When Rei Kawakubo and her husband Adrian Joffe opened Dover Street Market in London 15 years ago — mingling all Comme des Garçons lines with luxury and streetwear in a quirky emporium replete with porta-potty fitting cabins — they established something new in retail, what they dubbed “beautiful chaos.”
Customers didn’t immediately see the beauty in it.
“It was very, very difficult for four years. We suffered, we lost money, it was a very hard thing to get across,” Joffe confessed in an interview, shaking his head for emphasis. “I remember the first day people saying, ‘What is this? This is way too confusing. This is not going to work.’ We had a lot of negative comments. People could not understand it.
“It was really a slow burn,” he continued. “Some good ideas are ahead of their time and they take time to get understood. Even now we have a small core of people saying, ‘Where is the suit department?'”
Eventually, however, the concept took off and spread to five other cities — Tokyo, Beijing, New York, Singapore and Los Angeles. On Friday, DSM celebrated its anniversary in grand style, wrapping its London store, now located on Haymarket, in a graphic hoarding, and filling the five-level boutique with oodles of exclusive products rendered in monochrome.
Here, Joffe, chief executive officer of Dover Street Market and president of Comme des Garçons International, reflects on taking risks, striving for newness — and why it’s worth visiting Tbilisi and Mexico City.
WWD: Even if customers took a while to warm up to your concept, did having other brands ultimately help sales of Comme des Garçons lines?
Adrian Joffe: Yes, it improved them. The whole customer base increased. All the people who used to go to the Comme des Garçons store in Davies Street opposite Claridges, they came to Dover Street of course because there was nowhere else to buy Comme des Garçons at the time.
When we opened Dover Street in New York, we were worried about how our flagship in Chelsea, which is Comme des Garçons only, would be affected, and of course there was some slight cannibalization. It was not one and one equals two, but the total of Comme des Garçons in New York definitely grew.
WWD: Has the percentage of Comme des Garçons brands versus others roughly stayed the same?
A.J.: Yes, it stayed the same. It’s about 30 percent of the turnover. Footprint-wise, I would say a bit more than that, maybe 35 percent, because of course we take the biggest spaces.
WWD: What have you learned, good and bad, from dealing with so many brands from the other side of the table?
A.J.: I like wearing two hats. I really like to see the whole scenario. Being just on the [vendor] side, you don’t know how shops feel. You try to understand the client who comes with their budget and says they didn’t sell five skirts last year so they can’t buy more than three this year, and now I understood so much better.
I went to different showrooms, and it was a great learning experience. I often learned about how right we were in doing things the way we were. I couldn’t believe how unbelievably unorganized some showrooms were. On the first day, they didn’t even have the prices yet.
But on the other hand, we learned about how to represent collections and how we could talk about selling the collections because you just learn so much when you are on both sides.
We like to tell stories. There’s always a theme and a story and a concept, so when I went on the buying trips, that really helped me buy according to those principles, which for us is really important.
WWD: CDG tends to choose unorthodox locations for its boutiques and so did DSM, even with its original Mayfair digs. Is an offbeat location still important?
A.J.: I think it’s more about a kind of atmosphere and feeling of the building. We don’t deliberately want to be outside main areas but for one thing the rents are cheaper. And also being a shop that has other brands, it was good to be in a place where there weren’t any other brands and the brands wanted to come with us and build in a new area.
Sometimes it’s really accidental: We got the building in New York not because we were looking in Murray Hill. It’s just that we found that beautiful old building. It used to be a women’s school for fashion and design, so everything felt right.
WWD: What’s the story behind the original DSM on Dover Street?
A.J.: Our franchise with Browns was ending so we needed to find a new home. This real estate agent showed me a ground-floor shop that was available on Dover Street and it suited us because it was at a reasonable price. Then they said, “Well, we’ve got the whole building, but if you just take the ground-floor and basement, we will rent out the offices above.” We didn’t feel like having strange companies above us and then that’s when Rei and I had the idea of just taking the whole building and making a bigger shop around CDG brands. We didn’t plan it. The building lent itself to that idea.
