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Rei Kawakubo is “almost pleased” with what she sees.

This story first appeared in the December 20, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Standing in the center of the Comme des Garçons New York flagship on Wednesday morning, hands on hips, she is a tiny stroke of black (but for the white swoosh on her Nike Flyknits) amid the store’s gleaming new gold interior. What she’s not is the exact manifestation of her image, which, let’s face it, is terrifying. Rather, Kawakubo is engaged with the work in a hands-on manner, and seemingly accessible to the staff. She smiles. A few days earlier, in reply to an e-mail question about her status as a design icon, she said, “I am not aware I am an icon.”

For the first time since it opened on West 22nd Street in 1999, Kawakubo has renovated the Chelsea store, recasting the formerly black-and-white fixtures and curving, sculptural partitions in gold, a hue so chosen because, according to Kawakubo’s research, when given a choice, babies gravitate toward gold.

 

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She had arrived in New York from Tokyo two days prior to oversee the finalization of the store’s revamp, which, with less than 24 hours until deadline, is still very much under construction and as yet unmerchandised. This is obviously stressful, but “When the clothes go in, it will be fine,” she says in Japanese translated by Adrian Joffe, the chief executive officer of Comme des Garçons, who is also Kawakubo’s husband and voice to the public. His assessment of the store’s new look: “It’s pure Comme des Garçons, it’s purely her eye. For the flagships, she needs to go ahead, to be in front to push forward. It’s the engine of the company. It’s always got to be in front, and everything else can follow.”

By that, Joffe is referring to the other, perhaps even bigger, Comme des Garçons news happening elsewhere in the city. The third outpost of Dover Street Market, CDG’s ultimate in cool multibrand store, located at 160 Lexington Avenue in the heart of what is arguably Manhattan’s least fashionable neighborhood: Murray Hill, home to curry restaurants, cheap nail salons and recent college graduates of the mainstream variety. Retailwise, it’s a nonneighborhood, though that will likely change with the magnetic pull of Comme des Garçons. It’s happened in New York before, first in SoHo, where Kawakubo opened her original CDG store in 1983; again in Chelsea, and again in London in 2004 with the opening of the first Dover Street Market. “I’ve heard some retail developers say, ‘Oh, they’re crazy, we’re not going to go there,’” says Joffe of Murray Hill. “It’s a wait and see. We don’t mind if it doesn’t happen.”

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Opening today for a private preview and on Saturday to the public, the seven-floor, 20,000-square-foot store is incredible, a wild synergy of creativity and commerce that truly lives up to the term “experience” that many brands bandy about when p.r.-ing their new retail concepts. In addition to housing all 15 of the Comme des Garçons collections, including Homme Plus, Homme Deux, Comme des Garçons Shirt and Junya Watanabe, Dover Street Market stocks a designer directory of cool. Among them, Azzedine Alaïa, J.W. Anderson, Simone Rocha, Rick Owens, Saint Laurent and Sacai, plus megabrands Louis Vuitton and Prada, which have taken space on the ground and top floors, respectively. There is exclusive merchandise by Nike Lab, Repossi, Rocha and Andre Walker, as well as a host of labels virtually unheard of to all but fashion’s most fervent fans: Phoebe English, 1205, Proper Gang and Gosha Rubchinskiy, to name a few. Prada has created an exclusive collection for the store, sewn with the label “Prada at Dover Street Market,” while Vuitton is inaugurating the first floor pop-up space for three months with the first six weeks devoted to Kim Jones’ men’s and the second to women’s. And not because Vuitton is in transition with its women’s designer. “It’s expected that we will come with a feminine expression and we are going to do the opposite,” says Valerie Chapoulaud, ceo of Louis Vuitton Americas. It’s the first time Vuitton has done a pop-up within another store, though it has had a relationship with Dover Street Market in Tokyo’s Ginza district for some time. “I said, ‘Adrian, how do you foresee our partnership collaboration?’ and he said, ‘Come with ideas,’” says Chapoulaud of the result — a small area over which hangs a basketlike structure based on a crinoline skirt, meant as an expression of Vuitton’s heritage and “dressing the best ladies in the world at the time.”

