There's some justice to the fact that Adrian Joffe is opening the third and latest Dover Street Market in a former college. Its parent company, Comme des Garçons, of which Joffe is CEO, as well as husband, translator, and gatekeeper to founder and designer Rei Kawakubo, is as much a philosophy as a fashion label. Its laws, and even its language, are entirely its own, and they're learned, loved, and pored over by devoted acolytes.
The new Dover Street Market, which follows sister locations on London's Dover Street and in Tokyo's Ginza district, will open this year in a 20,000-square-foot space at 160 Lexington Avenue, formerly a home of Touro College and situated in a neighborhood with less fashion presence than Indian takeout. It's one more go-your-own-way decision for a company that's built a global powerhouse on them. Here, in an interview with Style.com, Joffe opens up about the shop, the spirit of the label, and the balance of power between himself and Kawakubo.
Congratulations on the forthcoming Dover Street Market. Tell me a little bit about how it came to be. How do you think it will fit into the current retail scene in New York?
AJ: A friend lives nearby and suggested that we look at this building. We saw it and fell in love with it. The size was perfect, the history interesting, and the building itself is dramatic and strong. I think there is nothing like Dover Street Market in New York right now, so we are hoping it will make a nice addition to the retail scene, although we are not too bothered about fitting in as such.
Much has been made of its unusual location, though DSM has something of a history selecting—and then elevating—unusual neighborhoods. Was the space chosen with this in mind?
I guess it was. We were not particularly looking in the neighborhood. We were open to all areas. We really decided this because of the building itself—although, I must admit the fact of its location and the absence of fashion here was an added bonus.
How will the New York Dover Street Market relate to its counterparts in London and in Tokyo, in terms of design and in terms of product?
We are now demolishing everything inside, and then Rei Kawakubo will visit and then start the design. We do not want it to be a mere version of the two existing ones. It has to be new and peculiar to New York. It is important for us to never "copy conform" but create new individual spaces whenever we do a shop—that takes into account the spirit of the city and surrounding area. London is very London and Tokyo very Tokyo. We aim for this one to be very New York, even in an abstract sense.
Dover Street Market beggars comparison with most other traditional retail stores. I'm curious what kind of spaces you have in mind as you conceive of it. Do you see it as a department store? A gallery? A supermarket?
Despite the fact we want to make this Dover Street Market unique, we will, of course, adhere to its underlying ethos of "beautiful chaos." We hope, therefore, that it will be neither a department store, nor gallery, nor supermarket, nor specialty store, and yet a bit of all of the above, where 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 5. It's the interaction of all, the invention of many, and the synergy resulting that interests us, as well as the dispensing of established norms of what retail is supposed to be about.
Dover Street Markets stock both Comme lines and third-party lines. Do you approach the stores differently from the Comme des Garçons boutiques because of this?
Not really. Everyone, including CDG, has to adhere to the rules. Negotiating terms with Comme des Garçons is somewhat easier, but only marginally so!
There have been many complaints of late about the increasingly corporate nature of fashion. In some ways, Comme des Garçons stands apart from this as an independent outsider; and yet at the same time, Comme is brand with representation worldwide and several labels under its umbrella. How do you see the company in relation to the corporate fashion system?
The huge difference is that Comme des Garçons is free and independent, and that the eye of only one person, Rei Kawakubo, oversees everything. Despite our ever-growing international footprint, creativity comes first and business second.
In a recent interview, Kawakubo was quoted as saying that the emphasis on business and profits, rather than on pure creative expression, in fashion today is "weakening the power of creation. This is the worst of situations." Is there any corrective to this?
Using the word corrective implies that the situation needs remedying. I don't believe RK necessarily meant there needs to be a solution. Fashion is cyclical, like everything else, and I suppose as people tire of the overflowing of frenetic fast fashion, the morass of mundane mass-market products, and the same luxury brands lined up on every high street, things might change for a while, and then change again. I think people feel already that fashion is suddenly in a strange, uncomfortable, and uninteresting place, and one would hope that the "power of creation" will become strong again in time as a result.
Rei Kawakubo has also spoken in interviews about the need to create something completely new in her designs. And yet this is, in some way, at odds with the work of branding, marketing, and selling a line—especially over the course of decades—where brand recognition, consistency, and comprehensibility are virtues. Is it difficult to negotiate the constant reinvention of Comme des Garçons with the need to create stability in the brand, from a business perspective?
I don't think it is at odds. Even though RK always seeks to create something completely new in her main collection, I believe people recognize always the spirit of Comme des Garçons inherent in the clothes. This is the beautiful paradox of our company, if I may say so. And then creative expression across the rest of the company can be found in every aspect of what we do—be it in marketing, merchandising, making new brands, retail strategies, printed matter, shop design, etc. All that is overseen by RK, and therein lies the secret of stability and consistency amidst constantly new creation and reinvention.
You are in the somewhat unusual position of having a hand in both the designer's world and the retailer's. What's seen on most fashion runways tends to be theater; what's seen at retail is about sales, one of the reasons why much of what's seen on many runways doesn't go into commercial production. But this isn't, I don't think, true of Comme. Given that CDG shows (and collections) are famously challenging on the runway, is it a challenge to translate the runway collection into retail sales without compromising it?
Ninety-five percent of what you see on the runway is produced and sold—together with some easier versions of those. It is what our die-hard fans want to buy. The challenge for sales is achieved through our panoply of different labels and concepts.
How important is collaboration in the world of Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market? CDG has led the way in collaborating with outside brands and companies for special-edition product, but I know Rei Kawakubo insists on complete creative control inside the house—and gives the same complete control to those whose collections she chooses to support and back, like Junya Watanabe, Tao, and Ganryu. Does this come to stand in for collaboration on any single line?
Collaborations are interesting when they have a meaning—when neither party can do what the other does, when there is some synergy. Each case is different, but we only work when the other party leaves it all to us, or we leave it all to them. We don't go in for brainstorming. There is either 100 percent trust or it won't work with us.
What are your thoughts on the state of fashion today? As someone who buys for Dover Street Market, which lines excite you? Which are overrated?
I am hardly going to go into what I like and don't like. Also, it is about what is good for DSMNY. Generally, we like anything that has a vision, a shared spirit, some kind of creation that could be pure or abstract, an adherence to authenticity and belief in tradition and hard work, quality, and individuality. Doesn't have to share our sense of values, but must at least have a sense of values of its own.
DSM offers some e-commerce; CDG maintains a more limited Web presence. Might this change in the near future? Does CDG have a place online?
I don't think so…not for the clothes. But this year we have doubled our turnover on our DSM London e-shop, with nearly all of that being Comme des Garçons Play, wallets, and perfume. We open soon, too, a DSMNY e-shop version, where we will have the same things as DSM London, and through which we will communicate the progress on the actual store, opening beginning December.
How do you and Rei Kawakubo work together—what is the creative process like?
She creates, I process.
Style.com did a story last year on twelve of Comme des Garçons' most ardent devotees; the label has arguably the most committed fan base of any in fashion. How do you account for that devotion?
Yes, that was a great story. Thank you! I think it is true. We have an unbelievably committed and fervent fan base. It took some of them some time to accept the concept of mixing CDG brands with other ones in DSM. But accounting for devotion is very difficult to do, like asking why do people fall in love.