ELLE on Earth

How a leading women's magazine ruined a once-in-a-lifetime interview with fashion legend Rei Kawakubo

Rei Kawakubo of COMME des GARCONS
Rei Kawakubo of COMME des GARCONS

The press used to subsist on leaks; it now thrives on plants. The politician is not a liar or a demagogue but a product. It was therefore revealed a month ago that the hacks Marc Ambinder and Mike Allen of respectively the boring Atlantic and vapid Politico sold their souls to Hillary Clinton’s staff in order to get access: first reads were promised, quote approval, word veto, talking point insertion, narrative change and forced rewrite. Time Warner, Conde Nast and Hearst don’t hire editors in chief anymore but editors able to understand the value of the marketing division to the newsroom and how they should be merged, which is code for content branding.

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A strong case in point is ELLE magazine.

Last June I obtained a very hard to get interview with the Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo from Comme des Garçons. Ms. Kawakubo is the Bob Dylan of fashion—a designer’s designer—probably the most interesting designer alive today and she knows it. She is also the head of an empire that has never accepted outside investors and in such her independence is total. She has her own praetorian guard in the person of her spokesperson/husband Adrian Joffe and an army of yes men and women who run away cowering at her first snap. She refuses to be photographed, has given the same bland elliptical interview every five years for the last thirty years, hates journalists and is known to answer a long, in-depth question with a lethal yes or no. She is fiercely intelligent and has no patience for goobers. She is probably killing herself in her old age by trying to find four times a year entirely new ideas for each collection as she refuses to tap into the archives of fashion and recycle the old into the new like most designers do when they start their ersatz collections. The result is breathtaking.

Anna Wintour had never invited Rei, the goddess of fashion, to her insufferable annual Ball at the Met.

A model presents a creation by Comme Des Garcons during the 2016-2017 fall/winter ready-to-wear collection on March 5, 2016 in Paris.
Comme Des Garcons’ F/W ready-to-wear collection on March 5 in Paris.

“Are you neurotic?” I asked her, cutting her cold through one of her standard default rants. A silence fell in the room as if the guillotine had just fallen on the fat neck of this irreverent Robespierre, which actually happened just a few yards from where this interview took place. For a second I thought she was about to end the interview but she smiled at me. She understood what I was doing.

“Have you cut yourself off because of your status?” I later asked her. Of course she said no but every single celebrity has, even the local celebrities in your families and in the god forsaken villages you grew up in before you came to New York to be as far away as possible from this kind of crassness.

Before I could sit in front of her in Paris I had to find a publication that could ship my pathetic ass across the pond. The bores at New York Magazine said no because I would not be able to get her to say anything interesting. The New York Observer cried poverty at even the tiny budget I proposed. David Remnick at the New Yorker very politely took the time to cut and paste an old profile that his magazine ran ten years ago and to tell me that they never repeat a profile except when it’s a puff piece on Hillary. Although Judith Thurman’s “The Misfit” from 2005 is the smartest one written so far on Ms. Kawakubo the piece was academic, bizarrely self-absorbed and often wrong. Very Reader’s Digest meets GQ, like what the entire New Yorker unfortunately became. CDG hated it because Ms. Thurman committed the crime of lèse-majesté when she said that Adrian Joffe was afraid of his wife. I observed them interacting, he is. Mr. Remnick is nice but he’s no William Shawn, as his past reporting on Russia can attest. They were treasure troves of platitudes and predictions that all turned out to be wrong. I realized Anna Wintour had never invited Rei, the goddess of fashion, worshipped by every single designer from Karl Lagerfeld to Marc Jacobs and Alexander Wang, to her insufferable annual ball at the Met. Had Rei refused the yearly extortion of ad buying in Anna’s September issue too many falls in a row? So Vogue was out, which left us with Robbie Meyers at ELLE.

