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This year, retail wild child Dover Street Market (DSM) turns 15. The vast multi-brand shop was summoned into being by Comme des Garçons (CDG) founder Rei Kawakubo and her husband, Adrian Joffe, the company’s president. First housed on Dover Street in Central London, the pioneering venture’s interior embodied the spirit of the self-taught designer behind CDG: Kawakubo’s runways are dedicated to mischievous silhouettes, adventures with the colour black and euphoric disarray. However, you might recognise CDG better by the ubiquitous, playful logo of its Comme des Garçons Play line: a cut-out red heart with eyes.
Appropriately, the building they chose was the old site of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, a cross section of experimental – and accidental – artistic output and exchange. Rather than just setting up a Comme shop, Kawakubo and Joffe embraced the idea of a kinetic exhibition space, inviting their friends along for the ride.
The old Kensington Market in West London – with its hundreds of hawkers selling everything from bohemian threads to fetish gear – is often cited by Kawakubo as one of her primary inspirations. Channelling the collective spirit of this now-defunct haven for subcultures, the original DSM crew was a who’s who of fashion visionaries: Hedi Slimane, Raf Simons, Alber Elbaz and the late Azzedine Alaïa all created something for the launch.
These exemplary shopfellows helped set a tone of creative excellence. Yet it was the introduction of newer and more cult labels that really set DSM on its course to becoming the obsessed-about destination it is today, with additional locations in New York, Ginza, Singapore, Beijing and Los Angeles. Its London home since 2016 is the former Burberry headquarters on Haymarket – a space three times the size of its Dover Street location.
“The making of each shop is in itself a craft, and as such must be nurtured and protected,” says Dickon Bowden, vice-president of DSM. “While social media platforms and the internet serve a purpose in facilitating what we want to say, that is not the final message. This comes from visiting one of our stores.”
DSM was the first store to stock industry gatecrasher Vetements. It also supported Russian designer and menswear sensation Gosha Rubchinskiy from the start, and has always showed emerging British designers plenty of love. At all of its locations, harnessing local talent is a key part of drawing in a community. At the same time, the company never fails to deliver the big hitters: it stocked Phoebe Philo’s first Céline collection in 2009 (now much coveted as #oldceline), a Chanel pop-up the next year and the flamboyant Gucci x Elton John capsule collection in 2018, to name just three.
“I’ve been going to DSM since I was a teenager. I loved seeing what the shop staff were wearing,” says London-based designer Molly Goddard. “As a broke schoolkid I viewed the place more like a museum full of inspiration and amazing people-watching.”
“Having our own space in the shop is such an incredible opportunity to show what the brand is about beyond the clothes,” she adds, referring to the much-lauded freedom that brands are afforded to create unique spaces across DSM’s five floors.
It is perhaps this willingness to take a risk on the new – whether an out-of-the-gate designer or a novel way to share a creative vision – rather than leaning on the obvious, the easily commercialised, that is DSM’s most significant achievement.
“The community Dover Street Market has created is the most important factor,” says menswear designer Nicholas Daley, who launched his eponymous label in 2015. “It allows for cross-pollination between designers, staff and customers. I have created great friendships through there, and hopefully this will continue for the future.”
Unlike most department stores, which rent out spaces to brands – putting pressure on them to regularly bring in a certain amount of money – DSM takes a commission. Often referred to as the “anti-department store”, its system allows the company to play host to labels big and small, mixing and matching to great effect. For example, at the moment you’ll see London menswear staple Craig Green’s rainbow plastic hanging next to Bottega Veneta’s elegant, neutral Italian leather; elsewhere, sleek, dark-hued Prada coats abut gender-fluid punk label Charles Jeffrey’s Loverboy sweaters in a riot of colour. CDG collections run through the store like a red thread.
As with most markets, there are spaces dedicated to sunglasses and accessories, fragrances, jewellery and eclectica, including the World Archive collection from London fashion and design icon and CDG model Michael Costiff. Named after the hugely influential boutique World, which he ran in the 1980s, it features a curated mix of global finds.
“I love that I am able to show work made by traditional artists and craftsmen and not by fashion designers and have it appreciated and admired on the same level as big labels,” he says of his DSM display. “How thrilling to have something made lovingly in the hut of a New Guinea tribesman displayed alongside the latest Gucci. That’s an achievement.”
This spirit of collision, which Kawakubo has frequently referred to as “beautiful chaos”, is further manifested through a dizzying array of window displays, events and launches. Then there are Kawakubo’s displays and windows for her CDG line. Each year she personally oversees seasonal ‘new beginnings’, during which the store closes up for two days while the old is cleared out to make way for the new. This reinvigorating care brings to DSM, despite its size, a touch of the small boutique – a place run by a worldly, passionate and discerning owner with a keen eye on the beating heart of global culture. It’s not just about the garments that go out the door but the influences that are let in.
This is a place where anything can – and does – happen, where the fashion set come to have a good time. In the words of fashion doyenne and Rick Owens ‘accomplice’ Michèle Lamy: “Thanks a million, Rei and Adrian, for this extraordinary, beautiful, exhilarating, inspiring, fun, ‘cleverssime’, ‘friendlissime’ marketplace. You make us believe in civilisation!”
This story appears in Issue 4 of Culture Trip magazine: Art in the City.