Adrian Joffe: Serenity Amid The Excitement

Adrian Joffe B&WThe welcome token at the Comme des Garçons party two Fridays ago was an oddity. If you’re dressed in CDG, you’ll receive a gold chain with a pendant bearing the name of the house, spelled out in its entirety (including the cédille of the ‘c’ in Garçon as a star). People seemed amused. Think gold chains, and you recall Run DMC. Yes, there’s also LL Cool J, and Eric B and Rakim. Furthest from your mind is anything associated with the work of the vanguard of the Japanese avant garde. Sure, CDG does some outré stuff, but chunky gold chain? Surely that’s in the domain of Jeremy Scott!

Of course, for those in the know, there has never been anything straightforward about CDG. Yet, the Comme look is so distinctive and recognisable that aficionados would not need a flashy gold chain to identify the label’s clothes to one another. Glitziness, however, was what CDG was offering to its guests as a badge of honour. What cryptic message was there? Perhaps, there was none. CDG has been consistent in letting its fans construe a certain image of itself that many will miss even the most evident irony flashing in their face. This was no dumb bling. Gleaming gold against an essentially matte CDG aesthetic is true to the intriguing contradiction that has kept the brand so alluring for the past 34 years, since its first showing in Paris in 1981.

CDG chain and pendantParty favours at the Comme des Garçons bash

In the middle of the I’m-in-more-outrageous-CDG mode of comparison and admiration, another incongruity: Adrian Joffe. CEO of Comme des Garçons Co, Ltd, Mr Joffe moved among the near-clones of CDG customers like a priest among his wayward flock. He was all serene smiles in the company of the fashionably dead-serious and achingly plastic. In the seeming frivolity of the occasion, here was a counterpoint, cool and collected. A week earlier, it was transmitted that Mr Joffe and “a team from Japan” would grace the CDG in-boutique do, a sort-of annual affair that brings fans into the store at the Hilton Gallery for some socialising and shopping. Meeting the man, for some of us, was the reason to attend.

Suited in nondescript black—possibly from the Comme des Garçons Homme Deux line, Mr Joffe offered no outward clue to his connection to the person that has been described as the most successful Japanese designer of modern times: he’s married to the founder of the brand Rei Kawakubo for 23 years. Just as CDG requires no caricature of itself for identification, Mr Joffe needs no obvious get-up to be his wife’s spokesman and interpreter. In person, he could pass off as Lord Voldemort, but one unencumbered by Horcruxes, who has come to peace with what the Buddhists would say is the transient nature of life. He conducts himself like a Japanese salaryman in the company of superiors, with reverence and immense courtesy. In the middle of a conversation with us, when he was pulled away to attend to something undisclosed, he said calmly, “Excuse me.”, then turned to add, “Stay here. I’ll be back.”

CDG party 1Guests outside Comme des Garçons, Hilton Gallery

Rare is the person of such stature who could have used an opportunity to break away from an unimportant conversation but did not. As he walked towards the brightness that emanated from the CDG store, where he was required, it was a little hard to immediately discern the synergy between this small, affable man and the giant of an independently held company that is Comme des Garçons. Built and geniality clearly do not determine how one thrives in the cut-throat world of the business of fashion. Mr Joffe, who hails from South Africa, has been with CDG since 1987, when he was appointed the commercial director of the brand’s European markets. In 1992, he married Ms Kawakubo. Uncommon is their marital, as well as business compatibility. It was through their combined vision, and his verve and strength that saw the conception of the world’s first pop-up retail format, the Guerrilla Store that debuted in Berlin in 2004; and, in the same year, the iconic multi-label emporium, Dover Street Market in London’s Mayfair.

The Guerrilla Store—including various iterations in Singapore—is no longer part of the CDG stable of stores. Its eventual demise is not, many believe, due to loss of interest on the part of the owners, but the omnipresence and overuse of the pop-up concept. Dover Street Market, presently a four-city fashion destination, took the experiential component of the Guerrilla Stores, gave it brand plurality and, more importantly, permanence of locality. DSM (the abbreviation is preferred by habitués) was then nothing the market has seen before. It was a confluence of different styles from different cities, but all had one commonality: difference. Within its multi-storey space (in DSM New York, there are seven levels), a market spirit exists, in the old, almost souk-like sense of the word: variety can come together to provide a lively mix of products that arrive from shared values.