Yes I want it, the woman famous for wearing this soufflé pompadour on her head instantly told me, but please give me the chance to meet you and tell you why talking about the Met Ball slight would be a bad idea. I was never invited either she told me, if this can make you feel any better. Robbie was very excited about the interview but strangely, CDG wasn’t. Who is Robbie? Adrian asked in front of me. The behived he was told. Haaa yes he said. In London The Guardian asked me to write about it and I convinced CDG that we could do a joint venture—London and New York with the same interviews. This could cut the heavy costs of sending people to Paris in the middle of the high season. Robbie as editor in chief sees her job as putting out fires and delegating, a strange mutually defeating combo. She told me that Anne Slowey, the news top editor would work with me on this. I will not do The Guardian piece I told Anne if you need an exclusive. I don’t care, she told me, we are two different outlets. Come meet me at 3pm tomorrow. At 2:30 the meeting was cancelled; something better came up. You would think that the extremely rare interview of the most sought after and talented living designer in the world would be of importance to ELLE. It was to Robbie but apparently not to her underling. I’m sure Anne was annoyed that her boss told her that she had accepted my interview with Rei and that she was assigned to it. Fair to bet that she thought: who is this asshole coming out of nowhere?

Almost famous people have a tendency to act even more obnoxiously than the famous ones.

By 3:45 the meeting was suddenly back on in a bar in the West Village. Then by 3:30 the location was changed to the East Side. By 4:00 as I just crossed town it was cancelled again and back on by 4:15 at a different place but Anne had to go pick up her young kids by 5 so the meeting would be short. Although Anne had my phone she was sending these directives via CDG as if I was working for them and they were then relaying them to me by phone. I had more luck meeting that Hezbollah leader in downtown Beirut for an interview.

Realizing I was dealing with a power angry maniac I called the meeting off and stood her up. Almost famous people have a tendency to act even more obnoxiously than the famous ones. Graydon Carter, who knows a thing or two about fame, has this parable about a peasant like me arriving in New York from his hamlet and trying to make it in the big city like in a Balzac novel. The provincial enters a dark room and tries to find a door that will enable him to enter another room and so on until he finally reaches success but at each room the door to the next is more difficult to find. Usually in New York society very few arrivistes make it past the first room. I have no idea what he’s talking and it’s probably why his magazine is a giant bore.

I chose Edith Wharton when time came to learn about New York social cues and suffice to say there was no mirth in the house of ELLE. I thought the hell with it I’ll go somewhere else but by then CDG was set on ELLE and the Guardian, the same outlets I had to work (is it clear here that it was CDG I had to convince into accepting the outlets?) hard in convincing in the first place. I understood that once you set the process forward with the egomaniac genius and precise designer, the slightest change might send the whole apparatus crashing. Too often the fear instilled by mediocrity and incompetence, the two tits that nourish capitalistic societies, can only feed the beast if patterns and routines are kept as is. The slightest changes might unravel the whole company because they will unveil a paper-like deus ex machina.

We all know most of our colleagues at work are incompetent frauds but it is the smallest unexpected change in our routines that reveal how easy it would be for our collective inefficiency to bring about destruction—how close we are from complete collapse. A box cutter brought down the World Trade Center and our air defense system with it.

I talked to Robbie and explained to her what had happened and that I couldn’t work with a power hungry flake. Ten minutes later Anne was calling me. I could tell I was on speakerphone. We decided that better than Paris, Tokyo should be the venue for the interview since Rei lives and works there. I told Anne that I see Rei as a Romantic from early 19th century, a time when painters started depicting fires, ruins, decay and painted people from the back in a rebuke to the sickening self righteousness of the Enlightenment and by extension as a Dada trying to destroy art.

Everybody is sick and tired of fucking Anna Wintour.

Anna Wintour and Bee Shaffer attend the "China: Through The Looking Glass" Costume Institute Benefit Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 4, 2015 in New York City.
Anna Wintour and daughter Bee Shaffer at the 2015 Met Ball.

That’s great I love it, she said, people are so fucking stupid nobody knows what Dada is. I told her I would ask other big designers to contribute to the piece as a sort of homage to the grande dame of couture—Lagerfeld, Jacobs, Tom Ford, Alber Elbaz, Wang, Nicolas Ghesquière—in order to place Rei in the annals of fashion. I also thought about including people from outside of fashion—people she admires, like Ai Weiwei, for instance—and asking them to produce something for the piece. It would be a great piece.

I wanted to talk about the Anna Wintour slight at the Met Ball and she told me everybody is sick and tired of fucking Anna Wintour. Let me deal with the other designers’ tributes, you do the interview and write the piece, she told me. She never did any of it, of course. My impression of Anne was that she was loud and tacky. I had heard that working with her was a mess akin to making a mule piss in a public bathroom.

