Retail Revolution | Dover Street Market

There really is no place like Dover Street Market. I remember the first time I walked into one – a six-floor, 2,500 square metre behemoth in the heart of Ginza in Tokyo – and feeling as though I had landed in a creative kaleidoscope of designs, ideas, and pure creative genius.

Rei Kawakubo, the enigmatic founder of wildly influential fashion label Comme des Garcons, is the said genius behind Dover Street Market. “I want to create a kind of market where various creators from various fields gather together and encounter each other in an ongoing atmosphere of beautiful chaos; the mixing up and coming together of different kindred souls who all share a strong personal vision,” says Kawakubo, whose vision for Dover Street Market has expanded to the major fashion meccas in the world; Tokyo, London and most recently in New York, where Dover Street Market opened in September 2013.

The first Dover Street Market opened in London in 2004, with Kawakubo transforming a six-story converted Georgian building in Mayfair to house all the Comme des Garcons brands – including Comme des Garcons Homme, Comme des Garcons Homme Plus, Comme des Garcons Shirt, tricot Comme des Garcons and more – alongside stalls and installations by designers and artists, carefully curated by Kawakubo herself.

I use the term ‘curated’ loosely however, as the core philosophy of Dover Street Market is that designers and artists are given a space to do run rampant and bring their wildest imaginations to life, creating a habitat of ever-evolving interactions and diverse concepts where luxury fashion houses such as Prada or Louis Vuitton seamlessly co-exist beside streetwear brands such as Supreme or Nike and quirky, often unheard of independent designers.

“It was the original concept of Dover Street Market to break down all barriers, tear up the rule books of department stores, ignore long established standards and create beautiful chaos, to excite the customer and make them feel like there was a new meaning and a future to retail shopping,” says Adrian Joffe, Kawakubo’s husband CEO of the US$230 million Comme des Garcons empire. “Beauty and creation are not things one can or should control. And they cannot happen without freedom.”

In some ways, Dover Street Market is like the Burning Man of the fashion industry – an ecosystem of its own where anything goes so long as it is interesting, original or inspiring. Better still if it is all three.

“We like brands that have a vision, something to say, a strong identifiable DNA,” Joffe continues. “Poor luxury is true luxury; poor meaning humble but rich inside. Things that take time, that are rare, that instead of everything being on the surface and for show, and found everywhere, the important thing is what’s inside, how it is made, the history and knowledge behind it.”

This year, Dover Street Market London celebrated its 10th Anniversary - and to commemorate its decade of joyful rebellion, orchestrated a string of events and installations.

“It feels great [to celebrate 10 years] but we can’t relax,” says Joffe. “We have to work out what is the next thing; where to go from here. No resting on any laurels. Keep the tension.”

For the first two weeks of September, the window display of Dover Street Market London showed current Creative Director of Louis Vuitton, Nicholas Ghesquiere’s first ever collection for the French fashion house. This was followed by an exclusive preview of young British designer Phoebe English’s Spring/Summer 2015 collection.

Dover Street Market’s façade was also covered by an installation by Rei Kawakubo herself, symbolising ‘The Next Ten Years’, strewn with glass-half-full phrases like ‘see things with other eyes’ and ‘the material of the past is the future’.

A large new event space on the first floor was handed over to Louis Vuitton for the entire Fall/Winter 2014 season, while the basement welcomed a new dedicated Nike space called Nikelab (the brand also designed a special commemorative anniversary shoe), and Tokyo’s Good Design Shop, a collaboration between Comme des Garcons and D&DEPARTMENT.

Each floor had event spaces or ‘market stalls’ devoted to an array of designers that – in line with Dover Street Market’s fleeting nature – changed every week, introducing souvenir products designed by Rei Kawakubo including a series of Dover Street Market checkerboard printed products in collaboration with Eastpak, Vans, Fred Perry, Sunspel and New Era, as well as a limited edition Comme des Garcons shirt made in France and appliqued with the number 10.

Many of Dover Street Market’s designers – most of whom are part of what has been named the ‘cult of Comme’ to recognise die- hard fans of the iconoclastic label – developed one-off anniversary products to be sold in their own spaces, including Sacai, Simone Rocha, Gary Card, Giambattista Valli, Rick Owens, Undercover and more.

Collaboration is at the heart and soul of Dover Street Market and key to its philosophy of collective creativity.

“Some of my favorite collaborations to date have been with Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Supreme, Speedo, Nike, Prada, Gosha Rubchinskiy...” says Joffe, who adds that in order to collaborate with a brand, “there should be a potential for synergy. There should be a meeting place between us that is not part of either of us and there should be complete trust. And respect.”

In September 2014 – just in time for Fashion Week – Dover Street Market New York launched a highly-anticipated, eight-piece capsule collection of men’s poplin shirts in collaboration with Prada, produced using iconic, archival prints from past women’s collections, truly reflecting Kawakubo’s statement that “the materials of the past are the future”.

Such is also the case for Dover Street Market New York’s 20,000 square foot, seven-story location on Lexington Avenue, occupying a 103 year-old Beaux Arts building that once stood as a Jewish College; a building that a friend insisted Joffe and Kawakabo take a look at and, unsurprisingly, they immediately fell in love with it.

The opening of Dover Street Market in Tokyo was a similarly organic process, when a friend of Kawakubo’s brought the site – previously part of a historic department store called Ginza Komatsu – to her attention. “I think we are by nature serendipitous, leaving to chance and accident the right thing to happen. And we are open to anywhere,” says Joffe of Dover Street Market’s steady global expansion.

Whatever serendipitous turns Dover Street Market takes next, one can’t help but anticipate the beautiful chaos that is likely to unfold.