It is no big secret that “perfume” is a bit of a dirty word in fashion. Often, it is seen, not without justification, as an easy way to make money by capitalizing on one’s brand name. The typical arrangement is to license out one’s name to a big perfume conglomerate, tell them what you want it to smell like, and sit back while the money rolls in. A successful perfume can be immensely profitable. Thierry Mugler, to take one example, has not designed a garment in decades, but his enormously successful perfume “Angel” has made him a millionaire many times over. All you need is a brand name and a good formula. It is no wonder then that every newly minted fashion designer and celebrity is eager to sign a perfume deal.
Count then on Comme des Garçons, the irreverent Japanese label headed by Rei Kawakubo, to turn a blatantly commercial enterprise on its head. Kawakubo has always been described as an avant-garde designer that marches to her own beat, a punk going against the norms of the fashion industry. Indeed, in some way she is all of these things.
But, more accurately, Kawakubo is the Andy Warhol of fashion. Just like with Warhol, the central question of her oeuvre is not “Why?” but “Why not?” Polyester is a bastard material? Why not make it into a classic and price it higher than leather while we are at it? I am known for making black clothes? Why not put men in pink? There are no boutiques in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood? Why not put the flagship Comme des Garçons shop there?
The reputation Kawakubo has developed for doing things under the motto “My way or the highway” has allowed Comme des Garçons to get away with projects that might normally undermine a creative designer’s reputation. Collaboration with the Beatles? Check. Logoed underwear? Check. A special edition Barbie doll? Check. If Warhol has figured the value of tongue-in-cheek in art, Kawakubo has done the same in fashion.
There is little surprise then that making perfume – the Comme des Garçons way, of course – has become a part of Kawakubo’s work. Adrian Joffe, Kawakubo’s husband, pitched the idea of creating a perfumery to her in the early nineties. “I asked Rei if we could do a perfume and she said ‘yes,’ as long as we don’t have to compromise,” he said during our conversation at the Comme des Garçons’ Paris showroom on Place Vendome some time back. “I promised that we wouldn’t stray away from our values, which are creation, making something new, breaking the rules, not doing it like everybody else, moving forward. And this is how it came about. To us, it’s just another platform, another means of expressing the values of our company.”
In an email response, Kawakubo confirmed as much. “From the very beginning I wanted to make a perfume business based on the same sense of values as CDG, i.e. with the same belief in strong creation and with new things coming out all the time,” she wrote. “I agreed to start the business on the proviso that perfume would be just another way of expressing the image of CDG and that there would be no need for compromises, and that we would not have to adhere to the dictates of the perfume industry.”
There were also business reasons for starting the perfumery. Joffe is the business mastermind behind Comme des Garçons, and he is so entwined in its operations that he often interchanges “I” with “the company.” He speaks fast and has the demeanor of someone who knows exactly what he wants to say and whose time is precious because there is always something waiting to be done.
“I think the Comme des Garçons company will never be for everybody, so we grow laterally,” said Joffe. “We do new ideas, new shops, new collaborations. We never want to own the source of production. We don’t want to own too many shops. Our lines are never going to be for the majority so we do business ideas like Play [a line of basics]. Perfume was one of these ideas.”
“We also have a company in Paris,” he added, “which is in charge of everything outside Japan, but at that time, everything was dependent on Tokyo, so we never had a source of production or revenue in Paris, except the Comme des Garçons Shirt line. The idea to do a perfume was to have another source of revenue independent of Tokyo.”
The perfumery, Comme des Garçons PARFUM, was formed in 1993. Kawakubo needed a collaborator, and she approached Christian Astuguevieille, the French creatuer and “nose” with good knowledge of perfume business. Astuguevieille, having previously worked with Molinard and Rochas, loved the idea of breaking the rules, and the two hit the ground running. “The biggest difference in working with Comme des Garçons is the idea of freedom of the research that you can do,” he said, speaking through a translator from his studio in the south of France over the phone.
Astuguevieille is a Renaissance man who makes not only perfume but furniture and jewelry as well. The man who once told the New York Times reporter, “Beauty is easy,” is exactly the man who understands Kawakubo. Over the years he has evolved to become the company’s creative director (many of the headpieces in Comme des Garçons runway shows are his creations).
As far as perfumes go, Astuguevieille and Kawakubo work in tandem, and a concept for a new perfume can come from either of them.