Joffe scouted all of the designers involved in the project, while Kawakubo is the architect, planning the space’s “harmony and chaos,” as Joffe calls it, in her mind. When asked if all of the desired labels complied, Joffe said only one was missing: Céline. “We were very surprised,” says Joffe. “We have them in London, and they’re number one.”

As for the design of the store, Kawakubo commissioned three pillars that pierce each floor straight to the top, and divvied them up among three artists: London Fieldworks, which outfitted its with wooden houses; Magda Sayeg, known for yarn bombing, who covered hers in colorfully knit patchwork like a big, kooky sock, and Leo Sewell, whose pillar is decorated with all kinds of random paraphernalia, from crutches to skis. There are sound sculptures by Brooklyn-based artist Calx Vive; a mural by Alex Da Corte, and painted shelves by Mark Cooper. One of the more experimental installations is the tunnel-enclosed staircase connecting the third and fourth floors. The amorphous structure titled “Biotopological Scale-Juggling Escalator” was designed by Arakawa and Gins, the architects behind the Bioscleave House in East Hampton, N.Y., who practice procedural architecture and “reversible destiny.” Joke (pronounced Yo-key) Post, who works with Gins, explains that it’s “a lifespan extending module” — walk upstairs and live a long life.

What about walking down? “Whatever way you go — up, down, backwards or front — it’s the same effect,” says Joffe. “It’s the spirit. If you’re in it, it’s working.”

Each designer and artist was given relative creative freedom over the look of his or her space. Thom Browne’s area is set up like an office, with a desk and a library lamp. Nike’s features modular furniture. Prada’s is wallpapered in murals inspired by the spring show and features mannequins with pretty painted eyes designed by Gabriel Specter. Unifying all of the Comme des Garçons spaces is Kawakubo’s material of choice — birch wood. Asked how Kawakubo works with others, Joffe says, “We collaborate in a way that nobody else collaborates. For us, the word collaboration is not ‘sit down at the table and brainstorm.’ She hasn’t met the people from Vuitton or Prada or Saint Laurent. It’s trusting the person, defining the parameters and leaving the inspiration…but they never meet.”

A complete floor-to-ceiling view of the store can be had by riding the glass elevator positioned in the middle of the floors.

Unlike the original Dover Street Market, which only became profitable six years after it opened, Joffe speculates that Dover Street New York will be in the black in the short term. “First year. Reasonable rent, we know what we’re doing,” he says. “It’s famous.”

Since the announcement of Dover Street’s impending arrival, anticipation has been high. But Kawakubo “never expects anything,” says Joffe. “She just hopes that people will come here and be excited and leave with their spirits raised.” Their eyebrows, likely, too, since everything Kawakubo touches is subject to intellectual scrutiny, whether she wants it or not.

Dover Street and the CDG reboot are timed with the last rush of the holiday shopping season, though the giant gold evergreen sculptures situated at the front and the back of the CDG store should not be mistaken for Christmas trees. Designed by artist Kohei Nawa, who created the headpieces for Kawakubo’s spring 2012 “White Drama” collection, the trees are made of bubbling Styrofoam and gold paint. The smaller one in the front of the store is “young,” says Nawa; the taller one in the back, the “old tree.” Beyond that, there is “No meaning,” says Joffe. “That’s the thing, everybody wants a meaning. It’s not significant. [Kawakubo’s] thing is just something visually exciting and strong. People want to see a deep meaning always. It’s the bane of our life. I don’t know why people want that. Because it’s new and exciting and never seen before, that’s what she likes to do.”

At 8 a.m. on Thursday, a few hours before the opening of the redone Comme des Garçons store, Kawakubo is doing more than making final inspection. “She’s intense and serious and fully into it and helping in every way that I need her help, anything visual,” says Joffe. He’s not kidding. She’s rushing around the sales floor, crouching down to adjust the black pannierlike cage look from her spring collection on a mannequin, neatening displays, making sure a reporter is attended to as well as her staff — how late did they stay? How early did they arrive?

To see her at work, not just overseeing but doing, is to witness a layer of the mystique removed. A creative deity to many, but also part of a team. As she said in her e-mail exchange, “I am a businesswoman.”