rewind to the moment dover street market landed in london and rewrote the rules of retail
Scenes from Dover Street Market's construction
"C'est parfait!" Whispers one of the workers preparing for the opening of Comme des Garçons' latest store, with something close to awe in her voice. Her colleague stands back and admires their work. "Oui. C'est parfait!" she agrees. In silence for a few seconds, they look at it again, their dusters dangling by their sides. Yes, indeed, that is one clean mirror.
If attention to detail was the only criteria for the perfect retail environment, the new Comme des Garçons boutique on London's Dover Street would win hands down. Built within the layout of what was once an office -- complete with the swing doors between floor and stairs in the shade of elephant that seems ubiquitous to every mundane desk desert in the land -- the 13,000-square-foot, six-floor monolith is more experience than mere brand statement.
If other fashion giants too often opt for the kind of polished chic that makes for global homogeneity, the Comme store is going to attract retail tourists who are not even into fashion, just for the fun of exploring the space. It is a carefully chaotic market-style arrangement that, in line with Comme's long-time spirit of collaboration, is half Comme -- with many of Comme's 12 lines previously unavailable in the UK -- half mini-boutiques styled by the tenant designers invited to sell there, from a one-off collection by Azzedine Alaïa to Anne Valérie HASH, LA's Decades Vintage to Stoke Newington discovery Universal Utility, Hedi Slimane furniture to underground label Undercover's first showing outside of Japan, among many others. Here shredded textiles meet theatre design, chandeliers meet stark minimalism, Santa's grotto meets painted Portaloos (for changing rooms), and, on each floor, old shacks cobbled together from bits of wood board and corrugated iron found in North Wales now serve as stock room, till point and mission statement, their unexpected makeshift manufacture, frayed, dismantled edges, character and history somehow Comme made architecture...
But, for now, it's all preparation. The clothes are out, reflecting each designer's take on how to decorate their own patch -- there goes Raf Simons, surveying his stall, with its boxy art installation ceiling hanging over a specially collated 'best of' archive selection of his menswear, and here comes Gwyneth Paltrow, in to select one of the one-off Lanvin dresses for some paparazzamatazz affair that evening -- but men in overalls are still waxing wood, wiping windows and rollering walls.
And this is no place to splash your Dulux. A cleaner picks up a shirt. "$350! Ha!" she exclaims, a quick mental button push calculating just how many hours she may have to work to take it home. "Let's buy one," she jokes to her co-cleaner, as though it would require at least a joint effort, as staff heft by a box loaded with $350 shirts wrapped in polythene. You can tell the workers from the staff at Commes because they're the only ones not wearing either (a) a lot of black or (b) bobby socks.
And here, a small fast-moving man in dark suit and white shirt is on the mobile while he furiously hunts for one half of a pair of curtains he has seen this morning but now somehow misplaced. That will be Adrian Joffe, Comme des Garçons' managing director and for twelve years the husband to Rei Kawakubo. And there, seemingly popping up out of nowhere, on different floors at the same time, the shopkeeper to Mr. Ben -- in baggy crotch pantaloons and an asymmetric fitted jacket, garnished with a chain of safety pins -- is Rei Kawakubo, Comme's 60-year-old founder, designer, thinker. She is still beneath her rigorous bob, staring at who knows what: something wrong, something that needs amending, something invisible to the normal human eye. She does not look very happy. She has not smiled all morning -- and the prospects do not look good.
"I feel that if for one instant I'm totally satisfied [with a design or project] I'll no longer be able to do anything else," she says, speaking through Joffe's translation. "One instant of satisfaction and I worry that I won't be able to come up with the next creation. I always have that hunger. As long as I continue to do what I'm doing, I feel that I have to keep pushing on...The company is not that big, comparatively," she adds (though, still privately held, it turns over more than $150m a year and has well over 270 stores in its native Japan alone). "It depends on where you stand. I don't ever really know whether we're succeeding or not. It always seems tough. We carry on each year; we do the things we can. But it's always a worry. Things may seem good but it's always a risk each time we do something new that it will be the thing that doesn't work. There is a constant fear of things not working out. You have to be on your toes all the time. Dover Street is an example of what I mean. It's a risky venture. But it's all part of that need to be doing something new."