Their first scent, called simply “Eau de Parfum,” broke new territory in the perfume industry in 1994, aptly using the tagline “works like a medicine and behaves like a drug,” describing its pungent, medicinal notes of clove, spices, and resins. Created by Mark Buxton, who did no less than five other Comme des Garçons scents, it skipped the traditional “pyramid” structure used in most perfumes at the time. Without the standard, crowd-pleasing opening, generally occupied by welcoming citrus notes, Buxton instead relied on heavy, long-lasting ingredients normally used in supporting roles to enhance the scent’s lasting abilities.
Its pebble-like bottle was another revelation. Designed in collaboration with Marc Atlan, it now houses multiple Comme des Garçons scents in varied finishes and textures. Comme des Garçons has always delivered their scents in exceptional packaging, ranging from the functional to the luxurious. Astuguevieille said that the vacuum-sealed plastic that once contained the original Eau de Parfum bottle was important to him because he wanted the purchaser to experience being the first person to open the packaging and touch the bottle.
The questions then became where to sell it. In a typically unconventional maneuver, Joffe opted for clothing boutiques instead of perfume shops. “We did not do any market research because we never do before launching a new product. We did not want to work with the distributors in the beginning, so we sold through our own stores and through our clients’ fashion stores. At the time, there weren’t that many fashion stores that carried perfume, but all our clients who bought the clothes bought into it. At that time, no one really had perfume in fashion stores. I think in a way we started that trend.”
Soon enough Joffe realized that they were outgrowing this distribution model, and he started planning for the next phase. Mistakes, however, were made. “We did not know about the big distribution and their coefficients and returns of unsold bottles and things like that,” he said. “There was one distributor in the Middle East who went crazy over the perfume, and he ordered like three thousand bottles of Eau de Parfum, which is a very spicy scent. Then he came back to us and said, ‘Sorry, I made a mistake, the people in the Middle East hate this perfume.’ His clients said, ‘This is what we cook with, we don’t want it on our bodies!’ And we had to take it all back. We’ve learned a lot of things over time.”
Despite the setbacks and Comme des Garçons’ unconventional approach, the perfumery grew quickly, and Joffe had no trouble finding partners. “All the worlds wait to be inspired and moved, to shake the preconceived ideas of how to do things. Even the first nose we’ve ever worked with, Marc Buxton, was completely inspired by our concept because it was unlike anything he’s ever worked with,” he said.
As usual, the Comme des Garçons question was “Why not?” “To be sure,” Joffe continued, “we were told you shouldn’t do it like this or you shouldn’t do it like that, but we did what we wanted anyway. ‘Don’t use plastic in the packaging! Vacuum packed? It’s not luxury!’ Well, that’s why we wanted it. We surprised people.”
And yet, the mood of Comme des Garçons, contrary to what one might expect, is not confrontational. “We never go against something – we just ignore it,” Joffe told me. “We might not know about it because we don’t look what other people are doing, but we don’t say, ‘Everybody is doing this, so we’ll do the opposite.’ We just do our own thing, which I suppose is not what everyone does, but we don’t do it deliberately.”
The immediate success of the perfumery has given rise to a range of nearly sixty scents, an unprecedented number for a fashion label. Other fashion houses only reach this number by cashing in on their popular mainstays with flankers – industry speak for formula variations, often released as limited editions who ride the coattails of their popular predecessors. But Comme des Garçons operates differently. They don’t have bombastic launches or blitzkrieg ad campaigns. Their production runs are not as big. Instead, as Joffe maintains, the growth is lateral and the idea is to make something new. “We couldn’t do one every six months, it’s not like a fashion item,” he said. “But, the idea was to create a collection over time at our own pace and keep growing it.”
Joffe aims to keep all of the perfumes on the market. “Personally, I really hate when I cannot buy a perfume I love because it’s no longer produced,” he said. This is no easy feat given the number of Comme des Garçons scents, but Joffe is looking to create an olfactory laboratory where any of the past perfumes can be reproduced. “Whether or not a perfume is successful, we keep it in our catalogue,” added Astuguevieille. “We believe that one day people will like them because sometimes perfumes, like artwork, are ahead of their time, so they might find success later.”
At this point, the collection consists of different areas of the Comme des Garçons universe. First area was what Joffe dubbed “Creation,” which encompasses scents done from scratch. Then there was the idea of doing perfumes in series. These included such series as “Sherbet” and “Energy.”
