Comme des Garçons PLAY and the kingdom of Rei Kawakubo

If you’re looking for some basic 9-5 fashion, Comme des Garçons PLAY is not the place to start. But if you’re searching for pieces that make a style statement, stand out form the crowd and make you part of a cultural cult — welcome aboard. But there’s more than street style savvy-ness and cult following to this global phenomenon called Comme des Garçons. And we’re here to discuss what.

By Diana Colcer

Photography by Christian Tudose

All featured items available at ENTRANCE

As a long time dedicated fan of the Comme des Garçons universe, you’re probably counting several of their clothing garments or accessories in your wardrobe. And you most likely know that, despite its widely spread international success, lucrative business and impressive revenues, Comme des Garçons is mostly known for designs that are avant-garde and noncommercial, and it was never about going everywhere or meant for everyone. More than merely selling fashion to millions, Comme des Garçons is about being fashion-literate, and being confident enough to genuinely appreciate what the vast majority of others would look at and think: “say what?!” And it is this seemingly contradictory dualism and cunning business strategy that makes Comme des Garçons so fascinating.

Comme des Garçons PLAY polyester hoodie, in black with black heart shaped logo. Available at ENTRANCE.

Comme des Garçons PLAY polyester hoodie, in black with black heart shaped logo. Available at ENTRANCE.

Rei Kawakubo and her Comme les Garçons kingdom

Dating all the way back to 1969 — which makes it an impressive 49 years old — this bold, unapologetic at times even shocking fashion label began its worldwide expanse in a tiny studio in Tokyo, where Rei Kawakubo, creative and business genius behind the label, was born. She had no formal fashion training when she founded the company and had developed her initial skill set while working in the advertising department of a textile manufacturer. Comme des Garçons is French for “like boys” and there is no profoundly French explanation on why Kawakubo chose it. Instead, she was insipired simply by a song detailing one woman’s frustration of being surrounded by couples when she herself couldn’t find love. According to High Snobiety, inspiration struck when Kawakubo heard the lyric “Comme les garçons et les filles de mon âge” in the popular ‘60s track by Françoise Hardy. Clearly, sometimes getting something stuck in your head can lead to legendary things.

Obviously ahead of the times, Kawakubo’s first show took Paris by surprise in 1981 — with her deconstructive, shredded aesthetic being found as shocking and upsetting as her heavy, dark “Hiroshima Chic” colours or her Japanese “black crows” fans. Nevertheless, the show hinted at what the label was going to bring for years to come: fascinating not-all-wearable works of art, crazy statement pieces and exaggerated silhouettes as well a range a subtler items that tap good into the street wear flair. Among her most famous — or infamous? — collections i’d have to mention “Holes” (1982), with models wearing moth eaten sweaters and tattered knits, a concept which she described as the new version of lace. Or the “Broken Bride” show in 2005 with torn down wedding dresses to symbolise unhappy marriages. Or the “18th-Century Punk” where she layered punk fashion over Victorian silhouettes and prints.

Rei Kawakubo doesn’t think up new trends, but rather ditches trends all together. She doesn’t make clothes, but outfits that are so wildly avant-garde, cerebral, and inventive that you can’t help but bow in her presence. Inspiring generations of designers to throw conventions off the window and perpetually challenging traditional standards of beauty and aesthetics, she has long been heralded as the leading voice of the avant-garde in fashion.

But fashion is, at the end of the day, a business, and Kawakubo is as commercially savvy as she is original. She has seen her brand grow to include a diverse selection of lines for both men and women — each fitting within the Comme des Garçons framework, but each having their own distinct feel — selling everything from colourful wallets to perfumes and laptop cases. Additional sub-brands are the result of Kawakubo’s attempt to incubate talent, allowing designers who work for the company (such as Junya Watanabe, Fumito Ganryu or Kei Ninomiya) to launch labels of their own under Comme des Garçons. There must be nearly two dozen labels within the Comme des Garçons family, with some of them being largely unknown, so it can be hard, if not impossible, to parse what exactly the company is selling in any given season. I don’t think there’s any other brand right now that has a runway collection while simultaneously having this many in-house brands to oversee. On one hand, they specialise in items that demand your attention, while on the other, they are experts on familiar wardrobe must haves.

Comme des Garçons PLAY white cotton T-shirts with red heart shaped logo. Available at ENTRANCE.

Comme des Garçons PLAY polyester hoodie, in blue with black heart shaped logo. Available at ENTRANCE.

Comme des Garçons PLAY and it’s cult following

Launched in 2002, the PLAY line is Rei’s venture for a more casual and playful aesthetic meant to oppose Comme des Garçons’s more traditionally avant-garde items. It is the most mainstream label within Comme des Garçons, described by the label as “a sign, a symbol, a feeling”, making its wearer instantly part of the Comme des Garçons cult club. The now-iconic signature logo, a heart with two questioning eyes, was designed by Polish artist Filip Pagowski. “The heart image happened simultaneously with, but independently of the creation of the PLAY line,” explained Pagowski in a interview. “I remember working on something… not connected to anything. I got this idea of a red heart with a set of eyes. I drew it instantaneously and the first draft was it. I submitted it for another CdG project, for which it never made it, but eventually it resurfaced; making bigger waves as a logo for the PLAY line.” PLAY isn’t linked to a particular season and includes graphic T-shorts, hoodies and accessories available for men, women and children. Making use of a simple colour palette of black, whites, greys and blues, the garments use Pagowski’s logo in various ways – from patches positioned on the left of the chest to multiple collage arrangements. Although PLAY’s pieces come with Comme des Garçons’s most entry-level prices, PLAY is reportedly Comme des Garçons’s most lucrative label, accounting for more than 12 percent of the company’s revenue. And it’s no wonder. They have hype partnerships with brands like Converse or Speedo, they gained the love celebrities like Drake, Pharell Williams or Kanye West, they avoid overexposure by distributing only to selected stores around the world, and since the line is seasonless, it never goes on sale or gets market down.

Comme des Garçons PLAY polyester hoodie, in blue with black heart shaped logo. Available at ENTRANCE.

Comme des Garçons PLAY polyester hoodie, in champagne white with black heart shaped logo. Available at ENTRANCE.

Her silence is the loudest statement

Fashion is very much a showing-off scene and designers are just as much public personalities as the A-listers they dress. But 75-year-old designer Rei Kawakubo does not play by these rules. Very few of her published interviews exist, and they are hardly revealing of her creative process, her inspiration or her personality. We’d probably be inclined to conclude that she simply likes her work to speak for itself. In an age where people attempt to express themselves through every platform, Rei Kawakubo wants silence to be strongest statement of all.

Comme des Garçons PLAY polyester hoodie, in champagne white with black heart shaped logo. Available at ENTRANCE.