WWD: Did subsequent DSMs take as long to reach profitability as the original?
A.J.: We thought it might be quicker [with New York] but it took four years. It just became profitable last year. L.A. looks to be very, very good. We might be profitable next year, which is the second year. Ginza was profitable even quicker. It’s the most profitable one. It’s now overtaking London as the biggest Dover Street thanks to all the tourists.
WWD: Did you set out to with the intention of planting DSMs all over the world ?
A.J.: No, we don’t have those plans. It just happens. The second one came in Tokyo because Rei was offered this building by an old friend of hers who owned that building. It just happens one by one, there is no planning. We look at each thing as it comes up.
WWD: So how many more cities can accommodate a Dover Street Market? Paris perhaps?
A.J.: I think one more city can be okay. I like odd numbers and six is not a good number so we can have seven and everybody knows where that one is going to be, although nothing is confirmed.
WWD: You’re succeeding while other prominent retailers are struggling or going dark. Any lessons to learn?
A.J.: In order for brick-and-mortar to survive, you have to make it exciting. You have to make it interesting enough to get the people out of their homes and coming to the store.
WWD: So you feel physical stores are still important?
A.J.: Extremely important! There is nothing sadder to think about than people just buying online. It seems a very lonely exercise, and I don’t think online is doing that well or they actually make money. I don’t like the idea of these kind of search channels of finding something you want. How does everybody know what they want? They are only told what they want. And then it arrives and it doesn’t fit. All that kind of process for me is not very enlightening or friendly or even socially viable in the long term. It just means that everybody is going to be stuck in their homes; nobody’s going to talk to anybody .
So we are really concentrated on building a community. It’s not an empty world: It’s a real place where people can feel comfortable and it’s almost like a second home. And I hope we are not going to be the last man standing. I think a lot of people are realizing this, and are making the shops more interesting — I don’t like the word concept store, but stores that offer other things than shopping.
For the next 15, years. Rei and I would like to find a way to do what we have done better, not wanting to repeat mistakes or repeat successes. Everything changes all the time. You can’t say, “Oh that was good, let’s do it again.” It never works. And you can’t say, “Oh, we can’t do that again, it didn’t work.” Maybe it will work next time so you just have to always find really exciting things to do. I don’t know what the future is but I know it’s going to be better and bigger and stronger than what we’ve done up until now and maybe it’s not only about fashion. I don’t think the answer is technology either. Who wants to know what they look like in something through technology?
WWD: But DSM does have an e-store, right?
A.J.: We do have an e-store but it’s more of a service. It’s mainly for perennial things, in terms of CDG brands. It’s for people who live outside London, who may not be in that day, need a refill of perfume or another wallet — things that they know, We have other brands on there and it’s doing phenomenally well. For the last five years, it has increased 50 percent every year. It’s also great for collaborations — the things that are very hot in demand.
WWD: Where do events fit in?
A.J.: There are huge budgets for installations and we have always done them, and there are lots of event spaces. We think it’s a crucial aspect. People are coming in and saying, “What have you got on?” It brings them back. I remember they used to come back twice a season, for the first delivery of the collection and the second delivery and that’s it. Now the clients are coming every week.
WWD: What do you want your customers to come away with?
A.J.: We want them to have a new experience, to be stimulated by fashion and we want them to feel energetic and raise their spirits. We want them to feel positive. We want them to interact, talk and communicate. The new thing that we have is talks; for instance, we had the model Adwoa Aboah talking about her projects. The people we believe in, we can give them a platform in the same way we give spaces to young designer to express themselves.
I think brick-and-mortar stores, in order to be relevant, have to be in more socially engaged, more political. I think it’s an important aspect of the future.
WWD: Is it not risky to wade into politics?
