From Issue 48 of Ten Men: Richard Gray Interviews Adrian Joffe, Shopkeeper to the Alternatives
At 18 Haymarket, bang opposite the Empire cinema, now showing the stage production of Noël Coward’s brief encounter (A Kneehigh Production, ****, The Guardian) is Dover Street Market. A double-fronted, grade II-Listed building and select store: a purveyor of very now fashions.
The front doors in, however, are locked. There are no mannequins saying “buy me”, no clothes, no bags or shoes, no enticing nice bits. Nothing says entrance or welcome, and there are nine enormous white snooker balls in each enormous window. God knows what the woman at the bus stop outside thinks. But there’s your point: you can’t see in and that’s on purpose.
“It’s not for everybody, right?” This is Adrian Joffe, the president of Comme des Garçons and the man behind the store, who believes Dover Street Market should stand “in opposition” to that which is already out there. It’s a kind of place for the alternatives. “I think that’s where the power is, in opposition.”
And about those clothes that don’t appear in that shop window: “Of course, everyone wants clothes in the window, but she [Joffe’s wife, the designer Rei Kawakubo, also creative director of the store] hates that. She can’t stand seeing clothes in any shop window.”
The store’s main entrance is, in fact, at the side of the building, on Orange Street, usually a rat run that’s useful for avoiding clueless tourists. “It’s more discreet,” says Joffe. “You know we’re not that kind of company to be in your face. It’s not like ‘here we are’ and then you know us. Instead, you have to find us, discover us.”
The day we meet, July 14, is “new beginnings” – the store’s twice- yearly, on-calendar, must-attend metamorphosis for fashion people raring to be part of, and buy into, the spectacle of the new season. Joffe and the team have been up “all hours” getting the store ready. There’s a queue outside.
Since Joffe introduced “new beginnings”, or Tachiagari, something now entirely wrapped in hype and occasion, this seasonal changeover day has become increasingly important in the fashion schedule. In sidestepping every other shopkeeper, the 65-year-old Joffe has managed to assign his store as the official “way in” to the new designer season. It’s a clever distraction and typical of a man who has spent the past 31 years working alongside his wife. You can be dressed for the future, says Joffe (and there are at least 20 people queuing outside who want to do just that). And the future begins at exactly 10am.
Dressed in his uniform black, plus a pair of brothel creepers from the Comme des Garçons collaboration with Northampton-based shoemakers George Cox, he adds: “She [Kawakubo] always said that she likes to make the customer work, because then they get something out of it in the end. If it’s too easy, if the thing is out at an angle, saying ‘buy me’, she doesn’t want the kind of people who will fall for that kind of thing. She wants those who’ll find it, discover it and go deeper. If you make the effort, you’ll be more rewarded by the result.”
Rewards: something we now all play for in the increasing gamification of modern life. We collect, consciously or not, rewards (likes) on our invisible journey through contemporary culture in search of the newest, “most difficult to find” pair of trainers or the latest The North Face-collab jacket from Junya. Bagging these ups our standing in the “ether”.
Think of collecting gold coins on Super Mario. Or, more topically, gunning down everybody else in Fortnite, the free-to-play, addictive and co-operative shoot-out that requires players to collect (buy) all manner of things to up their game (and standing). Items such as “cosmetics” can be bought in the game’s shop in exchange for V-Bucks – current exchange rate, about one V-Buck to one penny. These cosmetics come in the form of “skins” (costumes), which have different abilities and are grouped into various genres: “legendary”, “epic”, “rare” and “uncommon”. Some skins are cooler than others among gamers: the latest must-buy costume is Tomato Head, with its comedy giant tomato head with stuck-on moustache, guaranteed to bring admiring and terrified glances from all.
It’s a reflection of shopping, especially on the menswear scene, and the obstacles pitched against you in your quest to buy. Things are “limited edition” (only so many are made), there’s an overnight queue (“Will I get there first?”), prohibitive costs (“I’ll get that money from somewhere”) and those pesky shopping bots (“I raise yours with mine”). All these devices have their roots in Kawakubo’s thinking, 14 years earlier, when Dover Street Market was born. And even before that.
