BEIJING — “There are fashionable people here that you wouldn’t even find in Paris, New York or London,” Miuccia Prada said of the burgeoning Chinese market. “They have already understood everything that they had to understand.”
And Prada’s company wants to tap further into that growing understanding. The luxury goods house last weekend staged its first-ever runway show in China at this city’s Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum, displaying a slightly revamped spring collection. The show is part of Prada’s plan to continue to expand in the region as it opens more stores in Mainland China and nearby territories.
“In a country like this, there is a special desire for rich products,” Prada told WWD in an exclusive interview in which she discussed a vast range of subjects, including her company’s potential initial public offering, the challenges of globalization, fast fashion and her views on the art world.
Clad in a thick navy sweater, pleated white cotton skirt and platform heels, with hair still wet from a shower just moments earlier, Prada spoke from her Park Hyatt suite overlooking the expansive urban sprawl of Beijing. Still nursing her jet lag, which she put to good use by working at the show venue past 3 a.m. the night before, she marveled at how quickly the country had changed since her first visit, in the Eighties.
Catering to China’s increasingly moneyed clientele, for the show on Saturday the designer ditched the cotton pieces that dominated her September show in Milan and created new versions of her opening monochromatic looks in radzmire silk. She also revisited her flapper-style striped dresses, strappy heels and clutch bags by coating them in sequins. Similarly, canvas bags from the Milan show were redone in silk or saffiano leather for Beijing. The clothing from the show was made available made-to-order at Prada’s stores in China and Hong Kong the day after the show.
The event drew the likes of actresses Gong Li and Maggie Cheung and featured a lively after party with a performance by the Pet Shop Boys, whom the house flew in for the occasion.
The festivities reignited chatter about whether the company that Miuccia Prada owns along with her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, Prada’s chief executive officer, will finally go public after years of flirting with potential investors. Most recently, it emerged the company is looking at listing in Hong Kong to capitalize on the region’s wealth and desire for luxury names. On that score, Bertelli told WWD, “Up until now we haven’t made a definitive decision. At this point, we think a listing in Hong Kong is the most opportune solution. In the coming months, we will evaluate the timetable and the details.”
The executive, who had to cancel his trip to Beijing at the last minute, also said via e-mail that the group plans to open a significant number of new stores in Asia over the next three years and expects to attain significant growth in the region. Prada currently has 14 stores in Mainland China, nine in Hong Kong and two in Macau, and this year plans to open nine stores in Mainland cities such as Harbin, Guangzhou, Changchun and Hangzhou.
The company said 2010 revenues in China, Hong Kong and Macau rose 75 percent from 2009, to 389 million euros, or $529.4 million at current exchange. That represents nearly 20 percent of the group’s total turnover.
Here, Prada’s thoughts on China, the IPO, politics, the Internet and more:
WWD: With this show in China, is this the first time you have presented special pieces for a specific market? Miuccia Prada: It was an adaptation for a special evening. Also the idea of doing the same identical show would mean the excitement level would drop. The pieces in striped cotton became sequined. There was a festive upgrade. Here, they don’t love cotton uniforms, so we enhanced the part of the show [made with less expensive materials]. In a country like this, there is a special desire for rich products. A [lower-end] product might not be well received.
WWD: Do you think globalization has made the creative process more difficult because you have to think about all of these individual markets? M.P.: I think absolutely yes. I always say that up until the Seventies, fashion was white, Catholic, Western. Now fashion embraces the whole world with [different] religions, costumes, et cetera, et cetera. Before, it reflected the spirit of a small group. There is just one collection, and we don’t make specific things for specific markets, but [the clothes] try to accommodate a world which has become a lot bigger. It’s a lot more difficult in this sense…[but] I think it enriches [the design experience] because it’s bigger.
WWD: One day could you make separate collections for different markets? M.P.: I don’t know. Germany is sportier, America is more minimal. They’re small differences. I don’t know how to say it in a more simple way, but the rich are the same all over the world. The intellectuals are the same all over the world.…It has always been this way. What pleases, pleases everywhere. Perhaps Japan is the only country that retains a bit of differentiation right now.