Doing the new has been Kawakubo's stock in trade since she launched in 1973, and long before she first tackled the West in Paris in 1981. There her masculine tailoring, distressed fabrics, asymmetric cuts, shreds, rips, pads and dominant use of black -- at a time when bold color was synonymous with what were then impressively referred to 'designer' clothing -- had the fashion world falling off its front row seats, and more in shock than admiration. Some, with immaculate sensitivity, dubbed it 'Hiroshima Chic'. Even in taking a backseat, publicity-wise -- a policy the rarely interviewed Kawakubo has maintained -- and giving her company a name, and a cryptic one at that, plucked simply as a French phrase she liked the sound of, Kawakubo has cut across the grain.
The design tenets of her clothing have, of course, since been embraced as high fashion staples, black has becomes fashion's fundamental element (to the point the Kawakubo believes it may have lost its once potent strength) and Kawakubo has become arguably the most influential designer of the past two decades -- with nearly every major fashion star, from Alexander McQueen to Helmut Lang and Donna Karan, citing her as an inspiration. Untrained in fashion design -- "I know what I would have been like if I had had formal fashion training. But what I think was more important was that I started doing what I wanted to do and on my own," she says -- Kawakubo had come to it through working in the advertising department of the Asahi Kasei textile company. Unable to find the garments she wanted, she had started to design them herself. With a fresh perspective, she came to fashion not to pander to expectation, but simply with the unsimple notion of breaking some new ground, of challenging preconceptions -- a dangerous stance in a business that so often sells on brand credibility over creativity.
"I can't say I was surprised [by the reaction to Comme's launch in the West]," she says. "It was a long time ago. But I think I knew before I came here that there wouldn't be a unanimous reaction one way or the other. I understood that if what I was doing was something understandable by everybody immediately then I wouldn't have succeeded in my purpose. I didn't want to be just another fashion brand. I wanted to make a new statement." This need comes through in Comme's stores -- she set the benchmark for a stripped-down interior and presentation, one that does not seek to puff up the standing of the products within through pricey materials or superficial glossiness, with Dover Street the culmination of a series of store openings that defy the usual corporate approach. Recent months, for instance, have seen the opening of temporary frontier stores assembled with he minimum of expense in uncommercial locations in more unexpected cities, from Berlin to Barcelona, with the likes of Warsaw, Vilnius and Ljubljana in Slovenia set to follow.
It has also come through, for instance, her fragrances -- Odeur 53, launched in 1989, threw a spanner in the test tube of standard fragrance creation by avoiding the typical sandalwoods, roses and musks in favor of a perfume with hints of rubber and nail polish, or the latest, Synthetics, with its hints of tar and dry cleaning. And it has come through her approach to catwalk shows. Less theatrical extravaganzas as soundless, single-filed events using not the genetically gifted but ordinary people, from actors to road sweepers, who Kawakubo thinks have extraordinary faces.
Of course, hers -- that of the Anti-Tom Ford -- will barely be seen. Most certainly it has come through in her clothing -- she can be attributed with not only introducing inky shades to fashion but also distressed fabrics, from roughed-up seams to deliberate holes, the cut-and-paste mode of deconstruction, folded and moulded into new clothes that exist without name, and the use of often printed synthetic materials for their own properties, rather than as a poor man's alternative to 'natural' fibers.
