Behind Comme des Garcons Stands Zen-Loving Contrarian CEO

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On a gray spring morning in Paris, behind the facade of an 18th century building on the Place Vendome, a flying insect has somehow made its way through an arched doorway, past a limestone courtyard and into the headquarters of Comme des Garcons International, where it is now buzzing around the head of Chief Executive Officer Adrian Joffe.

Not for long.

As Joffe sits at a glass table in his office, calmly discussing the relationship between artistic integrity and profit, he suddenly raises his right arm and executes a rapid swatting motion reminiscent of an Andy Roddick first serve. In a split second, the fly is gone and Joffe continues speaking, making no acknowledgment of the interruption aside from a barely perceptible grin.

To those who aren’t familiar with Joffe -- a seemingly mild-mannered executive with a background in Zen Buddhism and linguistics -- this matter-of-fact extermination of another living being might seem surprising. But as Bloomberg Pursuits magazine reports in its Autumn 2014 issue, those who know him well would recognize one of his most-marked qualities: not a killer instinct exactly but, rather, a clean efficiency, a knack for swiftly removing distractions so as to focus on what’s important.

Innovative Brand

Comme des Garcons, founded in Tokyo 45 years ago by the reclusive designer Rei Kawakubo -- Joffe’s wife since 1992 -- is perhaps the most enduringly innovative fashion brand of modern times. From the start, Kawakubo’s goal has been to rise above market forces to freely create new things, be they jackets with three sleeves or androgynous, abstract garments that upend standard notions of clothing, gender and beauty.

Despite its renegade bona fides, Comme, as its devotees call it, is also a business, and it’s up to Joffe to help keep it profitable. At a time when the art-commerce balancing act is a daunting challenge for many creative companies, Joffe, who has no formal training in either art or commerce, has become an unlikely master of juggling both. His ideas often seem uncopyable -- until they’re widely copied. Such was the case with Comme’s guerrilla stores, one-off, limited-run boutiques that served as the prototypes for today’s ubiquitous pop-up shops.

Creativity

Pharrell Williams -- whose new unisex scent with Comme puts him in an esteemed club of fragrance collaborators that includes the design firm Artek and London’s Serpentine Gallery -- says that creativity remains Joffe’s top priority, with commerce running a very close second.

“Money doesn’t make ideas; ideas make money,” Williams observes. He describes Comme des Garcons as a kind of brilliant biosphere, with Joffe as the curator who gives Kawakubo’s creations their essential context. “If Comme is like a snow globe, Adrian is the water,” Williams says.

Joffe certainly doesn’t fit the standard profile of a 61-year-old CEO -- and not just because he dresses in head-to-toe black, often with a pair of graffitied Doc Martens on his feet. The shoes are a limited-edition Comme collaboration adorned with slogans by his wife, including, significantly, “My energy comes from my freedom.”

One of Joffe’s many tasks at the company is to act as interpreter and gatekeeper for the resolutely private Kawakubo, who speaks little English and shows no interest in making herself understood to the outside world.

“That’s the worst part of my job,” Joffe says. “It’s hard to explain her, and I don’t really want to. But I am somewhat of a realist, and for business, you have to try.”

Perpetual Innovation

Given its commitment to perpetual innovation, Comme des Garcons (“Like Boys” in French) is seen as a concept as much as a clothing label, but its essence is “almost impossible to put into words,” says Ronnie Cooke Newhouse, a London-based creative director who has collaborated with Joffe and Kawakubo since the 1990s. “It’s like an unspoken language. You never learn the language; you just know it.”

Joffe’s role at the $230 million company is equally hard to define, since Kawakubo remains the brand’s designer and guru-in-chief. (She still helms the Japanese part of the business from its headquarters in Tokyo, where she lives.) However, in addition to overseeing worldwide retail operations, Joffe is in charge of Comme’s acclaimed Dover Street Market, a deconstructed department store with branches in London, New York and Tokyo, as well as the company’s pioneering fragrance arm, which has launched 77 scents to date.

Everything Zen

Joffe got into the business by accident. Born in South Africa and raised in the U.K., he studied Japanese and Tibetan culture at the University of London before moving to Japan without a job in 1977. In Osaka, he perfected his Japanese, deepened his Zen meditation practice and gave serious consideration to a career as a monk while washing dishes at a bar called the Pasadena Inn.

After returning to London to start his Ph.D. on Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, Joffe began helping his sister, Rose (later the co-founder of Paris’s celebrated Rose Bakery), with a fledgling fashion business until Comme des Garcons hired him in 1987 as a commercial director based in Paris.