WWD: What do you think is different there? M.P.: It’s a little different from the others. There is something about that country that escapes me.
WWD: We are really curious about your decision to open new design studios in Paris and Hong Kong. Why did you decide to do this, and how will it work? M.P.: We decided to do this because not everyone wants to live in Milan.…I made a curious twist on the French word flâner, which means that when the people wanted to understand what was happening, they strolled the city. Now people travel the world. People really spend one day here, one day there, and then they want to spend two years here and two years there. I’d say it was almost a practical necessity…also it’s clearly an opportunity to get some young minds, fresher minds.
WWD: And the work in these offices will influence the design office back in Milan? M.P.: Definitely. [The new system] is not yet functional, but I imagine that they will think of ideas and they will make sketches and send them to Milan. Maybe they won’t come to anything, or perhaps they will be useful. Regardless, the concept is a good thing. The world is big now. If you continue to think in the same way, you’ll restrict yourself to a small world. So this is also an effort at becoming more open. We open stores everywhere, we have offices everywhere, so it’s right to do this as well.
WWD: But does this mean the creative possibilities within Milan and Italy are limited? M.P.: Let’s say that no one city is enough. In the end, I’m the one that does the things. But the idea of being more directly connected to other countries is important. And definitely there is a lot of turnover of young people in design studios. So, for example, the opening of an office in Paris is very useful in this sense.
WWD: So you’re trying to attract new talent? M.P.: More than to attract people, it’s for preventing the continual poaching of talent [laughs].
WWD: Is there a possibility that you could open other studios in other cities in the future? M.P.: Not for the moment. For now, let’s see how things start and how things work with these first two.
WWD: Will you travel personally to these two cities? M.P.: I don’t know. Probably while I’m in Paris, I’ll definitely go there…[but] they will be the ones who will be coming to Italy.
WWD: Do you come to China often? M.P.: About once a year.
WWD: What do you think of the culture, the people? M.P.: I really like this country. I’ve always liked it. I came the first time in the Eighties. It’s rather startling to see the differences every year. They are moving at such a fast pace.…There are fashionable people here that you wouldn’t even find in Paris, New York or London. They have already understood everything that they had to understand. Then later, they’ll follow their own path….The market is still small compared to the European, American or Japanese markets.
WWD: But it’s clear you are investing a lot in the country with new stores. M.P.: Honestly, we’re investing a little, like we invest everywhere. It’s not as if we treat China in a way that is different than the other countries.…It’s another big country that will be our market.
WWD: What is your view of Italy today? M.P.: A question worth a hundred million. [Laughs] I prefer not to answer.
WWD: In your past, you were very active politically. M.P.: I prefer not to speak about Italy because you risk saying banal things.…Regardless, Italy is always an exceptional country, so…I have no intention to speak badly about my country. [Chuckles] Also because it’s true that Italy has all of the defects of this world, but it’s the country where perhaps one lives the best in this world. We are a country with…the most beautiful, most pleasurable things, an incredible historical wealth. So let’s be happy with what we have.
WWD: I read in a previous interview that one day you’d like to enter politics. Is this true? M.P.: Yes, it’s true.
WWD: So it’s something you are considering seriously? M.P.: Probably, yes.
WWD: Why? M.P.: Because politics have always been a little of my passion. And now I [could] use my work as a tool to do things other than fashion.
WWD: Obviously everyone has been talking about the possibility of a Prada IPO for years. If the company were to become a public one, could it potentially limit your creativity or, for example, the way financial resources are used? M.P.: To start with, everyone is talking, and we haven’t said anything. So we’ll talk when we talk. Everybody says [we postponed the IPO] five times. But this five times was invented by other people. We tried it once, but then [there was Sept. 11, 2001] and we didn’t do it. Everything else was always said by other people.…And if we make this decision, which hasn’t been made yet, I don’t think anything will change at all, because it’s a company [that has operated in a transparent way] for years now. The numbers are more public than those of companies already listed on the stock exchange. Honestly, I don’t think we’ll even notice.
