Kirchhoff and the New York-based

leather designer Zana Bayne. The notion that a designer’s store expresses the

creative personality behind it is a given. But constant change is not. At Comme

des Garçons, the search for the new and the need to evolve is part of the

brand’s DNA.

Joffe says creative retail strategies embody the main pillar of Comme des

Garçons’ sense of values: the never-ending search for something new.

“We are always forward-looking, always evolving,” he says of the company’s

pioneering spirit and its essential beliefs.

Kawakubo expressed the same idea but put it more profoundly.

“Without creation,” she says, “there can be no progress and man cannot evolve.”

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