It was around then that Joffe first met Kawakubo, who, as usual, didn’t say much but didn’t need to; Joffe remembers being instantly struck by the “very intense aura” others had told him about.

“She walks into a room, and the air seems to change,” he says. “There’s no one I know like that.”

Marriage

The two became personally involved in 1991 and within a year got married at Paris’s Hotel de Ville. (Kawakubo doesn’t discuss Joffe or her private life in the press and wouldn’t be interviewed for this or any article about her husband. “No way,” Joffe says.)

By 1993, Joffe was president of the company and looking for new ways to apply Comme’s rule-breaking philosophy to the business side. Kawakubo, who Joffe says has an acute business mind herself, had never been interested in fragrance, but at Joffe’s urging, they began to explore the possibility, while of course ignoring the established rules of the beauty industry.

“In Japan, there’s no culture of perfume,” Joffe says. “Rei didn’t like the idea of putting on a perfume to seduce somebody. So our thinking was, What’s a fragrance for?”

One answer came with the launch in 1998 of Odeur 53, an “anti-perfume” whose notes included “flaming rock,” “flash of metal” and “wash drying in the wind.”

There were themed series of fragrances under rubrics like Synthetic, which evoked the smells of the city with scents such as Dry Clean and Tar. (“That was a weird one,” Joffe acknowledges with a grin.) A 2007 collaboration with couture milliner Stephen Jones produced a spicy-floral eau de toilette that, according to its creator, evoked hats.

New Scent

Williams, who counts himself among Comme’s die-hard fans, began discussing a possible collaboration with Joffe and Kawakubo in 2012. Although his new, woodsy scent -- called Girl, just like his latest record, but also targeted toward boys -- will clearly benefit from the singer’s current megastardom, it’s nothing like the mass-produced, profit-driven celebrity fragrances that now litter the market. Concocted in Paris with perfume master Christian Astuguevieille, Girl will be sold in Comme des Garcons stores and at Sephora, with no advertising.

When asked why he went with the niche Comme at a time when he could have released a blockbuster fragrance with any major company of his choosing, Williams says, “I wanted to be with the best.” He adds, “Rei and Adrian make no concessions to the way things are done by everybody else.”

Comme’s next fragrance, due in 2015, is a collaboration with Grace Coddington, the flame-haired, 73-year-old creative director of American Vogue.

Guerrilla Stores

One of Joffe’s most game-changing inventions dates to 2004, when he began opening Comme des Garcons’ first guerrilla stores -- raw retail spaces in outlying areas of Berlin and other cities that closed by design after a year. He has also worked with Kawakubo to strategize on the label’s many offshoot lines such as Black and Play, the somewhat more wearable (and affordable) alternatives to the main collections shown on Paris runways.

However, the duo’s retail vision reaches its fullest and most delirious expression at Dover Street Market, their multibrand mecca that’s part fashion emporium, part group art installation and part Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

‘Formulaic’ Stores

Traditional department stores, Joffe says, “are just so formulaic, aren’t they? You walk in and it’s, like, random scarves and furniture and horrible jewelry. There’s the men’s floor, and there’s the ladies floor.”

At Dover Street’s New York outpost, opened in December, what you’ll find instead is a Biotopological Scale-Juggling Escalator -- an enclosed stairway that purports to reverse the aging process, according to its creator, Madeline Gins -- and soundscapes by artist Calx Vive. The clothes are a mix of hard-to-find international labels, cutting-edge street wear, Comme’s own lines and samplings of top luxury brands such as Prada and Louis Vuitton.

Indeed, both Miuccia Prada and Vuitton creative director Nicolas Ghesquiere personally created their own dramatic spaces for the store, and Prada even designed an exclusive mini-collection for it. Joffe says these megabrands are surprisingly willing to adapt to the quirks of the Comme world.

‘Real Dialogue’

“Elsewhere, they’re used to getting exactly what they want -- the biggest, the highest, the widest,” he says. “But they know we’re as strong as they are, so they get the rare chance to engage in a real dialogue and be more free in their corporate structure.”

Coddington adds that Joffe has little use for middlemen -- including lawyers -- who often complicate dealings in the fashion world.

“When we met about the perfume contract, Adrian said, ‘My lawyer is me,’ which I love,” Coddington recalls. “Of course, I think that means he’s very careful about whom he connects with.”

At all three branches of Dover Street, Kawakubo designs the overarching interiors and Joffe chooses the retail mix. James Gilchrist, the New York store’s general manager, says that when he was hiring the sales staff, his main directive from Joffe was “the more eccentric, the better.” Gilchrist remembers walking down a sidewalk in SoHo with Joffe and seeing a “really amazing guy with a big beard and weird mustache and piercings and a fake cat on his shoulder. And Adrian was like, ‘We need him.’”