WWD: Everyone is talking about technology and the speed at which everyone can see collections on the Internet immediately after they are presented. Consumers have a direct relationship with fashion houses and are less dependent on newspapers and magazines for information. Recently Tom Ford criticized this immediacy and banned photographers from his runway show. What do you think of all this? Does the technology bring more positive or negative influences to fashion? M.P.: I think that, for now, this is the way it is. You can’t avoid it. It’s like being in denial about the future. The future will be even more like this because it’s an opportunity that’s so big and convenient. I don’t use a computer, but I see everyone around me using them. It’s immediate access to information, a way of communicating. I think it’s a real, great revolution, perhaps bigger than the Industrial Revolution. I say it’s just another, extra job. It’s not like it’s not necessary to work with [the press]. It’s not like you don’t need to do everything else. It’s just that you have to also take care of this thing. Every company uses it in its own way for what it believes is useful. We have done a lot of things. All of our films.…Like we always do with everything, we are trying to understand what is really the most intelligent thing, the most subtle thing that speaks to us. Sometimes people criticize us because we aren’t technological enough, because we don’t sell on the Internet…but [to have people] click on a runway show and sell it, I don’t think that’s the essence of the change.
WWD: Do you read blogs? M.P.: I have reports sent over. Every week I have a summary sent over of the positive blogs, the negative blogs and the interesting blogs. I read them on paper.
WWD: Have you found any of them particularly interesting? M.P.: It’s interesting to see what is making the rounds, what people are talking about. All of our work as designers is to understand what people are thinking, where the world is going, how things work. It’s one of many sources of information.…It’s not that I do it to do my job better. I do it because it interests me.…Definitely everything that leads me to know more about what’s happening probably makes my work more interesting. At least I hope so.
BEIJING — Miuccia Prada is known almost as much for her passion for art as she is for her designs. In the second part of WWD’s interview with the designer while she was here for a showing of her spring-summer 2011 collection, Prada talks about the confluence of fashion and art, shares her thoughts on the fast-fashion boom and reveals her views on the fashion system.
WWD: Do you think the current show calendar, the scheduling of the men’s and women’s shows and the New York-Milan-Paris system is still a valid one? Miuccia Prada: Everyone says it’s old but every time somebody thinks of something to do to really change it, there isn’t this great solution. Because, in any case, putting the men’s and women’s together, I think for a designer it’s a strain.…You can put three male models [in a show] but if you really want to do a men’s collection, you can’t think of a men’s and women’s collection together…it’s too much.
Not doing shows would be very convenient. For example, if I didn’t have to do shows, I’d be on vacation half the year. The work behind a runway show is a big job in which [you put] all of your best efforts. Where you really push your ideas, trying to understand everything you have in mind, what really makes sense and what doesn’t. If it was just about selling, it would be much, much easier. But despite the fact it’s a very tough job, it’s definitely useful to your work. I think if everyone didn’t have to do shows, they wouldn’t work as well.
WWD: What do you think of the fast-fashion boom? M.P.: I have never even considered it and I’ve explained why. It’s because I don’t like the idea of a bad copy of what one does for the main brand. If I had an ingenious idea to do fashion that costs less but that wasn’t a bad copy of something else, with completely different criteria and ways of doing things, I would do it. Also for myself, it would be an ingenious idea. For now, what I see more or less is the bad copy. Also with clothes that cost little, you need to ask why they cost so little. Because no one ever asks themselves that.
But it definitely is part of today so it’s all fine. I don’t have a problem with it. Everything that happens happens, so there’s no need to be against it. It’s logical that it’s like this.
WWD: What do you think of this trend of democratization of the industry with fashion and celebrities launching lines? M.P.: It depends always on the content. If the content is intelligent and new, it provides value. If it retreads something old and it’s something people have already committed to memory but it’s just a matter of adding a name to it, I really don’t care. It always depends on what one does.…Perhaps only the Japanese have found a better way to make economical products that really make sense.