A.J.: Yes it’s very risky. But if it wasn’t risky, everybody would do it and I like to take risks. My colleagues and team workers are always trying to put the brakes on and rein me in but I think it’s a very important thing.
WWD: Why did you decide to carry streetwear from the start?
A.J.: We’ve always done luxury to streetwear. We wanted the whole range for people for all kinds of people: $10 T-shirts to $1,000 T-shirts. We didn’t want to make any border, barrier or lines. The whole idea of beautiful chaos was to break all the frontiers and mix it all up, and then hoping for the accidents and synergies that would come from that chaos. Sometimes there were not great accidents, but often they were just amazing, and it blew us away. We’ve changed the way luxury brands look at streetwear now.
It’s good to give yourself the possibility of synergistic accidents that happen. And it was good timing, we were lucky, because streetwear became a thing.
WWD: Can you share an example of a bad clash?
A.J.: I can’t think of a bad one. The famous story is when we put Supreme and Prada together on the seventh floor in New York. At first they were both a little bit skeptical about the idea, but in the end they just adored it. And the synergy between them. Supreme customers were buying Prada and Prada customers were buying Supreme.
WWD: Are any of your top five non-CDG brands from 15 years ago still in the top five?
A.J.: Actually, none of them are there. [Azzedine] Alaïa’s gone, Lanvin’s gone. It’s changed a lot. It’s changed even in two years. Two years ago Celine was number one, by far number one. Now we don’t even carry Celine. Now number one is Gucci and Balenciaga — and Bottega Veneta’s coming up. There’s all these new kids on the block, in terms of the luxury ones. Maison Margiela suddenly has been amazing.
WWD: What’s been the biggest change in the way your customer thinks and behaves since you started 15 years ago?
A.J.: I think our customers have become really educated, they’re really open, and more interested in everything. The kids that go straight to the basement [for streetwear and sneakers], they look at the whole store. They go to Comme des Garçons. They go to Gucci to see what’s going on there. We didn’t have that at first. That seems to be a big change.
WWD: DSM seems to be hungry for new talents and brands. Why, and how do these perform in your stores?
A.J.: They perform very, very well in our stores. We love finding them and nurturing them — and giving them spaces as soon as they come out college. Because they have great visions. We started with so many, like Simone Rocha and Craig Green and Molly Goddard. It’s been wonderful to watch them grow, and now we encourage them to grow. We don’t need to keep them for ourselves.
I think they bring a really new energy, they bring a new point of view. A lot of them share the values of Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market. They’ve all had offers to work for other people: they want to stay independent.
If we’ve had any part in their decision to stay independent, and strong and follow their visions, I’ll be very pleased.
But it’s the energy and the individualistic visions that we love about Dover Street and there’s lots and lots more examples, even beyond London, Paris, Milan and New York. I’m extremely excited about Thebe Magugu, for instance, because he doesn’t want to come to Paris and build a house. He wants to stay in Johannesburg and build his empire from there. And we’ve got incredible Chinese designers who are doing better and better.
WWD: As WWD reported, you’re now positioning DSM as something of an incubator and accelerator for young concepts. Why, and how is that working?
A.J: It’s not positioning ourselves. It’s just what we believe in and what we like to do. We’re not a patron of young designers. They give us as much as we give them. It has to be a two-way street otherwise they’d fly the nest. They give us their new energy, that chaos that we like.
It’s just a very important part of the DNA that there’s new things happening, and they help us to fulfill that dream of beautiful chaos.
WWD: You also plan to spin off specialty retail concepts under the DSM banner for sneakers, jewelry, beauty and maybe other categories. Why?
A.J.: It just happened. It wasn’t a plan as such, we just thought we’d have these merchandising spaces in Dover Street, and they’re becoming more and more popular. It’s a way to give space to even smaller brands that don’t necessarily justify their own space, but within the T-shirt space, with sneaker space, within the jewelry space we can give them one cabinet. I think we’re good at that kind of curation. We find good things to go together. It just struck us as a good idea to have those mini Dover Streets, outposts if you like.