I then decided that the interview would take place in Paris, the sooner the better at the end of last June during the men’s collections. Forget Tokyo, I thought, this woman is unstable and the longer this will take the worse it will be. I told CDG of the latest change of plan and Anne told them when she learned the news that she would send someone else to Paris, which was obviously her plan from the beginning. I had that intuition so I bluffed CDG and told them that I heard of Anne’s plan to take me out of the interview. Yes it’s true, they said, but not to worry it wasn’t going to happen. I guess now they wanted the Guardian too.

This went on till the day of departure. I asked Anne to get the green light directly from Robbie regarding the expenses and fees and that I would not step on that plane the next day unless Robbie herself gave me the go. I got it on a Friday night at 10 pm, which is when I bought the tickets, and we left for Paris the next day in the evening. My writing partner accompanied me. Adrian Joffe, Rei’s husband, told me people will come after you from every angle, once they know you got that interview. We met with Rei twice. In order to secure the interview I had to promise a first read with the Faustian understanding that only facts would be checked by CDG, not content. We don’t do first reads Anne screamed on the phone and I don’t want you to meet with her in passing—you must spend time with her, she said, as if she were Katharine Graham.

Fashion is a strange world. Living in New York I had tangentially approached it when, being a douche, I dated models, a fashion editor and a designer who worked with Alexander McQueen. A friend and mentor of mine tried to launch his own line and even had one of his dresses in Barney’s Uptown window. He was gay. He would hit on a friend of mine and I would tell him, Tony, the guy is straight. Straight to bed, he would fire right back. He was a poet, a beautiful loser like me. He ended up living in his bed in his mother’s house in Brooklyn.

Every other gay guy has, like Tony did, a beautiful dress tucked away in his closet for special occasions. Most of the women gay guys worship work in the fashion industry. They all have the aura of a Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Lucille Ball or the mom in Grey Gardens. Steely strong women, cold, authoritarian, powerful, slightly unhinged, aloof but charming, tender but cutting, vain but elitist, superficial but cultured, terribly cruel and laudatory in the same sentence, frivol, cunning and manipulative, overdramatic, superb, all bringing, as Hamish Bowles ridiculously once said, ‘a powerhouse of pizzaz’. Their mothers, for most.

None of this will make it in the interview ELLE publishes.

Rei Kawakubo in that respect would be the queen bee.

For someone of her stature to smile when I asked her if she were neurotic goes beyond the fact that no one has ever talked to her like this in 40 years. It was the moment that I could see she was playing, that it was all an act. She knows she is the most important designer alive and she plays the part down to her refusal to give interviews or have her photo taken, which I did anyway on my iPhone. Her work, even for someone like me who hates fashion, is breathtaking. A folly in the sense that Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films were follies.

Anna Wintour herself said it recently, fashion works from the street up to designers not from the top down. The most attractive women in New York wear a leather jacket, beat up boyfriend jeans and used combat boots. Most of the clothes the best designers—mainly gay men—put on the runways are restricting, repressing camisoles that restrain women as if they were hysterics on the way to the loony bin, not to say anything of the sadistic high heels that submissive women awkwardly don, torture apparatus meant to apparently please an ethos from the worst patriarchy.

The models I have dated were fashion proof in their daily lives. They would never be caught dead wearing any of these sartorial debasements. But models more than any designers and fashion editors, who mostly remain part of a very limited, incestuous cast, had a remarkable impact on society over the last three decades. Most of them in order to stay skeletal did coke in the 80’s, ate sushi in the 90’s and sweated on these yoga mats at the turn of the century before any of us did. They all worship Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha and spent their afternoons at the Rubin, which makes for easy break ups. They probably did more for Buddhism than the Dalai Lama in his Gucci loafers, all in the name of that size zero so searched after by designers who looove women. When I grew up, size zero was only spoken to in reference to the death camps.

It was a no hold barred interview. Rei opened up for the first time about the way she creates, her excitement at the punk movement in the late 70’s, her support for Hillary Clinton, her interest in the Dada movement, her disdain for feminism, the folly of her constant search for the new, her consternation at the corporatization of today’s fashion, her hatred of the jingoistic current Japanese Prime Minister, the restraints that she imposes on herself and therefore her work, the limits of freedom.

