Pin It
Brian Griffin Comme des Garcons Tbilisi Georgia Rei Kawakubo
Comme des Garçons in Tbilisi, Georgia, 1989Photography Brian Griffin

Shooting Comme des Garçons in 80s Soviet Georgia

Photographer Brian Griffin reflects on a 1989 shoot in the country – watch archive footage of Kawakubo styling local people in her designs

Soviet Georgia, 1989. On a grassy hillside outside of Tbilisi, Rei Kawakubo is wandering around, wrapped in a black blanket. A young local is playing a barrel organ that’s almost comically out of tune, as a group of broad women lean against a car and a pig rummages through the grass. Captured on fuzzy VHS and given a new lease of life thanks to YouTube, the scene is the unlikely setting for a photoshoot for Comme des Garçons’ Six magazine – the unstapled, A3 publication published between 1988 and 1991 that never printed a single word, instead using an array of striking, mysterious imagery to present a vision for the season.

Birmingham-born Brian Griffin was the chosen photographer, capturing the Comme-clad village residents under the flash of his lights. Endeared to Kawakubo in part due to his eccentric dress sense (“I always wore plus fours. She loved that”) Griffin was passed the footage when he returned to Tbilisi for an exhibition earlier this year, and decided to put it online. Here, the celebrated photographer retells the story behind the shoot.

                                                                           *

“I wasn’t a fashion photographer at all. I was doing mostly business magazines, taking portraits of businessmen, and Rei saw my work. I was quite a famous portraitist, and I’d worked with John Malkovich, Julian Sands… all these famous figures that she always had modelling for her. An assistant, Yuki, first got in touch, and I started working on the fashion shows. I didn’t do catwalk photography, nothing like that, but I’d go over when they released their collection in Paris, and then the next day I’d shoot the models, who were generally famous people. Comme used to really support me, at the very end of the 80s I got a lot of support.

The reason we went to Tbilisi was that Rei adored a Georgian naïve painter called Niko Pirosmani – both of us loved his work, by sheer fluke really. So me and my assistants went there with my lights and my cameras, Rei came in from Japan and Yuki came from the UK. We were about 20 minutes drive out of Tbilisi, on top of a hill near a Greek Orthodox Church. The locals were there and Rei was there, and the concept was to combine elements of Comme clothing with their outfits, so there would be a mix. She couldn’t speak a word of English, of course. Not one word. Her feelings were communicated by her translator-slash-assistant-slash-PA Yuki. But she was astonishingly talented, astonishingly talented.

It was really weird because they were sacrificing animals in this church behind us as we were doing our photography, and they were hanging the little hooves of the goats and the sheep off the trees by string. They were cooking the animals, barbecuing them. At the end of the shoot Rei and her assistant and I went up to photograph the priest there. There was this really weird-looking little man, and he was in charge of the sacrificial knives. I found it really spooky, I didn’t like it. But we threw a big picnic for the locals, which was good fun. We were all having great fun together.

The next day after Rei had left, we photographed Mother Georgia, which is quite a famous shot looking up at the steel statue – it became a real handout for Comme des Garçons. You’ve got to remember it was the time of the Soviet Union breaking up – we stayed in this tourist hotel with a big fat lady down the end of the corridor who monitored all of our phone calls. We were totally under surveillance, absolutely under surveillance. There were lots of meetings in the dark on street corners, and they were destroying statues of Stalin… it was quite tense. It was really weird, when we were coming back they said they couldn’t get us on the aeroplane, to come back to Moscow to get our flight back to London. But they did, and not only us, but more people – they stuffed people on the floor in the cockpit, me and Yuki sat on the flipseats near the exit door where the hostesses sit, and then my assistant sat on the toilet all the way back to Moscow.

“It was the time of the Soviet Union breaking up... We were totally under surveillance. There were lots of meetings in the dark on street corners, and people were destroying statues of Stalin” – Brian Griffin

I last saw Rei when she brought the Comme des Garçons perfumes first out at Liberty’s… 90-something. I haven’t seen her for a good 20 years. It’s a shame really. We got really quite… intimate is the wrong word, but we got quite close, Rei and I. As working mates, we fell for each other. We had a real closeness, she was extremely fond of me. When she decided not to do any more Six magazines she gave me a jacket which she only ever made three of which I’ve still got, and a wallet, as a gift to say thank you. We were very fond of each other, Rei and I, as fellow creatives.  

Looking at the pictures now, I know I could do them a hundred times better! I couldn’t have done them better then because Rei worked really fast, too quickly for me. I didn’t even have chance to think half the time because it was like so quick, all of her working methods… I would have liked to just have had a few more moments to see what I was doing. If I could do the same photography now it would be infinitely better, but the strange thing about is everyone loves it! Rei said it was her favourite story of all the ones she did for Six. She said this was the one story above all others that she liked, which was very nice of her.”