Juggling art and commers

Juggling art and commers
A model presents a creation for Comme des Garcons during the 2015 Spring/Summer ready-to-wear collection fashion show, on September 27, 2014 in Paris.

On a grey 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.

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 are not 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.

However, as Bloomberg Pursuits magazine reports in its Autumn 2014 issue, those who know him well would recognise 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 is important.

Comme des Garcons, founded in Tokyo 45 years ago by 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, whether they are jackets with three sleeves or androgynous, abstract garments which 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 is 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 are widely copied. Such was the case with Comme's guerilla stores - one-off, limited-run boutiques which served as the prototypes for today's ubiquitous pop-up shops.

American rapper Pharrell Williams - whose new unisex scent with Comme puts him in an esteemed club of fragrance collaborators that includes design firm Artek and London's Serpentine Gallery - says 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 does not 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. However, I am somewhat of a realist and, for business, you have to try."

A CONCEPT AND A FASHION LABEL

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 US$230 million (S$294 million) company is equally hard to define, as 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.

Joffe got into the business by accident. Born in South Africa and raised in Britain, 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 PhD on Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, Joffe began helping his sister, Rose (later the co-founder of Paris' celebrated Rose Bakery), with a fledgling fashion business until Comme des Garcons hired him in 1987 as a commercial director based in Paris.

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