Somewhere on Dempsey Hill, a little chaos is brewing. You can’t tell yet, because the building in question looks positively discreet – a low-rise colonial bungalow, all-white apart from the blue film covering wide glass panels to block prying eyes from spying on what goes on within.
Inside, a vast, chapel-like space looms large and blindingly white – the stunning high ceiling and imposing pillars quietly complemented by elegant black wooden rafters. There is an air of reverence within these walls, as if in anticipation of an imminent spiritual awakening. That day will come, on July 29, when Rei Kawakubo – the high priestess of alternative style – descends upon Singapore to bless the opening of every fashionista’s temple of worship, Dover Street Market (DSM).
“Beautiful chaos” is a term coined by Kawakubo – the founder of cult label Comme des Garçons (CDG) – to describe the fashion wonderland she created with her husband Adrian Joffe in 2004 to challenge the conventions of fashion retail way before the word ‘disruption’ became the calling card of the Millenial generation. The Singapore store is its fourth standalone in the world (excluding a franchise in Beijing), and is significant for the way it brings together two female fashion icons – the elusive Kawakubo and equally low-profile Christina Ong of the Club 21 and COMO group – together in a venture that will give the local retail scene a much-needed shot of excitement.
It is also the finishing touch to Ong’s COMO Dempsey – a major lifestyle destination project that has unfolded in stages since late last year with the opening of Peranakan restaurant Candlenut. With Dover Street Market, a unique challenge presents itself. Located in a primarily F&B-centric location with no strong retail tenants, and not accessible by bus or MRT, combined with a generally lacklustre economy, will the magic of DSM be strong enough to overcome the mathematical odds against it?
Talk to Adrian Joffe and it becomes very clear that logic, number crunching and market research have no place in a brand that operates – and thrives financially – on creativity, radical thinking and anti-establishment approaches.
“We founded DSM in 2004 with the aim of making an entirely new stimulating retail experience where the established rules are ignored, where we share our spaces with people who have strong vision, where we constantly change and animate the space,” says Joffe in an exclusive email interview. “The original idea was to make a creative retail experience with a community of like-minded people. It’s not for us to say DSM is a game changer, but I’m happy to hear it.”
Joffe, 63, is the CEO of Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market. He met Kawakubo when they were both working in Tokyo in the 1980s and married in Paris in 1992. Kawakubo, 74, is the creative force behind the store concepts while the Paris-based Joffe overseas the business side of things, including budgets, merchandising and marketing.
He is also the official voice of Kawakubo, a mercurial personality who is infamous for never granting interviews, and is nothing if not unpredictable. As the one in charge of each store’s interior design, there is no surefire way of knowing what the Singapore store will look like until it actually opens.
“For DSM, Rei oversees everything visual and of course architectural,” explains Joffe. “She designs all the CDG brand spaces and all the common areas as well as the central architectural features. Rei and the values of CDG are our guiding stars, and inspiration. It’s all we can do to keep up! The challenges are to always be on the ball and keep evolving and renewing. The joys are seeing the success we have achieved and the countless fans who love just coming to DSM to hang out.”
The Singapore store came about “because it was the right concept, at the right time and the right place,” says Fiona Tan, general manager of DSM Singapore. “The Dempsey space was made available at about the same time we were thinking of DSMS, so everything fell into place nicely.”
True to form, Joffe adds, “We did not do any retail research or study of consumer habits. We want to present a pure vision of DSM to Singapore. Of course, our Singapore-based buyers took into account their experience in making the orders.”
It’s a classic chicken and egg question of which came first, the Dempsey site or the idea to bring DSM to Singapore, says Tan. “The site with its unique location and architecture was made available to us at a time when we were exploring the DSM concept. The two kind of fit in nicely with each other.”
With Comme des Garçons reporting annual sales of US$260 million, it is in a position to continue challenging traditional retail models. After its success in London’s Dover Street (where it got its name), it surprised the industry by moving (due to exorbitant rental hikes) to Haymarket – smack in touristy Piccadilly and what some call a dead zone for retail. But Joffe is unperturbed by the negative mindset about the location. After all, the cult of CDG has always been about capitalising on the unfamiliar and untested, and relying on instincts and good judgment.
Already, the fans are waiting. Civil servant and avid CDG collector How Kay Lii says DSM is in a league of its own. “It offers the best bits of the best brands – a bit of the posh, a bit of the regular, a bit of street and a bit of the wacky. It’s not everyday that you see these disparate elements sitting pretty together – each with its own personal space.”
“It never really feels like a retail store but more like an art/design space that presents fashion in a more creative manner,” says Kien Koh, a PR & Marketing manager.
If there are any concerns given the recent announcement by Paris-based iconic multi-brand boutique Colette about its closure after 20 years, Joffe does not show it.
“We are a simple clothes shop that endeavours to provide a wonderful selection of the best brands, carefully curated, in an atmosphere of beautiful chaos created by a mix of exciting visual experiences in the context of a heritage building given a new lease of life,” he says.
“The interesting details are too numerous to mention, but the Singapore store will feature a series of huge arches cutting through the space and a central gigantic hut complex in the middle. The lighting is a special design by Thierry Dreyfus.
“Brick and mortar stores still offer something different. The experience we aim to provide cannot be given online.”
Here is why Dover Street Market is every fashion aficionado’s playground.
DSM is a haven when it comes to exclusive pieces. Luxury fashion houses from Louis Vuitton to Prada take turns to work with the DSM to produce coveted items that are only exclusive to the store. In Singapore, some of the up-and-coming limited edition merchandise include the Gucci capsule collection, cult designer Gosha Rubchinskiy’s special edition t-shirt and Balenciaga sneakers which will launch in the later part of 2017.
Collaborations are a big part of the DSM business and every luxury house and streetwear brand is eager to be associated with this fashion enterprise. To think that DSM started out reaching out to only four names Hedi Slimane, Raf Simons, Alber Elbaz and Azzedine Alaïa when it first launched a decade ago. Today DSM has tallied up hundreds of collaborators from skate brand Palace and Supreme to luxury houses like Prada and Gucci.
One of the most-talked about feature of DSM is their always innovative pop-up shops within the store. This creative aspect of a constantly evolving space certainly adds character to the already colourful fashion entity.
If you cannot get your hands on Vetements or Gosha Rubchinskiy’s collection online or elsewhere, your biggest bet would be to get it at DSM. In Singapore, a noteworthy label to look out for is Rei Kawakubo’s former pattern maker Kei Ninomiya. Ninomiya helms the label Noir and his expertise lies with his obsession with the colour black and how he inteprets it masterfully into garments using technical inventions.
Dover Street Market is located at 18 Dempsey Road.
Story first appeared on The Business Times.