WWD: When I was interviewing Rei Kawakubo… M.P.: What does she think of this?
WWD: She said that she did the collaboration with H&M, but in the end she discovered that the worlds were too different from one another and she doesn’t think she’ll do something like that again. M.P.: It’s what everyone wants and I resist it because I want to be relevant in my own way.…I try to simplify my ideas and make them more simple but beyond a certain point, the simplification is not a positive thing.…So extracting the essence of a brand so that a brand is just a bow, the brand is just a heart, the brand is just black…everyone would want that. Even the customers would want that. The majority of people want to just sell and probably [Kawakubo] would have found this aspect negative. Because in the end she didn’t want to banalize what she does and almost become a caricature of herself.
It’s clear that Chanel is known for the little jacket and Vuitton for the LV and us? Nobody really knows what we are, which is fortunate. Because I try to resist making a banal product. It’s clear that, as the world continues to get bigger, a bit of simplification is necessary but not to the point where it becomes totally useless or uninteresting.
I would hope that those chains would create a young fashion that’s fresh, autonomous with new ideas…and that they would do fewer bad copies. There are already bad copies around. What I don’t understand is all the admiration for this [imitation]. What’s more, the same people in the luxury industry defend the market of the things that cost little. When things cost very little, you need to ask yourself how and where they were made.
Luxury products are costly because the companies…manufacture in Europe, produce with salaries that have to be paid. You have to pay for everything that is needed to do research etc., etc. It’s clear that these things cost money. It’s not like the owners of luxury brands make enormous profits. Probably the [mass market players] earn much more.
WWD: One of the other things Kawakubo said was that young designers these days aren’t pushing themselves hard enough. Do you agree? M.P.: Those that push themselves, those that go forward, there are not thousands of those people through the generations. There have always been a few of them, so you can’t pretend now that the world is full of geniuses. The same thing is true in art. There are more museums and foundations than there are artists. Everybody wants the genius of the moment but there aren’t all of these geniuses.…There have been few revolutions in history and they are the fruit of long processes. There needs to be a rebellion against something. Now, what kind of rebellion can there be? If there isn’t one in art or philosophy and there isn’t one in politics…it’s not like fashion can invent itself one. Fashion is a reflection, a reaction to what happens.
What is missing is a new concept but if it doesn’t exist within society, you can’t think it’s the designer’s responsibility to create a revolution or invent who knows what.
WWD: Can you tell us about any artists, books or films you find interesting now? M.P.: These are all things I never talk about. These are things that I consider personal and I never name names.
WWD: You have so many connections to the art world. M.P.: Many yes. It has become my second job. We created [Fondazione Prada] in 2003. Probably in June we will do a very important thing in Venice. These things occupy half of my time.
WWD: Is there an artist in particular that you like? M.P.: I never say. I don’t say because it creates big problems for me. [Laughs]
WWD: Do you go to galleries and look at the contemporary art scene here in China? Is that one of the things you do here? M.P.: There are galleries that are, by now, the same as in the rest of the world. There isn’t really anything that has struck me.
WWD: How do you see this confluence of the worlds of art and fashion? Do you think it will continue? M.P.: Now it has become a very popular union [of the two worlds].…I remember the controversy regarding [the 1996 “Biennale di Firenze: Il Tempo e la Moda” with Germano Celant and Ingrid Sischy] which scandalized a lot of people.…Definitely the fact that the worlds are coming together is something very positive, but then everything becomes a cliché, a turn of phrase and I hate those things.
I have always tried to keep [art and fashion] so separate, even to the point of possibly exaggerating and making a mistake, but I don’t care. Everyone does it their own way. There were very important artists that wanted to make bags with me and I told them no. Sometimes I think I’m making a mistake because maybe the coming together of these two worlds is the future. Everybody wants to do everything. I’m not convinced that it’s right and creates something really valid.… Fundamentally I’ll continue to keep them more or less separate.