‘Wake-Up Call’

On opening day last year, 3,000 fashion-obsessed fans showed up at the New York store. A review on Style.com called the place a “wake-up call for the retail industry,” citing the store’s ability to provoke surprise and delight, rare qualities in a shopping era dominated by Amazon Prime.

With so many big talents -- and their attendant egos -- sharing one space, it’s no surprise that Joffe had a few major dramas to referee. James Jebbia, the founder of cult skate-wear label Supreme, became angry when he learned that the minimalist, white-walled space he created for the seventh floor would be juxtaposed with Prada’s dazzling installation, a kind of urban spaceship featuring huge murals and mannequins painted by Brooklyn street artist Gabriel Specter. Joffe blames himself for the clash.

“We like people to work in isolation,” he says, “so we didn’t tell Prada how the Supreme space was going to be, and we didn’t tell Supreme how the Prada space was going to be.”

Jebbia now has good reason to be happy with the arrangement, since a line of Supreme fanatics forms in front of Dover Street every Thursday, when the company’s new stock hits the racks.

Buddhist Training

In these matters and others, Joffe’s Buddhist training comes in handy. Although he dropped his daily meditation practice shortly after leaving Japan (“It just happened -- living in the West, you know”), the philosophy, with its emphasis on impermanence and lack of attachment, still guides him.

“It’s a way of understanding the world -- the big world and your little world,” he says. “It has kept me sane, I think. Otherwise, I just don’t know whether I could have survived in this business.”

The Zen approach extends to Joffe’s minimalist home in Paris’s Marais district, which Kawakubo designed. Cheerfully deflecting my attempt to see where he lives (“Not going to happen!” he says), Joffe describes it with one word: empty. The walls are mostly bare, and there are only a handful of pieces of furniture, including a Le Corbusier chair and a Poul Kjaerholm table. Joffe also has a small apartment in Marseille that’s “even more empty,” containing little besides an Ikea futon.

Busy Biosphere

Evidently, life inside the busy Comme des Garcons biosphere doesn’t leave a lot of time for hedonistic pleasures. Joffe sees Kawakubo about once a month, during her trips to Paris and his to Tokyo, but otherwise lives by himself. While off duty, he does a lot of walking and a little boxing, attempting to stave off what he calls “the horror of getting fat and old at the same time.”

Unlike other prominent fashion couples -- say, Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli or Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giammetti -- Joffe and Kawakubo have no interest in stockpiling contemporary art or sailing the Mediterranean with Naomi Campbell.

“They are not into yachts,” Gilchrist observes dryly.

Newhouse adds: “It’s clear that if they wanted to be materialistic, they could be. But I think they live exactly the way they choose to live.”

A pressing question in the fashion world is how long their unique way of living and working can go on. Kawakubo turns 72 in October, and her self-imposed ban on copying anyone -- including herself -- is getting more constricting every season.

‘Weight of Experience’

“It’s really torture for her now,” Joffe says. “Not because of her age, but because she’s done so many new things every six months for 45 years. You can imagine the weight of experience.”

Will there be a Comme des Garcons after Kawakubo?

“It’s a very difficult question,” Joffe says. “It’s inconceivable that anyone else could design Comme des Garcons, the line.” But he says he can imagine partnering with “someone else with a vision,” who could retain the spirit of the brand in some other way. “No decisions have been made,” he says. “I think we’ve got five years. There’s no hurry, but I’m kind of pushing to sort it out and create a strategy.”

Girl Packaging

In the meantime, Joffe will continue doing his best to brook no compromise -- unless it’s of his own making. When executives at Sephora reviewed the packaging for Girl -- a bottle designed by the artist KAWS inside a box made of transparent plastic -- they pushed Joffe to change the box.

“They thought the plastic looked cheap, even though it was more expensive,” Joffe says. He agreed to try a heavy cardboard, and “in the end, they were right,” he says.

However, Sephora also wanted to change the dimensions of the box to make it more suitable for display. Joffe held firm. “They said, ‘Can you just make it 5 millimeters smaller?’ And we said, ‘No. It has to be that size, because that’s the size we want.’”

Joffe now admits the box may indeed be too big to fit properly on store shelves, but his knowing smile indicates it’s not an insurmountable problem.

“We just might have to redo all the shelves,” he says.

(Christopher Bagley is a contributing writer for Bloomberg Pursuits. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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