Surprisingly, perhaps, for a designer so driven to produce the jarringly new, rather than an aesthetic continuum each season, Kawakubo seems to be no great fan of fashion for fashion's sake, an approach somehow reflected in her choices for Dover Street. "If you take the tail coat, for example, that kind of tailoring, and the fact that it has been worn for centuries without ever really changing is something that I find very strong," she explains. "It has been worn over the ages, it's comfortable to wear, and then based on that historical shape you can make something that is totally new but which also has the authenticity of being old. What I find tasteful is something you can wear over and over again, so often that it becomes your own and when it becomes your own, your sense of style is expressed. That's why I've always been interested in the concept of uniform: because it's worn over and over. Then the way you wear it makes it your own statement."
In Comme's world that statement, more importantly, need not be one of beauty in the standard sense. Just as Dover Street is not all chrome and marble, but already feels like it has some integrity in its bare brickwork, so the clothes within it would bemuse those looking for leg and cleavage. Dover Street, after all, is from the woman who, in her 1997 'Bump' collection, distorted the sleek, tight-fitting feminine lines exploited by most other designers in favor of what some regarded as grotesque deformity, adding padded lumps to the clothing where no padding lump had been before.
"Many designers cater to their idea of what they think men would like to see women as," says Kawakubo. "I think it takes courage to do something that might not be the established way men would like to see women as. And because it is the accepted way it also means the clothes sell better. It's commercial, because every culture is the same that way now. It becomes part of the system, even though designers must feel like they're doing what everybody else is doing -- it becomes a vicious circle. It's safe. You have to break out of that if you want to do something different."
Dover Street fits the tall order, seemingly pitched somewhere between an attitude of retail expertise and mend and make do, an intriguing state of the forever unfinished. The original store was planned as something smaller, until a last-minute decision was taken to take the top floors and add in, of all things, a bakery. One level's bare, polished-steel tile floor looks the part, but is just a standard office carpet underlay that Kawakubo spotted during the store's fitting and decided there and then to keep. Kawakubo says the store was in some part inspired by the Kensington Market that ran from the 70s to the early 90s, a hotchpotch of both unsung and established talent in a variety of fields. It is a creative space ideal for the likes of Robe de Chambre, Kawakubo's more particular line of dark, mature, complex womenswear available for the first time outside of Japan. "If Comme des Garçons is the engine of the business, then Robe de Chambre is more my style, more like my own wardrobe and the way I like to dress," she explains. "It's no less commercial for that because I get lots of people saying they like my style. But then it's not for everybody."
Then again, with Dover Street also offering works from Nick Knight's Showstudio.com (live interviews are planned to be hosted from its corner), the Parisian specialist photography bookshop Galerie 213 and dealer in leftfield antiques Emma Watkins, this is as much an artistic space as new West End fashion mansion -- one fitting for a designer who has also turned her vision to graphics, packaging and exhibition design. Perhaps it is too eclectic, too scarily on the button for the more mainstream tastes. Kawakubo is hoping not. Dover Street is not aimed at being some grand but loss-making brand statement: first year sales are expected to be around $5m.
"I've always said I'm not an artist. For me, fashion design is a business," she says, with some determination. "It's just one way of doing business. It's my job. It's what I do. But it also stems perhaps from wanting people to be free and independent. It's a good way of encouraging people to be like that, through fashion design. It's a convenient and simple way of giving that independence, because everybody has to wear clothes. Fashion design is a good way of expressing values that are important to me: work hard, get strong, work together, live for what you believe in. For me, fashion design is just an expression of what I feel about life. But it is also commercial." And then there is a moment of hesitation, before her notorious dislike of the interview process, mixed with pre-opening nerves, sends her scuttling off to contend with some other unsettling problem she has spotted in her new store. "It's not false modesty, but there is this feeling of never being ever totally satisfied with a lot of what I do," she concludes. "I just need to carry on doing what I need to do."
To celebrate the opening of Dover Street Market, Rei Kawakubo co-ordinated these images with photographer Steve Smith and stylist David Lamb.
Text Josh Sims
Photography Kirby Koh
From i-D, The Expressionist Issue, No. 249, November 2004