WWD: Just a few days ago you presented your men’s collection. What is your view of men’s fashion at the moment? M.P.: Men’s fashion is a product that is evolving a lot. I think that men are beginning to open up a lot more, especially the younger generations. They are not as formal.…I’m pushing in this area. I try to push in my own way without being excessive…because I really think things are opening up so I’m trying to do it in the most subtle way possible.
WWD: Do you find it more difficult to find inspiration for men’s rather than women’s? M.P.: For me, the inspiration for men’s is women’s. It’s what I’m thinking for the women…I try to understand everything that is possible, subtly adding or reinterpreting it for men.
WWD: Men’s seems like it’s particularly important for the emerging markets. Do you agree? M.P.: They say that emerging markets are a bit more open, but there are also open people in the Western markets so I don’t make these big distinctions between markets.…I think it’s more a matter of generations. Today’s younger generation in Europe is also open.
WWD: Do your sons want to go into the family business? M.P.: I don’t want to talk about my sons. They have prohibited me from doing so.
WWD: What other designers do you admire or wear? M.P.: The ones who are dead or don’t sell. [Laughs] I won’t say. I like the good ones. I’m not envious of the good ones. I like the good ones.
Fashion with a capital F. The kind produced by the masters of the genre, and that used to be celebrated for its artistry, its provocation, its trickle-down influence, the dreams it inspired — has that kind of Fashion joined the ranks of the bighorn sheep and the West Indian manatee? Which is to say, is it endangered?
On one level, fashion has never been of greater interest than it is today. The general population is more aware than ever of fashion as a factor in everyday life, in terms of entertainment if not always in the personal sartorial sense. Mediawise, we can’t escape fashion via vehicles traditional and new, including every handheld device this side of an eggbeater. The Web provides instant access to all: live-streamed collections; the minutia of magazine staff moves (“and the latest intern upgraded to the closet full-time is ——-!”); endless photos of any starlet in a cocktail dress, no matter how mundane the girl, dress or event. And all this while the blogosphere and Twitter provide platforms for a culture of self-proclaimed critical experts, some apparently knowledgeable and definitely influential in that proverbial high school seizure-of-power way.
It’s hard to argue against such mass participation. Democracy — God bless it. But in fashion as in politics, populism isn’t perfect and can elevate to iconic that based on merit may not deserve hallowed status. Not only has current fashion enslaved itself to celebrity, but in the rush to court favor, anyone who swings slightly more elegant than Snooki (who, by the way, was quite cute on David Letterman on Monday night) is deemed worthy not only of coverage, but of celebration. When was the last time a fashion-centric pub-lication or Web site went tough on a celebrity? Implicit in the cover wrangling is a pleasant, upbeat story to justify the pictures.
Designers are complicit, a notion that will gain credence through the upcoming awards season. Almost surely the actresses garnering the greatest praise in the morning-after postmortems will be those whose gowns were least challenging and most generic, as designers will again prove willing to do what it takes to land their stars, whether or not a specific dress genuinely reflects the brand. True, even the most gorgeous celebrities are real women who want to look beautiful for big nights out. It is not their responsibility to push experimental fashion on the global television audience. But if the threat of yuk-it-up, mean-spirited criticism loomed a little less large, some of them might opt for frocks a little less boring.
Another element to fashion’s increasingly democratic persuasion is the ever-swelling obsession with high-low. Some designers render accessible fashion beautifully. Marc by Marc Jacobs may be the smartest secondary brand ever launched, given its great clothes and a cool factor that can be had — in the form of all kinds of trinketry starting at five bucks and under. Recently, the blockbuster collaboration of Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz with H&M had ample shades of, well, Lanvin. So much so that in a December cover line, Vogue heralded, “The Perfect Party Dress (for under $250!).”
