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ADRIAN JOFFE – Paris-LA
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ADRIAN JOFFE

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INDEPENDENT LINES—

Adrian Joffe in conversation with Dorothée Perret.

 

Even among the few truly original creative designers in the pantheon of fashion, Rei Kawakubo stands out as sui generis—something the world came to see in the 2017 exhibition Rei Kawakubo / Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Some weeks after the closing of the show, I had the chance to sit down in Los Angeles with Adrian Joffe, the designer’s husband and business partner. Kawakubo and Joffe were in town to supervise their newest endeavor, the opening of Dover Street Market L.A.

Comme des Garçons—the company Kawakubo founded in 1969 in Tokyo—includes the designers Junya Watanabe and Kei Ninomiya (Noir), and the lines Play and Black. Joffe, who’s official title is CEO, runs the international side of the business: Comme des Garçons Shirt, the various fragrance lines, Gosha Rubchinskiy’s streetwear label, and the expanding Dover Street projects and collaborations.

As a regular presence on the Parisian fashion calendar, how has someone as empowered, free-spirited, and imaginative as Madame Rei Kawakubo been able to deliver surprisingly new and utterly unorthodox collections for thirty-seven consecutive years? Joffe—whose degree in Japanese studies from London University  and practice of Zen while living in Japan after graduating for four years,  has given him something far more valuable than a business degree—answers this question and shares his thoughts on growing the company into an international corporation and a cultural phenomenon ahead of its time.

Dorothée Perret

How is life post-Met?

Adrian Joffe

Post-Met has been good, I guess. A bit of an anticlimax, because I was there at the beginning which was incredible, and then I went at the end to close it. But it was very good.

Dorothée

Yes, it was a big success! In the conversation with the curator Andrew Bolton that was featured in the catalogue, Rei is very clear about the lines she drew with the exhibition, and the ones she left to the museum’s curation.

Adrian

Exactly. We said to the Met, her work has to be in her space. So we made a nice compromise. Rei designed the space and we left it to Andrew to do the curation and the catalogue.

Dorothée

Did you have all the archives?

Adrian

We had everything from after 1989. Andrew wanted a few of the older things, and she didn’t want the older ones. For her, it was like a different person who did it.

Dorothée

She started showing in Paris in ’82.

Adrian

And for the first seven years we didn’t have the money to keep the archives. We gave it all to the Kyoto Costume Institute (KCI).  Andrew had to ask them if they would give him some of the older ones. We needed the “holes” sweater [Autumn/Winter 1982-83].

Dorothée

Yeah, it’s an iconic piece!

Adrian

So pre–1989  there were about ten pieces from KCI  then and all the others since ’89 were us, because we kept everything.

Dorothée

Are all your archives gathered in Tokyo?

Adrian

Totally Tokyo.

Dorothée

Did you find a space for the store in L.A.?

Adrian

Yeah, we’ve got a space. It’s in the Arts District, on Imperial Street. It’s on the edge, a bit near where they’re building a kind of High Line thing [the 6th Street Bridge project]. The new space will be 20,000 square feet. It’s an old bowstring-truss building and two neighboring 1950s warehouse buildings that we are connecting.

Dorothée

That’s good news. It’s going to be Comme des Garçons?

Adrian

No, we decided in the end on Dover Street Market. Rei is so incredibly busy so she can leave DSM to me and my amazing team a little..

Dorothée

Rei is an amazing designer, as the [Met] show has shown. A lot of people interested in fashion have always known she’s a one-of-a-kind designer.

Adrian

One of a kind.

Dorothée

For over a century, we haven’t had many designers like her. And it’s remarkable, I think, that she’s a woman. But I was interested in a side of her creativity other than her inventiveness with clothing and retail design: the business. The commerce. Clicking and making it happen.

Adrian

Basically it’s the same thing. Rei  “designs” the company, so that means the clothing, the shops, the graphics,  and the business side as well.. how to do business creatively. It’s all her one eye.

Dorothée

How did you click?

Adrian

For Comme des Garçons?

Dorothée

For Comme des Garçons, and being in a creative business like that. I imagine it’s creative, no? Being next to Rei? [laughs]

Adrian

Oh, god, she taught me so much. Basically I just try my best to manage the business in a creative way,  ie come up with retail concepts, commercial strategies, ways of doing business that are unique, break the rules  and adhere to the values of the company.

Dorothée

You married in 1992?

Adrian

Yes. We met the year before. Comme des Garçons was well known, but the business side was not so well known outside Japan. At the time [sales] were 80% Japanese, and 20% outside Japan.

Dorothée

Mostly Europe?

