Style

Rei Kawakubo: Like the Boys

“She’s a tough independent lady with a genius for design, a brilliant sense of marketing and business, a lust for control, and her very specific idea of what women need in 1984.”

by

Like the Boys
March 7, 1984

This is the story of a new boutique on Wooster Street that looks like a cement bunker, is called Comme des Garçons, and is making a fortune. It opened at the tail end of August, the designer is Japan’s Rei Kawakubo, and the owner is Dianne Benson, former Bendel’s buyer and owner of the Dianne B. shops on Madison Avenue and Soho’s West Broadway.

It’s not just another boutique. The negotiations between Rei Kawakubo, 41, an extraordinary Japanese businesswoman/designer and Dianne, 38, produced an instant, screaming success. Which is not really a surprise because Rei Kawakubo is not just another designer, but a woman with a total aesthetic, a world view; perhaps the Chanel of the ’80s. Last summer, her “black bag” clothes looked extremely weird scruffling along Wooster Street on a lanky, blonde fashion freak. Today, strong professional women around New York are wearing them, like Amy Levin, editor-in-chief of Mademoiselle.

Rei Kawakubo does things in what I’m sure Diana Vreeland would call a Big Time Way. She’s a tough independent lady with a genius for design, a brilliant sense of marketing and business, a lust for control, and her very specific idea of what women need in 1984. She has 168 stores and boutiques within other stores; she owns about 25 of them.

Last spring Paris’s Passion magazine described Rei’s clothes as “stark, violent elegance in sculptural form.” The Comme des Garçons boutique she opened there in 1982 was the talk of Paris. Her torn cotton knit T-shirt was selling for 600 francs.

Rei Kawakubo, it is said, started Comme des Garçons so she could have total control over her life and answer to no one. In all, this is a very feminist story. “Basically,” said Dianne last August, “Rei’s is the biggest idea around, the most modern, because it’s so total.” Rei does everything, from designing the stores (stark gray cement), the environment — the music, pens, stationery, bags — to the employees, directing everything from their posture to their paper clips to their cars. There’s no postmodernist flip in her minimalist aesthetic. Rei acted as architect on the Soho store. Its bleak lines are almost Joe D’Urso/black leather/hospital gown antiseptic. While New York blossoms with a postmodernist pallette and the AT&T building sprouts Chippendale curves, Japanese architects hunker down in oriental high tech. Sol Le Witt’s 1968 white Modular Cube/Base illustrates Kenneth Frampton’s A New Wave of Japanese Architecture; Le Witt, along with fellow minimalists Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, inspires the Japanese new wave. Whether Rei’s “Machines for Living” aspect will throw people, as did Le Corbusier’s (or Paley’s despised office decor rules for Black Rock, CBS headquarters) remains to be seen. She even so far, Future Shock seems to have thrown a lot of True Believer customers Rei’s way, into a calm, orderly world with few decisions to be made about one of the less important things in life: one’s clothes.

Mr. Kateyama, the business director of Comme des Garçons, has an interesting office in Rei’s Tokyo headquarters. Cement, like the stores. Minimal furniture. Filing cabinets. And one entire wall covered with a map of the world. Below, a low built-in ledge holds only a tray of monotone thumbtacks. At the pace they go, they envision everyone in the world being in their clothing. It’s a big wall. The island of Japan has hundreds of tacks. New York, several. Philadelphia. Houston. Paris. Milan.

Is Rei a feminist? It’s hard to determine. She seldom speaks to the press. In photographs he has a strong handsome serious face that needs no makeup. Johanne Siff, who spent two years in Japan on a Watson Fellowship studying the emergence of women in the contemporary arts, explains that there is no organized feminist movement to parallel what American women experienced in the ’70s. “But Rei’s right on the edge,” she [says]. “Her politics are definitely integrated with her art.” Johanne, who started as a part-time weekend worker, now manages the Comme des Garçons boutique. (She couldn’t afford CDG clothes when she lived in Tokyo.)

Rei, according to her bio, was born in Tokyo in 1943. She was either three or four when the atom bombs exploded at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. She started Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys) in 1973, showing her first collection two years later. The following year she opened her Paris office and first overseas boutique and splashed ice water in the faces of the French.

Karen Rubin, the general manager for all three of Dianne Benson’s stores, seemed less than enthusiastic about Dianne’s wild idea of opening and owning a CDG boutique in Soho. Of course Dianne was the boss. “But,” she adds, “when I sat down in their offices in Tokyo last year, I knew it would work. It’s the most serious idea around. It’s a whole way of life.” Rei’s offices look just like the stores, and rumor has it that her apartment does too. Rei’s office has one telephone, black; four concrete walls; one low black table; one black leather sofa; one intense light. Nothing else.

Everyone who works for Rei believes in her idea. What exactly is it? Something about everything for the simplest and purest life. How women should look and how they should feel. Her designs have a lot to do with freedom of movement, wearing flat shoes. Rei doesn’t wear makeup and tells her people point-blank not to wear it.