Fabulous for the girl who wants an inexpensive pretty party dress that looks like a much more expensive pretty party dress, and hats off to Elbaz and others for delivering genuine chic on the cheap. Certainly each case taken on its own feels like a meaningful stylistic victory for the nonrich. Yet, at the risk of sounding like a founder of the Marie Antoinette Got a Raw Deal Fan Club, what is the aggregate good for (uppercase) Fashion? In the zeal to court and clad the proletariat, is it becoming no longer PC, or even of interest, to celebrate the levels of research, of design, of intricacy, of detail, of materials (all fabrics are not created equal) that go into high-end fashion? Last time we checked, Fashion was not a social services agency, but a for-profit multibillion-dollar global industry that preys on insecurities about physical appearance. Elitism is an essential part of the shtick.
The devoted high-end customer craves distinctive fashion. Just look at the relatively recent increase of interest in collections such as Dries Van Noten and Rick Owens, once considered on the edge. Yet luxury houses are grappling with issues that impact creativity that have nothing to do with the high-low bandwagon. Given immediate access to fashion show visuals, the impatient public no longer wants to wait months to procure designer merch. Thus, some houses are experimenting with how to satiate the beast and increase speed-to-market. But at what price? For spring, in his quest for clothes that could be produced and delivered on a truncated schedule, Burberry Prorsum’s Christopher Bailey appeared to have watered down his typically intricate, inventive looks.
Such experimentation in timing is inevitable, as luxury houses determine how best to utilize the Web in doing business. One hopes that, in the end, designers will refuse to make creativity a secondary consideration to speed. If a piece of Fashion incites breathlessness, shouldn’t it be worth the wait?
It should fall to the fashion press, both consumer and trade, to fully report on and dissect high-end fashion, both experimental and otherwise. But too often, even the toniest fashion is presented in either a clinical manner or one in which is mere foil for its celebrity subject.
Though lip service is given to the importance of the great designers, in reality, serious focus on their work, their craft, has been diminishing for years.
This is not to suggest that the millions of people who shop at all price points south of designer don’t want and deserve excellent design; that designers in those markets are not often extremely talented; that design innovation only happens at the high end, or that acknowledging or enjoying celebrity fashion escapades is a black mark on one’s sartorial soul.
But in the fray, appreciation for pure, elitist Fashion is getting lost — an argument supported unintentionally right here. This has been a quite gorgeous pre-fall season. Yet in Tuesday’s print edition of WWD, coverage of eight mostly major collections was crammed into three pages, including a visually busy page one, while Rachel Zoe’s fun, contemporary launch merited a nice, airy photo on the cover of WWD Style and a roomy spread inside. And not without reason: It’s a given that Web site tallies of “most e-mailed” and “most viewed” will support that allocation.
Zoe is indeed interesting (and smart, to boot). So, too, brand ambassadors, party girls, teen bloggers, reality stars, “Project Runway” graduates and runway clothes designed with haste rather than haute in mind.
But to lovers of pure Fashion, other matters, too, deserve consideration. On pre-fall alone, why did the usually single-focused Nicolas Ghesquière do so eclectic a collection? Do the gorgeously high-glam lineups of Vuitton and Lanvin presage dressed-up days for fall? Do Phoebe Philo’s patchwork pants for Celine indicate a move away from her signature minimalism? Looking ahead two weeks, what wonders might the couturier set have in store?
More importantly, like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, if Karl Lagerfeld or John Galliano were to show a seminal couture collection — but most people were too wrapped up in the front-row celebrities to care — would it make a sound that lingers?
The mind behind Comme des Garçons and one of fashion’s most influential and reclusive figures says that with each collection she is out to create something totally new — a goal that is becoming harder and harder the longer she is in fashion. And that is just one of the many provocative admissions Kawakubo made during a rare interview pegged to the opening of I.T Beijing Market, her new multibrand store in the Chinese capital.
The 68-year-old designer admits she is starting to ponder a succession strategy for her business and indicated that she doesn’t oppose the idea of selling her company. Surprisingly, she said she doesn’t think anyone would be interested in it. Her husband and the company’s chief executive Adrian Joffe, on hand to translate the designer’s words from Japanese to English, said half-jokingly: “We’re waiting for an offer.”