Adrian

Yeah, it was like 10% Europe, 10% America. Mostly Italy and America at the time. But very small. It took a long time; it wasn’t overnight. We had the Paris store and the Paris company. And when I came on board, Paris had to ask for money from Tokyo every month to pay the rent. [Paris] was very dependent. I had left for a bit—a couple of years, a year and a half—and when I came back, one of the reasons for coming back  was to make Paris independent, and all international business financially independent of Tokyo.  That was my aim, so I said, “We need to do a perfume, we need to do some production outside Japan.”  We needed new ideas to do new kinds of shops.

Dorothée

I was wondering if you had any experience with production, and commerce of fashion?

Adrian

I had worked a little bit with my sister, who was a knitwear designer. I also had a little experience in production. I did everything for my sister. We had three people: she made the sweaters, I produced them and…

Dorothée

So you already knew how an idea went from—

Adrian

It was a tiny thing, but I knew the basics—how to pay for production, the little things. It’s self-taught, because my education was not fashion. I think everyone knows what I did: I was a linguist—boring story—and I also came from academia.  So I learnt business as I went along really.

Dorothée

This is really where you created your own art—

Adrian

Not sure you can call it that really.  It took time. But Rei always said that it had to be done in a creative way. She didn’t want business for business sake, she didn’t want to make things just to make money. She wanted a successful business based on creation.

Dorothée

That’s the interesting thing to translate and witness: how do you stay creative in business? Because business is business—

Adrian

Yes!

Dorothée

And you can see right now, how business is—

Adrian

Really business. [laughs]

Dorothée

Really difficult—

Adrian

I think it’s priorities, you know? You see how important the bottom line really is. For her it was never the most important thing. What was very important was there was no point in creation if she couldn’t pay for it.   It’s just about finding the fine balance between business and creation.

Dorothée

That was her independence?

Adrian

Yes. It was vital. She didn’t want a typical CEO. There’s still no, like, CFO, or anyone like this, because they would say, “You’ve got to make profits.” For her, it was enough if she could do the next one. One by one. Make enough, sell enough to do the next one. To do whatever she wanted without knowing what people wanted her to do.

Dorothée

But at the same time, it’s not that she wants to impose a vision.

Adrian

No.

Dorothée

It’s not a corporate way of imposing. Although you have managed to build a group, no?

Adrian

Comme des Garçons is a group now. I always forget how big it is. [laughs]

Dorothée

[Your example is an inspiration] for young designers to look to Comme des Garçons for—

Adrian

Independence. Creative design. There are other people who stay independent, but they keep doing the same thing.

Dorothée

Or they very quickly have to—

Adrian

Make compromises—

Dorothée

Or sell out to a big group.

Adrian

I also think it’s the age we live in. Everybody’s in a hurry.

Dorothée

Have you changed the periodicity of production over time? Have you resisted the infernal cadence? You do two shows a year with Comme des Garçons, with the women’s line—

Adrian

And two of the men’s.

Dorothée

And that’s it. That’s how you’ve been keeping it?

Adrian

Yeah. And often Rei will say she’s in trouble, she can’t think of the next idea. She goes through torture every time. And often I’ll say to her, “Maybe we can do it later, give you more time” But she says, “No, I’ve got to do it when everyone’s in Paris.” She never wants to put people out, she never wants to disturb people. She’s completely different that way from everyone else I know. She needs the restraints in order to create.  Wanting to do what she wants is not a selfish thing. And also, it keeps her—

Dorothée

In the frame.

Adrian

The framework. One needs the framework.

Dorothée

Yeah, I can understand that. It’s also that she respects the tradition [of the French fashion calendar].

Adrian

Very much so.

Dorothée

Right? It’s not that she goes against it. I’m sure she likes this. It’s like a solennel moment, no?

Adrian

That’s what it is.

Dorothée

Because, historically, that’s where Paris is a great place.

Adrian

Exactly. If she’s going to do a perfume, it’s going to be in France, it’s going to be the real thing. She has always loved and respected authenticity and tradition. That’s why she wanted Place Vendôme.  People often find that contradictory. She always wants to do something new, and yet really respects tradition.

Dorothée

That’s the beauty of it. To me, that’s her strength.

Adrian

I think so.

Dorothée

She really—

Adrian

Followed the tradition. She hated to be a week late. She doesn’t just do what she wants.

Dorothée

Although she’s managed to create new paths, new possibilities. She really is a true modernist!

Adrian

Yes I believe so.  Modernist  punk.  She’s like a punk—doesn’t listen to anybody. She has no preconceived ideas. She doesn’t like the establishment,  she hates people telling her what to do.

Dorothée

I’d also to talk about that concept of mu [emptiness] and ma [space] that Andrew developed as a concept of curation. It feels like Rei resisted this idea.

