It was 10 September, 2004 when an idea hatched by Rei Kawakubo and her partner, companion and official translator Adrian Joffe came to fruition in London at number seventeen Dover Street. The building is an example of Brutalist architecture and between 1950 and 1968 it had been the headquarters of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, hosting works by Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock. Today the famous names gracing Dover Street are Victoria Beckham, Acne, Louboutin and Jimmy Choo – but the Dover Street Market is not there anymore, Kawakubo having moved it to Haymarket in a road parallel to Lower Regent Street, part of the London theatre district (the rent in Dover Street had risen by 200%).
Rei Kawakubo was born in Tokyo in 1942. She studied art and literature at Keio University, began working in advertising for the textile company Ashai Kasei – and then as a designer from 1967. At the age of 27, she launched her own clothing brand: she called it, Comme des Garçons, ‘like boys’, in French, with no apparent reason for her choice, except that she liked how the words sounded when combined. Over the next few years she defined her aesthetic style, revolutionizing volumes and elevating black to the status of the ultimate color of creativity. When she made her debut in Paris in 1981, she already had a group of followers, known as Crows, which whom she communicated through the visual power of the magazine Six. Her Apocalypse in black threw Europe into disarray. Today Kawakubo is a business woman: eighteen brands under the CDG label and an annual revenue of approximately 300 million dollars, 35% of which is generated by Dover Street Market.
Dover Street Market was developed in line with the rules of local markets: freedom of action as long as it doesn’t disturb the neighbors. Comme des Garçons moved into the ground floor and invited other to occupy the remaining areas. In one of the rare interviews given to Dazed in 2004, Kawakubo described it as a beautiful chaos. Everything is jumbled with everything else, in line with its creator’s anarchic-punk spirit. The artists pile in, one on top of the other, in a muddling yet coherent hotchpotch. Although at first the world shied away in horror, in 2007 Vogue defined DSM as The best store in the world. Everything on offer was based on an aesthetic vision: similarly to her clothes, Kawakubo sold an idea not a product. The first partnerships were forged with Raf Simons, Hedi Slimane, Alber Elbaz and Azzedine Alaïa. In 2009 Phoebe Philo arrived, followed by JW Anderson, Vetements and Simone Rocha. Last but not least was Gosha Rubchinskiy.
The term Concept Store – which defines DSM – was coined by Francesco Morace for 10 Corso Como. Associating the beautiful chaos with the jasmines and the Feng Shui of the Milanese store seemed absurd, but the relationship between Carla Sozzani (the founder of 10 Corso Como) and Kawakubo dated back to the beginning of time. Influenced by her sister Franca, in 1990 Carla added Comme des Garçons as one of the very first brands of 10 Corso Como, together with Alaïa, still unknown in Italy, the first Prada collection for women and Margiela. In 2002, 10 Corso Como opened in Tokyo in collaboration with CDG: everything from the fashion to the design and the art, was chosen and created by Carla Sozzani in tandem with Rei Kawakubo – both usually dressed in black.
Today DSM has six locations. After the 2004 opening in London, Tokyo (2012), New York (2013), Singapore (2017), Beijing and Los Angeles (both 2018) followed suit. Business of Fashion reported that a new store was set to open soon in Paris, dedicated to beauty. Everyone wants to open in Tokyo, but Kawakubo waited no less than eight years before returning to her home city.
The DSM in Tokyo is located in Ginza, a district known for the most conservative luxury, which also hosts the recently renovated Armani Ginza Tower and the Bvlgari Tower. Despite the doubts as to how the Japanese market would have welcomed the chaos, Kawakubo focused on the task of recreating the atmosphere of the DSM in a 1946 building that reeked of offices and bureaucracy. The solution lay in the intervention of ten artists who broke down the borders between art gallery and store. Inside the west wing of the Ginza Komatsu (the eastern wing was occupied by Uniqlo), Balenciaga, Sacai, a T-shirt distributor, the gigantic insects of Michael Howells and an elephant slowly moved in.
The elephant, in particular, arrived with Louis Vuitton and breathed life into the Elephant Room, a room that changes face based on whoever takes it over. Craig Green, Moncler, Burberry, Prada and Fornasetti have all taken turns here. In 2015, Alessandro Michele plastered the room and the elephant in the floral print of GG Blossom. The next year he brought the butterflies, ladybirds and snakes of the Gucci Garden. The synergy between Gucci and the DSM formed, as well as for commercial reasons, as a result of Kawakubo’s influence on Alessandro Michele. While Raf Simons and Ann Demeulemeester drew from the designer’s creations, Michele would let himself be inspired by her cultural universe: he named Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin as his muses, worked with androgynous performer Silvia Calderoni and with Zumi Rosow and dedicated an exhibition to Leo De Berardinis. The bazaar-like vibe of DSM allowed him to create informal capsule collections and he chose the New York location for the launch of Disturbia – the book created by Schlesinger in 2018 with the shots of the Pre-Fall collection –adding it to the list of the distributors of Dapper Dan’s Harlem, the photographic journey of Ari Marcopolous into the Harlem of Dapper Dan, published by Gucci. In 2018 the two brands joined forces to create a bag that mixes the decorative style of Gucci with the eclectic approach of Rei Kawakubo.
While the Ginza of Valentino, Fendi, diamonds, oysters and Veuve Clicquot has still to recover from the arrival of the Dover Street Market, the impact of the concept on the Japanese market shows that Joffe and Kawakubo were right: Tokyo was ready.