In another burst of humility — a rare commodity in the fashion world — Kawakubo concedes that even she has her creative limits.
“The motivation has always been to create something new, something that didn’t exist before,” said the diminutive, bob-haired designer, sitting in a chandelier-lit private room in the basement of The Opposite House, a Kengo Kuma-designed boutique hotel in the Sanlitun retail complex housing her new store. “The more experience I have and the more clothes I make, the more difficult it becomes to make something new. Once I’ve made something, I don’t want to do it again, so the breadth of possibility is becoming smaller.”
Such a statement immediately prompts the question of whether the iconic designer could ever think about ending her career. Kawakubo, clad in a black sweater bearing the phrase “My Energy Comes From Freedom” and a pair of her signature drop-crotch trousers, went completely and awkwardly silent when asked about the prospect of retirement.
In other revelations, Kawakubo, who has collaborated with companies as diverse as Louis Vuitton and H&M in recent years, isn’t exactly showering compliments on the rest of the fashion world. For one, she isn’t all that impressed with most of the new designers out there.
“They lack discipline…They’re not strict enough with themselves,” she said.
Meanwhile, both Kawakubo and Joffe noted Comme des Garçons’ increasing popularity with Asian consumers and its continued momentum across international markets. Joffe said 2011 sales in Asia are expected to grow 45 percent while those in Europe and Japan are forecast to increase by 8 percent and those in the U.S. are seen gaining 10 percent.
Kawakubo said she feels vindicated by such growth.
“I never thought of limiting myself just to Japan. I had my eye on the entire world, and I think that was the right thing to do,” she reasoned. “My way of expressing things — not just through clothes but through direct mailings, shop design, Six magazine…I think that it’s all proved correct. For many years I wondered whether it was right or not but it seems to be that in recent years…it’s all been validated.”
True to her perfectionist self, Kawakubo was adjusting the aluminum frame display cases in the Beijing store just hours before Comme des Garçons and its Hong Kong-based retail partner I.T Limited hosted last week’s opening bash. Droves of trendy Beijingers braved the arctic blasts of wind to watch a traditional lion dance performance on an outdoor stage. Inside, they wandered the 20,000-square-foot store and took in its spotted columns and whimsical artworks. Two large sculptures figure prominently: a life-size black elephant by Stephanie Quayle and a white pelican with foldable paper wings by Michael Howells.
The store, reminiscent of the brand’s Dover Street Market complex in London, carries a range of apparel and accessories from various CdG lines, as well as merchandise from brands like Maison Martin Margiela, Rick Owens, Dior Homme, Ann Demeulemeester and Hussein Chalayan. The basement of the building houses a new boutique from A Bathing Ape, which connects to the I.T Beijing Market through a staircase.
Before the opening, the friendly yet serious Kawakubo — who was anxious to get back to work on her new store — sat down with WWD for a half-hour chat about fashion, China today and more. WWD: How do you feel about the Beijing store? Rei Kawakubo: Well, this isn’t about the store, but I first came to China 30, 40 years ago, and I’ve been here many times in the past 15 years and I have witnessed many changes. Now with fashion, at the very least you can find all the brands in Beijing and Shanghai. So I wanted to do something new…a new method or expression…with fashion and Comme des Garçons in a place that has everything. I’m very happy to have worked with I.T in order to realize that. WWD: You mentioned that you’ve been coming here for 30 years. What kinds of changes have you witnessed in China and its consumers over that time period?
R.K.: First of all, the administration [of the country] is totally different. Now, it has become more free. I feel that people are much more free to make new things and create new business than was possible before…and there are more people who are interested in these changes and who are aspiring to participate in the changes, so from that point of view I think it has changed completely.
WWD: What do you think of the way people dress here and their style?
R.K.: When I came here 10 years ago there were no people who would wear Comme des Garçons. I was just in the towns and didn’t go to the places where fashionable people gathered, but now it is much more casual. I used to enjoy seeing people wearing communist workers’ clothes and I don’t see that anymore. WWD: How has the inspiration for your collections changed over the course of your career?