None of this will make it in the interview ELLE publishes. Spending time with Rei and her husband Adrian was extraordinary, stimulating, challenging, extremely refreshing. Her work reminds me of Pessoa I told Adrian. Yes of course he said, the Saudade. We left Paris and went to the south of France to write the piece that I had promised would be 10,000 words. The Riviera is the perfect place to make you forget what a schmuck you are. A week later Anne had a copy of the piece on her desk. I’ll edit it next week she told me. I never heard from her.

By late August I contacted her as we had to coordinate with the Guardian, which was running the story front page early-mid September during London fashion week, in order to not overlap. No answer. The Guardian was becoming impatient. Why hasn’t Anne sent me her edits I finally asked Robbie—now the Guardian is going to press in two weeks, don’t you guys want to know what I’m gonna write for them? This is the first time I heard of this Robbie said. When did Anne get your piece? Almost three months ago, I said. She asked me to send to her and a coterie of managing editors the e-mail chain so I could substantiate my claim, as if I were lying. I sent them the discovery of evidence. The Guardian is going before us? Robbie asked me. How is that possible?

I sent her my piece for London. Great, she said—now obviously irritated—this is exactly what we would have run. I could hear the fascist and anti-Semite William Randolph Hearst turning in his grave. The Hearst perfume magazines, among them ELLE, Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmo, Marie Claire, O can thank for their survival the drug data company, First Data Bank—the credit rating agency Fitch Ratings (part of Fitch group) own at 80 percent by Hearst and the software company Homecare Homebase that bring in the bigger share of Hearst revenues. One can easily see why.

It became clear to me that Anne was hell-bent on sabotaging the piece after I had dared that day to cancel our manic ever-changing meetings. She was not in a position of power to outright kill the piece, since Robbie had originally commissioned it, but she was ready to let it die by Lingchi, a thousand cuts.

Because she cannot write and is not very bright she succeeded, no small feat, in making a fascinating and revolutionary person such as Rei sound mediocre.

By that time I had spent thousands of dollars of my own monies and I just wanted to get paid. I know I told you it would be better not to talk about Rei’s slight at the Met Ball by Anna Wintour, but how does she feel about it? Robbie asked me. Not good I told her. What is her relationship like with Adrian, everybody is curious, she asked. I think he’s gay I told her. We really focus on how women live in this world at ELLE, she said, what does she think of being a powerful woman in fashion, of women’s issues, feminism? She hates it, I told her.

Anne finally told me she would send me her edits. That was in October. Two weeks ago her minion Noah asked for my address to send me an advanced copy of the March issue. Where are your edits, I asked Anne? You didn’t receive my emails? She said. I sent them to you before Christmas when we closed the March issue. Adrian helped me with the interview part—we just changed a few things—he acted as the literary translator, his words not mine she said. It’s a terrific interview, she added, sensing the storm coming. I never received your emails because you never sent them you liar, I told her—making sure to cc Hearst’s entire masthead. Since when does the brand rewrite an interview at ELLE? I asked her. Your name is on top in big letters she said trying desperately to massage my ego.

The interview published in ELLE this month is surprisingly tight, concise and actually quite good. Only an eye well trained in the art of George Orwell’s double speak would be able to detect the branded content at play in full force here. It is bland, milquetoast, uninformative, safe above all, boring. An infomercial. Adrian Joffe made sure of it. It has nothing to do with the interview Rei gave us. It is marital beardy betrayal of the worst kind. Anne discarded the text I had written entirely but not before she stole its structures and plagiarized its ideas. Because she cannot write and is not very bright she succeeded, no small feat, in making a fascinating and revolutionary person such as Rei sound mediocre. Her text is replete with platitudes and clichés, with no insight or intelligence to speak for it and now looks like a perfect Wikipedia entry. You could read these lines and rightfully find them quite presumptuous and arrogant. So you will be the judge.

When the Guardian heard about this they made sure that the British fashion magazine 10 would publish a text I would write on Rei. It is now on sale in every newsstand in New York, uncensored, unpurloined. Adrian Joffe did not content brand it. The real interview, which according to her husband was the best she had ever given? It will stay locked in a vault at ELLE and a contract signed by a broke writer will make sure that nobody ever reads it.

ELLE on Earth