Susan Brownmiller notes in her new book Femininity, “Serious women have a difficult time with clothes, not necessarily because they lack a developed sense of style, but because feminine clothes are not designed to project a serious demeanor.” A statement of Rei Kawakubo’s: “I have always felt it important not to be confined by tradition or custom or geography, I hope to remain free of these influences in expressing in shapes and colors and textures an idea of mobility… I wish to design garments which the owner can feel confident in, and which do not discriminate ideas of mobility — and yet remain anonymously distinctive.” (I think by those two references to mobility she means no indications of social class.) Rei’s clothes, worn as a uniform, allow the woman to forget about her closet and get on with life. Or that’s the theory. Karen Rubin says Rei’s idea may be as simple as the title of a current hip-hop record hit: “It’s Like That, and That’s the Way It Is.” CDG is so far away from a Seventh Avenue operation it’s amazing — Rei ships supplies at her cost, because she wants that specific hanger design. “It’s just a whole other idea.” The Americans figure Rei works about 20 hours a day, running every facet of the business. Shy, intensely private, she’s “so absorbed in what she’s doing her personal contact is minimal,” says Karen. Rei’s press person, Stella Ishi, married to an American painter, speaks perfect English; she’s the interface. Rei is the Sherman tank.

As Dianne Benson told me in mid-1982, “I’m into working, making money, and not being confused. Getting my priorities straight. I’m into nobody yelling at me.”

Dianne B. is one of those people who give an impression of total chaos then pull diamond-studded rabbits out of elegant top hats. A Mike Todd type. Her CDG store is a triumph of cutting through the traditional molasses of Japanese-American business negotiations. With Rei, the two women personally put together what Dianne described in August as “a very intriguing, sensible financial agreement which should reach break even in a year.” (Her West Broadway store took 15 months, rather than the projected 12, to turn a profit.)

Working with her souped-up Radio Shack TR S-80 home computer, Dianne started negotiations less than a year ago. They would Telex in the morning and talk over the phone at night. “Between the two of us we came up with a give and take. I wrote up the deal with a letter of intent, four schedules, a projection of volume, expenses, etc., and then the lawyers came in. All the main points boiled down to the biggest legal issue: under which country’s law is this? The lawyers cost a little over $12,000. We split it.” The deal was done in under three months, the lease signed for a prime 6,500 foot location at 116 Wooster Street June 1. Construction started 20 days later; they opened in late August.

Dianne and her partners capitalized the store with $200,000 up front to secure the lease and start construction. (They later got an additional construction loan from the Bank of New York.) There was no capital left to buy merchandise, so Rei fronted the money, with a letter of credit from Tokyo’s Fuji bank. There was $250,000 worth in the first month. Dianne loved doing business with CDG. “Stella Ishi and Kateyama are Rei’s two henchmen. They’re so cool and so groovy and funky and smart. They’re unlike an other Japanese businesspeople. There’s nobody that comes this close. It’s a very strange and different group, and real smart. And all these people are about 34.”

The day of the opening CDG took in $10,000. And now the story is coming in. Many New Yorkers find the CDG things to be wearable, comfortable, addictive clothing. A way of life. And, the projected break-even? Not a year. Only four months to turn a profit. Dianne did $600,000 in retail sales by year-end. The CDG Homme menswear sold out completely and they had to close the downstairs Homme area until they could restock.

The revolutionary speed of these negotiations are mirrored by some revolutionary management developments in the CDG store. Originally Dianne slated six salespeople, three assistants, a cashier, etc. The staff of 10 to 15 that evolved is described as “socialistic,” though CDG is definitely all about making money. The entire group, including manager Johanne Siff, rotates jobs. “It’s kind of like overnight camp,” explains Karen, “when you had your job wheel in the bunkroom.” And the entire staff, except for Johanne, makes exactly the same salary. There’s a great CDG team spirit; after six weeks, each employee gets enough of Rei’s clothes to fashion a week’s wardrobe. “But believe me,” explains Johanne, “it’s taken some time to instigate Dianne’s idea of management. Some people weren’t into it. The fashion freak types sort of freaked out. Three people were fired for internal stealing.” Two more left.

“Now, we work as a unit. We’re more versatile, flexible; not as rigid and limiting as what might be Rei’s hierarchy in Japan. Dianne takes Rei’s structure and softens it. And she’s much more accessible.”

Dianne says “Rei’s totally radical.” But in what sense? Dianne’s a fashion person; a fabulous purveyor of words, stance, attitude. Rei seems to be getting at something more political; feminist; free; revolutionary. A lot of New Yorkers were saying last year that the Japanese were stealing their ideas from the English designers. If the talk sounds similar; the clothes are totally different. In the August issue of London’s The Face, Katherine Hamnett explained why she thought a designer had power: “I suppose it means you dress the elite… you’re creating their persona.” Hamnett’s fascination is with the dialectic between the clothes you wear and the attitudes you express. In late August, Vivienne Westwood, about Rei’s age, described her own clothes to The Guardian as “strong,” “grand,” and “free.” They then had a lot of Roxy “hip­-hop” references like Smurf hats, Keith Haring graffiti prints, and triple-tongued sneakers. The business impulse behind Westwood is Malcolm McLaren, purveyor of the Sex Pistols and Adam Ant, who noted these clothes did well in Japan. “Japan was for so long an isolated island that it has never got over its hunger for the status of ideas.”

So is Rei making an English-inspired statement? Betsey Johnson says, “London is laughing about the old way with clothes… It’s a street peoples’ musical statement, I see Bow Wow Wow, Boy George, Dexie’s Midnight Runners, MTV.” The Japanese clothes? “A very sophisticated, typically Japanese approach to cloth and texture and drape. The Japanese finally once and for all had to make a big time statement for themselves in clothing. But it’s completely different — the English is from the street, the Japanese is from an expensive, sophisticated fashion point of view.

***

Dianne Benson is now in Tokyo negotiating with Rei to open a Comme des Garçons on Geary Street in San Francisco. She’s probably wearing her CDG clothes. She says they make her feel sexy. And powerful.

And another tack will probably go on Mr. Kateyama’s world map. ■

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