R.K.: Do you think it’s changed? For me it hasn’t changed at all. The way I approach each collection is exactly the same…the motivation has always been to create something new, something that didn’t exist before. The more experience I have and the more clothes I make, the more difficult it becomes to make something new. Once I’ve made something, I don’t want to do it again, so the breadth of possibility is becoming smaller. WWD: Everyone is talking about how the Japanese market for retail and luxury goods is just terrible right now. Do you think that will change? Do you think there is a way to get consumers excited again?
R.K.: Now, with fast fashion, the value of creation is diminishing, and very expensive things are not interesting. WWD: Is there any way out of that situation?
R.K.: I always think that I’d like to do something about the situation…it’s a very profound motivation…but I don’t think it’s something that can really be changed. I’m not powerful enough. There’s a closed-mindedness that prevents movement and change. I always think that I’d like to break that, and I’ve used it [this closed-mindedness] as a theme for collections, but I just can’t seem to break it. I want to wake people up, but I don’t think I succeed in doing this as much as I would like to. WWD: Do you feel like other retailers and brands are missing a trick? Maybe things aren’t interesting enough?
R.K.: Definitely. But I don’t want to say, “Let’s do it together,” because everyone has to do their own thing. I’m not into creating movements. WWD: You mentioned fast fashion. That’s been a huge story and obviously you had your collaboration with H&M. Would you consider doing something like that again?
R.K.: That was a special case. They were making a new store in Japan, so it was just a short, two-week relationship. It wasn’t a big thing, but I thought it was interesting because they asked me to do all the advertising and visuals as well. H&M has a very different way of thinking and a different business model, so it was interesting to see how much of a connection we could make. But in the end I realized that there wasn’t very much in common, so I don’t think I’ll do it again.
WWD: What do you think of Jil Sander’s work with Uniqlo?
R.K.: I don’t really know much about it, but each person has their own way of thinking. I haven’t seen it.
WWD: Where do you like to shop?
R.K.: At airports, because I don’t have time to shop. I buy my cosmetics at the airport and there’s nothing else much I buy. I just don’t have time.
WWD: Where do you want to see your company in five to 10 years’ time? What kind of future do you see for it?
R.K.: I just have to do the best I can do for right now.
WWD: Do you think the time will come when you don’t want to design anymore and you don’t have any more ideas?
WWD: So, for right now you’re just concentrating on your business? You’re not thinking about a succession plan?
R.K.: Of course there are things to be thought about. There’s nothing much I want to say now but probably the company will carry on with the staff that we have. The staff that I’m bringing up. WWD: Would you consider selling it or listing it on the stock market?
R.K.: I don’t think there’s anyone who would want to buy it. I do everything on my own, so there are very few people who could do it. Do you think there’s anyone who would buy it? [Joffe interjected half-jokingly with a laugh: “We’re waiting for an offer.”] WWD: How do you come up with a retail concept? Where do you start?
R.K.: Firstly, I want to make a shop that’s unlike any that already exists. And then, since it’s a business, we have to be able to get back the initial investment, whether it’s ours or whether it’s the partner’s, in as short a time as possible. So I don’t like to use expensive materials. I take care to make costs reasonable. It’s very similar to the way I make clothes. I give myself limits, not only financial limits but I also limit my method of expression, and from within those limits I try to come up with something new and interesting. WWD: I remember reading in one of your previous interviews that you really don’t like being lumped together into a group of Japanese designers, but I wanted to ask what you thought of Yohji Yamamoto falling into bankruptcy protection. Obviously you had such strong links with him.
R.K.: I can’t really comment on that. His way of doing things is very different to my way of doing things. WWD: Are there any young designers coming up through the ranks you’re keeping your eye on?
R.K.: There are very few. There are few people who, like us, have the values and the way of thinking to really try hard. They lack discipline. And it’s not just fashion, I think…[young people] get satisfied too easily. They’re not strict enough with themselves. They’re too soft on themselves.