The two anti-perfumes, Odeur 53 and 71, are particularly interesting for using headspace technology, a method of analyzing and replicating the scent that surrounds an object. Initially used to solve the problem of the inability to obtain scents from certain plants and flowers through extraction, this technology now also solves the problem of replacing materials that can no longer be obtained in nature.
“With Odeur 53 we took nothing from nature, but everything was natural in a way because a molecule exists,” said Joffe. “For us, it was the first environmentally friendly perfume because we did not use things from nature. By recreating the smells that we liked using space head technology, analyzing them, and recreating the formula, we did not interfere with nature.”
“The idea was to not hide the synthetic molecules that everyone in the industry uses and not to pretend that it’s all natural,” added Astuguevieille. “We use headspace technology to copy the way flowers and plants smell rather than killing them. Everyone in the perfume business uses synthetic molecules, they just don’t talk about it most of the time.”
The next plan was to create perfumes that reflect the Comme des Garçons world. These included the two “Guerilla” perfumes named after a series of Comme des Garçons guerilla stores that were popular in the last decade, as well as “Dover Street Market,” named after their successful London-based mini department store, which since has been recreated in Beijing, Tokyo, and New York.
But perhaps the most interesting concept for the perfumery is the collaborations. Kawakubo and Joffe are known for having a tight grip on creative control, and in some way, the idea of surrendering it to an outside party seems to run counter to that principle. And yet, this is exactly what their hand-picked partners, like milliner Stephen Jones, the socialite Daphne Guinness, the fashion designer Jun Takahashi of the label Undercover, among others, do. \
“Here, we act as a producer, which is another business angle we came up with,” Joffe told me. “The premise was that someone, a kind of a person that normally wouldn’t do a perfume, comes with their idea of a scent. With Undercover, for example, Jun Takahashi created the packaging and the concept for the smell, and we created the perfume. We own the smell, and he keeps his trademark on the packaging. So, he’s the director, in a way, and I am the producer. But in terms of the smell, Comme des Garçons is the creator. Undercover had a strong concept, and so did Daphne Guinness. Tyler [Brule] from Monocle knows exactly what he wants; he describes it with words, and we translate it into the scent.”
In the last decade, the perfumery had grown significantly, and Comme des Garçons had finally entered the consciousness of the fragrance industry. On a casual walk through the main shopping drag of Marais in Paris the day before I interviewed Joffe I saw two stores across the street from each other, displaying Comme des Garçons perfumes in their windows. As it turns out, in 2002 the brand signed a licensing deal with Puig, the Spanish conglomerate that also produces perfumes for Prada, Valentino, and Nina Ricci, amongst others.
In the spirit of maintaining independence, Comme des Garçons retained its trademark, which was an unconventional deal. Instead, the brand initially licensed only one perfume, CDG2. The partnership has proved fruitful. Using Puig’s resources, Comme des Garçons has developed several perfumes: 888, Wonderwood, and Amazingreen. From these, Puig pays royalties to Comme des Garçons.
Comme des Garçons has also retained its distribution channels. While Puig distributes to department stores and mainstream perfume shops, Comme des Garçons sells to specialty stores (that’s why it can end up in two stores across the street from each other). Joffe clearly enjoys his independence. “I can produce and distribute whatever I like with the Comme des Garçons name. You won’t find another licensing agreement like that,” he told me. “But they [Puig] like that, because for them we are like this creative laboratory that comes up with ideas.”
To the original question of combining creative with commercial, Kawakubo offers the same “Why not?” response. Asked if she had any reservations about going into the perfume business, she wrote, “No reservations at all. We have ignored the fact that the industry is considered a primarily commercial enterprise.”
“With everything Rei has done since 1969, first it has to be new and creative, and second it has to sell enough to afford us to do the next thing,” added Joffe. “It’s always been a very close second – if we couldn’t do business we wouldn’t be here – but it’s never the first priority.”
As it turns out, the enterprise is not such a fat cash cow. “We don’t sell that much perfume to support the business,” Joffe told me. “ We do $200 million sales and perfume is about $10 million or so. If the perfume business disappeared tomorrow, we wouldn’t be that affected. It’s just much more visible, it’s good for the image. We’ve become a cult brand, so people often seek an entry point, and perfume provides that, especially for young people.”
The original version of this article appeared in StyleZeitgeist volume 3
Photography by Leonard Gomez-Ferenczi