Adrian

It’s not connected in that Japanese, Buddhist way. Rei is interested in Japanese history, but feels her work is not consciously connected  to the fact she is Japanese.. It’s not about “Emptiness and void”— but perhaps it’s the way she works, in that she starts from zero each time.   Rei accepted [Andrew’s idea] as a kind of notion, as a kind of explanation for the public,  since it was necessary to have a title for the exhibition,  but she said that it’s not  a conscious thing for her.  The Art-of the in-between was a brilliant insight into the exhibition created by Andrew.

Dorothée

I understand—it’s an abstraction!

Adrian

An abstraction. That’s very good. The abstraction is the strength. And the personal. Everything she does is quintessentially her..  I’ve always thought so. And because of the total thing we do, like when you said you have to be creative within a retail concept—

Dorothée

Let’s go back to that conversation. How are you creative with retail?

Adrian

We like to make shops that are new and exciting, that don’t follow existing formulas. The 37 guerrilla stores we did, all the Dover Street Markets, the  CDG Pocket shops etc, all aim to provide a stimulating retail experience and survive at the same time.

Dorothée

I remember. I think you had one in Berlin?

Adrian

We did four guerrilla  stores in Berlin (including the very first one)  in four different locations since the number one rule was to do it each time for one year only in any given location..  Like real guerillas in the jungle,  when they get too known, and have to move their position?  We did them in exotic locations like Reykjavik, Ljubliana and Krakow, or if they were in fashion cities like Hong Kong or Singapore, then we did them in exotic locations within those cities.

Dorothée

That was in the early 2000s?

Adrian

The first guerilla store was February, 2004. That’s when we opened Dover Street, at the end of that same year. Everyone thought Dover Street was a guerilla store, so it was hard to do the two.

Dorothée

It’s two different concepts.

Adrian

Dover Street was always going to be permanent, as permanent as anything can be.

Dorothée

And you started in London, the first Dover Street?

Adrian

Yes, in London.

Dorothée

What about here in L.A.?

Adrian

It’s not always the same. Every city, you know which one you’re in, because they’re completely different. But the idea is the same—mixing it all up, the cheap and the expensive, the men’s and the women’s, creating a community of people with vision, something to say. We like to share our space.

Dorothée

What do you mean, “sharing your space”?

Adrian

We like the idea of  the synergy and the accidents  that happens when creative people come together  under one roof.  So the original idea of DSM was to take some space for us, for CDG, create an overall environment and then give the rest of the space to all kinds of other people,  for them to do what they wanted with. For some of the young designers  we have, it’s good exposure and for the well known luxury brands we have, it’s a chance for them to do something different to what they usually do.

Dorothée

Yeah, it’s a good window.

Adrian

They get the  space, that window. For some, we buy their collections, we pay for them in advance.

Dorothée

So you buy their clothes, you don’t take them on consignment. I know some people who have built empires like that. [laughs]

Adrian

We’re very different.

Dorothée

It’s good because it’s a real support that helps to finance, at that level—

Adrian

It’s a partnership. That’s why if we do more Dover Streets, we can grow with them. Simone Rocha is even opening her own shop in New York now, which is great. There’s quite a few of them. Molly Goddard is amazing. So we try to nurture them in a way, and leave them free at the same time.

Dorothée

It’s a conversation.

Adrian

Yeah, exactly, and this is a nicer. And it works both ways. One way streets lead nowhere. We need them as much as they need us..

Dorothée

Would you say the activity of doing shops, and the way you’re doing it, is also a way to gather people into a real physical space, as opposed to digital retailing where the experience is only shared through the screen?

Adrian

Absolutely. It’s really sad and somewhat annoying to read that the future of retail is online. Don’t get me wrong, our E shops are doing incredibly well and becoming a very important part of the business, but we like them to stay ultimately a kind of service, for people not near a DSM, or need a reorder. DSM is a family and a family that doesn’t  meet and touch and talk and exchange is not a family that can grow and evolve in a healthy way.

Dorothée

As someone with a formal background, is literature important in your everyday life? Who are the voices, authors, titles that have accompanied you?

Adrian

Literature is crucial of course. There is no life without words.. I like reading about people’s lives, history, and also poetry. People definitely need to read more of the masters..

Dorothée

My last question is on the meaning of “Comme des Garçons.” In French it means “like boys,” but in the exhibition catalogue it was translated as “like some boys.” Did it come from the lyrics in the Françoise Hardy song “Tous les garçons et les filles”? What did Rei really mean when she came up with this name for the company in 1969?

Adrian

No meaning whatsoever. It just sounded good.

 

This conversation was originally published in PARIS LA 16, the “Fashion and Writing” issue (2018–2019).

Text © PARIS LA.

Portrait of Adrian Joffe by Katerina Jebb. Image © Katerina Jebb, courtesy of the artist.

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