How the Comme des Garçons President Goes Against the Flow
By Ken Miller
ISSUE No 3
Adrian Joffe is far too unfailingly thoughtful, considerate, and measured to describe himself as some sort of anti-establishment radical. He’s one of the most revered and recognized CEOs in the fashion industry, yet also someone who describes his preferred decision-making process as involving collaborative discussions, long walks, and “self-doubt”—hardly the self-aggrandizing pose struck by most in his position. Joffe even goes so far as to describe the whole notion of being a boss as “demotivating” (as compared to being a leader, which he most certainly is).
Yet there is something heroic in Joffe’s commitment to speaking so frankly and humbly about the process, one that has made his wife Rei Kawakubo’s iconic Comme des Garçons label into the epitome of forward-looking chic, and the Dover Street Market shops that Joffe oversees into some of the most prestigious retail locations in the world.
Kawakubo and Joffe met in 1982 when he traveled to her native Tokyo on behalf of his sister’s business, somewhat by accident. (He had originally planned on traveling to Tibet.) Kawakubo was already a legend within the fashion industry, part of a generation of Japanese designers who had transformed the industry with a sleekly experimental, futuristic vision. But her Comme des Garçons label was a niche enterprise that struggled to balance making a profit with Kawakubo’s commitment to innovative conceptual designs (and her distaste for the repetitive, high-profit margin items—such as handbags —that support big labels).
He started working for Comme des Garcons in 1987 in Paris and became its president in 1992. Joffe would not have been the obvious choice to head the company: he has no business training and famously studied Zen Buddhism at university. Born in South Africa, he attended school in the United Kingdom and ended up in Japan. By his own admission, he remains willfully not business-minded, going so far as to describe making a profit as “a secondary priority.” Yet that contrarian impulse has made him the ideal partner for a designer who has publicly declared that she will never repeat herself, a daunting challenge for a 46-year-old avant-garde fashion label in an increasingly high-speed fashion market.
Joffe and Kawakubo have been partners in life, as in business, since 1992. Over the years they’ve maintained an unusual arrangement; he lives in Paris while she lives in Tokyo.
Kawakubo is notoriously publicity-shy and Joffe gives all interviews, though he is very cautious to not speak on her behalf. Yet the trust inherent in their relationship has allowed Joffe to pursue a remarkably organic strategy as president of, first, the Comme des Garçons label and, for the past decade-plus, the Dover Street Market stores, fusing conceptual design into practical commerce, mixing emerging designers with powerful brands, and creating an environment that feels like a cross between a department store and an art installation.
Joffe has fruitfully expanded Kawakubo’s philosophy of constant innovation into a business ethic that guides the entire enterprise. “We’re not a sentimental company and we believe that new is good. We never do a carbon copy,” he says. “But on the other hand, it doesn’t make any sense to do something completely different. We always like to keep the same DNA and the same concept of beautiful chaos, creative synergy, energy, mixing, and even accidents….” So while most brands would focus on opening their own shops, Comme des Garçons opened Dover Street Market, incorporating the label into a multi-brand concept store that was located in a previously unglamorous corner of London.
The store broke numerous rules—managing to be both inviting and intimidating, with an unusual mix of emerging designers and established brands, all set within a mish-mashed environment that has become the store’s signature aesthetic.
“I try to keep Dover Street with the same values as Comme des Garçons,” Joffe explains, “creating something new, something original, or something that’s going to surprise you. I think that shared philosophy is very important for informing each business.” That loosening of restrictions has allowed Comme des Garçons to flourish while Dover Street Market has expanded to become a global retailer, with locations in Tokyo and New York, and an upcoming relocation of the London store that will be three times the size of the original.