We had just closed the perfume store in Paris and needed a new perfume store and again the same happened as 15 years ago. We thought: Why not share our perfume store with other people, again for the benefit of both of us. It’s not to use them. We help each other, which is I think the only way it can feel good and work.
WWD: What qualities do you look for in DSM buyers?
A.J.: Don’t buy what you only like yourself. Know your customer. Be open-minded, have your own taste, of course, but get the balance right. You have to be in constant contact with the people who work on the floor. You’ve got to get feedback. Go there. Follow up your client. See what you bought, see what you did wrong, see what you can do better. Keep your eyes open, keep your ear to the ground.
I think that might be another problem with department stores. I’ve never seen a buyer from any department store ever on the floor whenever I’ve visited.
WWD: And what do you look for in sales associates?
A.J.: A wonderful personality, a gorgeous smile. Never, ever, ever looking down on anybody. Anyone can be a customer, but also from the mere social point of view, you’ve got to be kind, knowledgeable and confident, and know your product. We very much insist on product education with all our concessions and corners. It’s in the contract.
WWD: Which retailers big or small do you admire, and why?
A.J.: I saw this incredible shop in Taipei that had brands like Vyner Articles, which doesn’t even have a [stockist] in London. And it wasn’t in a mall. To not be in a mall in Taipei is already revolutionary.
I also really respect Machine-A in London. It’s a great shop because he’s there on the floor and he knows what he’s doing. It’s a wonderful shop.
WWD: You travel all over the world, and not always to the most obvious places. Which cities do you find most inspiring now, and why?
A.J.: I like Tbilisi. There’s an unbelievable amount of creative energy in Tbilisi — great shops. There’s two or three designers we already have in Dover Street, like The Situationist. Small places like that.
I love Moscow still, there’s so much good stuff there. It’s hard to say. I like so many places. I love Los Angeles, but maybe it’s the palm trees and the weather.
WWD: Where are the next frontiers for creative fashions?
A.J.: Asia. I think Korea is amazing, because it’s not in-your-face. You have to go behind to find the really great stuff in Korea, the great restaurants. They have such amazing designers there. I think China of course is the next place. But also places like Mexico City, there’s some great new Mexican designers coming up. There’s one we work closely with one already. He’s from Guadalajara, he’s got an amazing image and he’s got incredible stuff. His brand is called Liberal Youth Ministry and it’s brilliant and it sells out. Not sure I should be telling everyone that.
WWD: How do you feel about product collaborations? Why are they so commonplace, and so effective?
A.J.: It’s been an important part of our history and we probably started the whole thing 20 years ago when Rei worked with Nike and we’ve done this for a very, very long time. We can’t do it unless it makes sense, unless we do something with someone who we don’t know how to do, and they work with us because they don’t know how to do what we do. It’s about the synergy. It’s one and one makes three. It’s like the two together is more than the sum of its parts. Those are the only collaborations we’re interested in.
WWD: You and Rei have been pioneers with destination boutiques, pop-ups, and now a disruptive beauty concept. Do you feel pressure to innovate, or is that just the way mavericks operate?
A.J.: Because the founding value of Comme des Garçons is to always do something new, by definition you have to be ahead, you have to clear the way, you have to be avant-garde. Literally speaking, you have to be before everyone else, otherwise by definition it’s not new. We can’t follow anybody because then we’re not doing what Rei set out to do 50 years ago. She founded the whole company on doing something new, and creation. Without creation there can’t be progress. This is a fundamental value of Comme de Garçons and Dover Street.
It’s hard to keep on doing it. There is that pressure, because you can’t sit on your laurels.
WWD: So what is the next thing?:
A.J.: I’m not a pundit. I don’t know what the next thing out there is. I don’t know what the next thing in here (Joffe motioned to his chest] is either. But I’m looking for it. And I’ll find it. Because that’s what we do.