How Japanese streetwear became hip-hop’s best friend

Tracing the long-term relationship between rappers and Japanese fashion.

November 10, 2017

I was in the middle of my university years when I first truly fell in love with the Japanese fashion label Comme Des Garçons. Back in 2008, I had just completed an exchange semester abroad in Copenhagen, and the fashionable Danes had affected the way I’d seen myself, and how I wanted to be seen by others.

Later that year, when the Comme Des Garçons x H&M collaboration dropped in November, I gave myself an early birthday present and waited in line for the collection, wondering if my student budget could really afford these lower-priced pieces, curious what the competition would be like once we entered the store. But another thought crossed my mind — would I have the confidence to pull off such bold, black, deconstructed looks on the tame streets of Toronto? Or would my style choices be considered too avant-garde?

When you see a Comme Des Garçons garment up close, your whole world changes. The way you perceive clothing suddenly shifts. A casual jacket with an asymmetrical pocket or a misplaced dart opens up a world of possibility. Growing up as the daughter of a tailor, I wondered how such clothing could even be made. What happens when you move the seam over here, add a frill here, flip the fabric, sew it, and reverse it over there?

Designed by Rei Kawakubo and launched in the 1970s, Comme Des Garçons is known for radically reinterpreting the human form. The clothing is genderless, unapologetic, rebellious. Some might call Kawakubo’s work startling, ugly, confrontational and even alienating. Why, then, does the brand have such clout with hip-hop artists?

During the mid-aughts, I noticed Comme Des Garçons becoming more mainstream. Artists like Kanye West, Pharrell, Jay-Z and Drake were coming out decked in Comme Des Garçons’ more casual pieces — notably the Comme Des Garçons PLAY sweaters and t-shirts, which launched in 2002, known for its red heart-shaped logo with two bold eyes. Drake would later commission Filip Pagowski, creator of the PLAY logo, for the artwork behind his album Views.

Today, Comme is not only at the forefront of the avant-garde runway but it’s also a gamechanger in streetwear, and is part of a larger connection between North American hip-hop artists and Japanese design. This trend may have well started in the early 2000s with Japanese clothing brand A Bathing Ape (BAPE). Pharrell Williams, who had met Nigo, the creator of BAPE, was partly responsibly for bringing BAPE’s bright, youthful aesthetic to North America because it matched his own fashion sensibilities.

Americans “clamoured after the Japanese brand A Bathing Ape the same way that the Japanese had obsessed over American style.”

W. David Marx, author of Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style

In 2005, Pharrell and BAPE collaborated on the Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream clothing lines, channelling nostalgic 90s anime and kawaii-style illustrations for their printed shirts. In 2007, Kanye joined forces with artist Takashi Murakami to creatively push boundaries with the album art for Graduation. A few years later in 2014, Pharrell collaborated with Comme for unisex fragrance GIRL, solidifying the way contemporary Japanese art, design and style were slowly seeping into the North American consciousness — and becoming a coveted aesthetic in hip hop.

In Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, author W. David Marx claims that Americans “clamoured after the Japanese brand A Bathing Ape the same way that the Japanese had obsessed over American style in the preceding decades.” While Japanese designers assimilated casualwear from the U.S., they also perfected it with attention to detail. The American market had soon fallen for Japanese denim, oxford shirts, and the more fashion-forward-but-still-casual began chasing detailed looks from Comme Des Garçons’ other more accessible labels like BLACK, Shirt, and Tricot.

For a brand that challenges the status quo, it may seem surprising that celebrities are drawn to Comme Des Garçons. The pairing of Comme and hip-hop might be odd at first glance, but luxury streetwear is a growing category. Comme Des Garçons continues to infiltrate the American streetwear scene, collaborating with brands such as Nike, Timbaland, Converse and Supreme, putting its signature experimental twist on these household urban names.

Recently, Florida-based R&B artist Twelve’Len modeled the Comme des Garçons Ganryu line, a short-lived collection designed by former Junya Watanabe patternmaker Fumito Ganryu, for the Miami boutique UNKNWN; the “forward-thinking casualwear” brand announced it would shutter earlier this year. From afar, the clothes might look ordinary, but the real magic lives within each item’s quirky seams. Hypebeast compared the Ganryu line to Twelve’Len’s own eclectic musical style, which is influenced by everyone from 50 Cent to Marvin Gaye in an “unlikely combination that somehow works.”

Twelve’Len for Comme des Garçons’ Ganryu line

While collaborations with streetwear brands are still in heavy rotation to this day, Comme was parodied and brought to further fame when A$AP Rocky wore a now infamous Comme Des Fuckdown toque in the “Goldie” video back in 2012. Designed by Russ Karablin of SSUR, the line was seen as a “slap in the face to all the high fashion stuff…You know, like, calm the fuck down!,” Karalin said in an interview with Vice. The parody, approved by Comme Des Garçons CEO and husband to Kawakubo, Adrian Joffe, is the perfect meshing of high and low fashion.

A few years later, the celebrity world embraced the renegade sensibilities of Comme Des Garçons at the 2017 MET Gala, which celebrated Kawakubo’s work in conjunction with her exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier in the year. (I trekked out to New York to see the show, and it was well worth it.) As a business, CdG generates $220 million USD in revenue annually, but operates autonomously. As someone who has been quoted saying “I work in three shades of black” and “I do not feel happy when a collection is understood too well,” Kawakubo has been able to stick to her vision while cultivating one of the biggest names in fashion.

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