Black

Forty years ago Rei Kawakubo launched Comme des Garçons, now a highly esteemed international fashion label. Ever since, the thinking person’s brand has been reinventing itself while maintaining its distinctive style and signature. CdG – best known, perhaps, for its all-black debut show in Paris in 1981 – comes up with one innovative idea after another. In 2004 the label introduced the immediately popular and, subsequently, much-copied guerrilla store, which led to a wave of pop-up shops. These CdG originals have since ceased to operate, however. ‘They hadn’t really run their course, but a lot of people were beginning to do similar things,’ says Adrian Joffe, the label’s CEO – and Rei Kawakubo’s husband. ‘We like to stop something while it’s still good and move on to the next thing.’ And move on is exactly what CdG has done. Its latest venture, Comme des Garçons Black, is not a pop-up store but a pop-up brand. Creativity, combined with clever timing and plain old common sense, is CdG’s answer to the generally negative mood engendered by the worldwide economic recession. To counter the prevailing atmosphere – a feeling that progress has been blocked by a blind wall – CdG has developed a positive strategy represented by a temporary ‘emergency brand’. Comme des Garçons Black is the result of straightforward reasoning that makes a lot of business sense. Kawakubo’s belief that progress cannot exist without something new is once more at the forefront of her brand’s approach to existing circumstances. The concept: good-looking, affordable clothes with personality, to be sold at new, often small locations. Each retail space – there are a total of 13 international points of sale, two of which are independent shops in Paris and New York – is to remain open for approximately 18 months or, in fashion terms, three seasons. Augmenting the strategy are a focus on perennially popular CdG styles in black only (with a token item in white) and speed merchandising: a change of stock approximately every six weeks, depending on conditions influencing individual locations. Prices are significantly lower than those of CdG’s main brand (about 40 per cent less). With virtually no advertising to boost the new brand, and no fashion shows, Black can be compared to a well-kept secret. Each garment has been designed by Kawakubo herself, in the colour she loves best. Styles reflect her past favourites, offering customers the classic CdG look. The shops, which she also designed, reinforce the concept. Each has a simple, basic structure composed of one or two black boxes, open on one side. The emphasis is on functionality. ‘These spaces are just houses for the temporary brand,’ says Joffe. Slightly off the beaten track, the Paris shop, with its distinctly dilapidated façade, was chosen because ‘we like the area’. The interior has been reduced to the basics: whitewashed walls, fluorescent strip lights, a fitting cubicle, piles of bags, and rails of men’s and women’s clothes mixed together, fresh from the boxes. The atmosphere is one of impermanence: here today, gone tomorrow. No elaborate displays are needed to enhance Kawakubo’s quirky yet classic clothes. Thankfully, I had the full address with me when I visited, as one can easily miss the shop. Apart from a small card in the corner of the window, there was no indication that this was the correct destination. I entered thinking that I had had enough of black and should spend less on clothes, but all my intentions were immediately thrown to the wind. Heightening my initial enthusiasm at having located the shop was a strange sense of comfort created by the lack of luxury inside. A complete absence of fancy design work – nothing to intimidate or offend – put me at ease. Freed from the pressure of overly attentive shop assistants, I flicked excitedly through the rails, speed-shopping in spite of myself. I needed little self-persuasion. When I heard that these items had just arrived, I didn’t even make it to the utilitarian-looking fitting room. The prices were good, the styles classic and timeless: these clothes will never date and might even become collector’s items. Besides, you can’t go wrong with black! So, yes, I love the additions to my wardrobe, love the shop and can’t wait to go back. I’d better not delay, however, as only two seasons remain: a narrow window of opportunity that makes the CdG Black brand even more appealing. The power of Comme des Garçons to come up with yet another clever marketing scheme is impressive. The company seems to get better with age, and the Black initiative is targeting – and attracting – an even wider clientele. And I’m living proof that it all works.