DSM LondonDover Street Market in London. Photo: Dover Street Market International

Walk into any DSM, and it’s immediately apparent that the store is poles apart from others. Inside, it’s rare not to be inspired, not to feel that you’re in another retail planet, not to succumb to the urge to spend. It’s a visual treat and engaging pleasure, especially for those jaded by the same-sameness of the retail offering in many cities trying to project a shoppers’ paradise image, including Singapore. DSM allows one to feel, to sense, to react, to wonder, to marvel, to touch, to feel. Mr Joffe told Suzy Menkes of Vogue last year as DSM celebrated its tenth year in London, “We want to make DSM stronger and stronger and more and more exciting, not only as a retail experience but also as a place for conversation, the sharing of ideas – where accidental synergies can arise, where people can interact openly and see the possibilities of being different.” The report also revealed that DSM London will move from Dover Street (hence the name) to a larger space in Haymarket, south of Piccadilly Circus.

Unlike other multi-label stores such as Colette in Paris, DSM does not attract in large numbers the tourist crowd or those who visit solely because they need to partake in what is perceived as cool. DSM Tokyo, for example, is in touristy Ginza, right behind the equally touristy Uniqlo (a 12-storey flagship), but it draws mostly those who know its precise appeal and what can be gleaned from it. Mr Joffe told us that the London store is the best-performing (the Evening Standard reported a £13.2 million in sales last year) and “Ginza is coming up fast”. While DSM has largely kept it within admirers of its indie vibe and aesthetics that are not always comprehensible, its main store Comme des Garçons has unfortunately become a victim of its own success. At the Aoyama flagship in December last year, one of our correspondents who was there reported what he saw: “It was shocking. The crowd—yes, crowd—didn’t look like the typical customers; they were scrambling to buy—mostly from the Play line. The store was in a mess: clothes laid in a pile, a few strewn on the floor. It didn’t look like a CDG store if you only saw who were in it.”

CDG AW 2015 in storeComme des Garçons autumn/winter collection now in the store at The Shopping Gallery, Hilton Singapore. 

In the last eight years or so, the CDG signatures of colour-blocking, mixed media, and pattern-clash have gone quite mainstream, and can be seen across many price points. CDG has so successfully positioned itself as the forerunner of edginess that anyone who wants to be seen as cool, rather than individualistic, adopts the brand compulsively. At that Friday night party, one of the attendees was Vernon A, one half of the Muttons in the Morning on Class 95. Accompanied by a female, he strutted his stuff wearing an untucked white shirt with CDG emblazoned across his chest—the marker-stroke font of the ‘C’ and ‘G’ outlined with shell buttons. Even with the obvious branding, there was nothing characteristic of CDG in his entire look. Style was sacrificed for misguided cool.

Despite the risk of CDG achieving critical mass (that’ll dismay its dare-to-be-different fans), more of the brand will be welcomed in Singapore, especially when the single store here is known for its rather conservative buying (in comparison with, say, Hong Kong). We asked Mr Joffe if there might be a DSM Singapore and he replied by enquiring, “Do you think it’ll work here?” Our answer was in the affirmative, and he said, “There is a possibility of working with a local party.” That was encouraging to hear. Asia’s only DSM outside Tokyo is in Beijing, and that was put together in partnership with Hong Kong’s I.T Group (hence the name I.T Beijing Market). A DSM Singapore would make it Southeast Asia’s very first, and show that alternative retail concepts can work on our shores. At the moment, it is logical that Club 21 could be that “local party” since it has been the official CDG distributor and stockist for SEA. Club 21 Singapore Market, there’s an oddly appealing ring to it.

Before we could explore that possibility with him, Adrian Joffe was, again, led away by his minder. Just as he turned to go, he left us with a fascinating parting shot: “See you in Dover Street Market Singapore!”

Photos (except indicated): Jim Sim