Meet the collector behind the National Gallery of Victoria's Comme des Garçons exhibition

Home / Meet the collector behind the National Gallery of Victoria's Comme des Garçons exhibition


8th Nov 2019

If the secret to long-lasting love is a slow bloom of adoration that develops over time, then Takamasa Takahashi’s relationship with Comme des Garçons is a tale of true romance.

His collection of the label, dating from the early 80s and on display at the National Gallery of Victoria this November in Collecting Comme, is testimony to a great passion. Yet the Japanese collector wasn’t immediately enthralled by designer Rei Kawakubo’s creations when he first saw them in a magazine in 1975. The then 21-year-old already had aspirations to become a designer, and Rei Kawakubo, who had launched Comme des Garçons in 1969, was already popular, but his initial response to her clothes was lukewarm.

“Kawakubo’s collections were quite feminine to start with, and I wasn’t that intrigued with her label, but I recognised that her clothes were different and the image of the brand was very different. I think I was more intrigued by the images than the clothes at the start.”

Decades on, and this elegant, gracious man, immaculately groomed and dressed in head-to-toe “Comme”, as he abbreviates, talks earnestly and joyfully, his eyes bright behind his glasses, of what became his infatuation. He playfully describes himself as ‘Comme tragic’: “To be ‘Comme tragic’ means I don’t look at anything else,” he explains with a laugh. “Even though I’m interested in other designers, for example Martin Margiela, I still compare everything to Comme.”

Takahashi is not alone in his singular appreciation of Comme des Garçons and Rei Kawakubo, who during her remarkably long career has garnered a cult-like following. Born in Tokyo in 1942, she never trained in fashion, instead studying fine arts and literature before working as a freelance stylist. She launched Comme des Garçons (French for ‘like boys’) to make clothes she couldn’t find elsewhere, established her company in 1973, and opened her first boutique in Tokyo in 1975. Her label quickly gained iconic status, revered for its avant-garde concepts and techniques, deconstruction, androgyny and radical forms and for Kawakubo’s constant quest for reinvention.

Alongside the designer’s monumental influence in the fashion world (Comme des Garçons was the theme of the 2017 Met Gala), she’s also known for her reticence and her rejection of the title of artist. After being honoured with the Isamu Noguchi Award earlier this year for her spirit of innovation, global consciousness and commitment to East-West cultural exchange, Kawakubo stated: “I’m not an artist… but I try, always, to come up with something new. Things that people have not seen, and I have gone this way for 50 years…”

For Takahashi, it was perhaps Comme’s profound originality and vision that unlocked his heart. As a young boy growing up in Niigata, Japan, he watched his father, a master carpenter, in his workshop and developed an interest in craftsmanship. “My family expected me to be a painter, or a creative chef, because I loved cooking and painting, drawing and making things,” he says.

His yearning to be free of what he felt was the rigidity of a culture also shaped his preoccupations. “In Japan, everyone and everything had to be in harmony, and at that time you had to be the same as everyone else; you weren’t allowed to stand out,” he ponders. “It was hard for me to live in this society because since I was a child, I always wanted to be different.”

After finishing high school, Takahashi studied English and German in preparation for leaving Japan to study textile and dressmaking in Finland, which he did in 1979. He started wearing Comme in 1978, but it was seeing a Kawakubo collection on the runway in 1983 that blew his perception of clothing entirely. “It was a huge shock to me,” he recalls. “At that time in Japan you didn’t show your feeling and expression, so no-one clapped. You’re just quietly sitting there seeing what you’re seeing, but it was an explosion in my head. From then onwards my mind stuck with Comme in a kind of emotional attachment. My love of clothes shifted to something indescribable… a way to express my inner self, and my belief in Comme has not changed since.”

Takahashi can recite collections – season, year, concept and even styling details – with the ease others might list the names of their children. His decision to brand himself a collector rather than just a wearer of Comme came about organically when he found himself buying dresses he wanted simply for their beauty. 

What makes his collection particularly affecting is that Takahashi hasn’t come from affluence; his dedication has involved sacrifice. “I’m not from a wealthy family,” he asserts, before explaining: “This is how I felt at that time and perhaps still do now: I don’t need to eat, instead I would rather buy and collect Comme!”

His patient Australian partner endured sharing their small Tokyo apartment with this other great love, and when the couple moved to Australia in 1989, 36 tea chests came with them.

Landing in Sydney, presuming it would be as fashion-forward as Tokyo, Takahashi was horrified to see men in shorts, singlets and flip-flops walking through Martin Place. “I thought: ‘What have I done?'” he says. The prevailing attitudes of the time also contributed to his longing for home. One day, walking into a boutique in Paddington, the owner took one glance at him and pointed him upstairs to the sale rack. “I wasn’t allowed to look at the actual pieces – that was the attitude,” he recounts. The silver lining was that amid that reduced-price selection Takahashi discovered items from Comme’s much-lauded ’97 ‘lumps and bumps’ collection. It also inspired his altruistic ambitions: “That attitude made me think about young people who love fashion but haven’t the money to buy those pieces – they have no chance. I wanted to give enthusiastic fashion students the opportunity to see these pieces.”

It was this spirit of generosity, combined with a growing need to properly care for his “babies”, that led Takahashi to donate his beloved collection. 

As someone whose life has been so richly enhanced by a label that has constantly challenged the status quo, and who defines beauty as “everything and anyone that has integrity”, Takahashi’s hope is that audiences will appreciate the collection of more than 60 pieces at more than face value. “I know Comme is not for everyone,” he acknowledges, “but I want people to look at Kawakubo’s work with an open mind and with fresh eyes so they might start seeing her point of view and how she works”.

“I don’t think her intention is to make wearable clothes. In fact, sometimes I wonder if she has ever tried to design intentionally what we call and perceive as clothes. She often sends a strong message about the importance of being free. Having any level of fear limits our life and creative spirit and kills our free ideas. I think this is why she emphasises the importance of being yourself. She has not compromised nor been afraid to create what she believes to be beautiful at the time”.

Collecting Comme is on at the National Gallery of Victoria from November 1. Go to

This article originally appeared in Vogue Australia’s October 2019 issue.



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