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The Genre-Defying Magic of Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons

How the Japanese brand took the spotlight from Europe and put Tokyo on the fashion map.


It wasn’t long ago the fashion world had three capital cities. Paris was the imperial city, followed by Milan and London. For the first half of the 20th century, high fashion was a decidedly Euro-centric affair. Then Comme des Garçons happened.

Founded in 1969 by Rei Kawakubo, Comme des Garçons is an avant-garde fashion label which, along with a handful of other designers such as Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, established Tokyo as the new center for cutting-edge fashion design, particularly when Kawakubo and Yamamoto presented their collections on the global stage in Paris in 1981.

In the decades that have passed since, Kawakubo and Commes des Garçons have risen to become a veritable fashion empire standing shoulder to shoulder with European heavyweights, producing a litany of sublines and diffusion labels, nurturing up-and-coming designers (many of whom have gone on to create successful labels of their own), and operating their own chain of department stores.

The Comme universe mirrors the designs of the clothes themselves, a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of structured chaos. The label’s history is less a singular line than a network of roots, constantly branching off in new, unexpected directions. Without attempting to confine that story, here’s a brief history of Comme des Garçons.