Then there’s the raffle on the store’s E-Flash website, which is populated with the latest, must-buys every Thursday. “For the opportunity to purchase,” says the What’s New drop-notification page, “please enter our online raffle by submitting your details below.”
Then there’s the pre-launch launch, that extra-special game where you can own a pair of sneakers before the competition. Last year’s much-hyped Nike x Off-White, the Ten trainers cleverly toyed with the fetishised fan, who could get their eager hands on five of the collaboration’s 10 styles before the actual release. All this fuels the excitement whirling around the product and cements Dover Street Market as the epicenter of hype and cool. And, of course, it’s a potent way of harvesting personal information about your customer.
But it’s not just a game. Modern shopping now is both participatory and communicative: how you get your hands on those sneakers is as important as having them. Shopping at this level has a narrative that’s been cleverly aped in the constructed world of gaming, but it plays out best in the real-time feed of social media. A fantastical place full of projections and the “other me” – the one wearing the new trainers I bagged at Dover Street Market. Before anybody else. And here’s the footage to prove it. I think you’ll find that’s “game over”.
And then there’s the rest of us. The Generations X and Y. The hard-to- please shoppers you won’t see pulling at Palace hoodies and slavering over Gosha for Burberry. We’re the ones who remember the fashion magnetism of the old boutiques, such as Browns, Pellicano and Jones. We travelled to Pollyanna in Barnsley and Richard Crème in Manchester to shop for all things designed and Japanese. These were our temples of consumption and although we bought heavily into the side-hung concrete-cool back then, it was always about the clothes. We dressed to project, of course, we still do: we dress to show we speak the language of design, of rare and extreme and art – something the brand family at Dover Street Market have blended into one aesthetic, a sort of wearable art.
But – and it’s a big one – somehow, Joffe seems to be speaking to both us and them. And we’re all shopping together. “There are 70-year-old women and 15-year-old kids tripping up the stairs here,” says Joffe. It’s typical of the Saturday demographic across all five floors. It’s happening elsewhere, of course – department stores have traditionally spoken to all ages, all the time, but it’s the quality of the consumer here that’s impressive. As industry magazines lament the threat to traditional bricks- and-mortar retail, Joffe thinks there’s a customer rebellion underway.
“I think that, luckily for us, there is a fight back, a resistance. People are dropping off Facebook and are discovering it’s nice to talk to people instead of texting people, have a conversation, read a book. It’s all about that sense of community. We are kind of a community – some people say cult, but I prefer to say community.”
You can, of course be both: you can speak social media and funnel the hype in such a way as to encourage people to come into the store to claim (buy) their reward. Gen Z, as we’ve seen, have built their own shopping fantasy lands, where they can magnify their own standing and are rewarded in props (likes) from their community. But Instagram grows increasingly potent in persuading people of all ages to come through the door. If Dover Street Market is the high- end restaurant, then Instagram is the amuse-bouche: tease them with pictures and new release dates, excite them; give them a purpose to shop again. The customer is king. Strike that: product is king.
One floor in particular speaks to Gen-Z shoppers and their older brothers, the Millennials: the basement. Here, skate wear and a T-shirt wall, trainers and Junya, Stüssy and Palace all combine to create an intimidatingly cool place to be seen in and be seen shopping in. With the risk of everything sounding a bit too The Matrix, this floor in particular is a chance to “plug in” and be part of that invisible yet all-important electricity that fuels fashion now. See it, touch it, speak it, record it, be part of it and own it. Download the latest up- grades, here.
“Dover Street Market is a generational thing, and I think that’s because we’ve been around for 50 years, we have all ages in the store,” says Joffe. “Fifty next year – 1969!” He means, of course, Comme des Garçons, the mothership. The brand that brought black to Paris and introduced a new disproportion. Comme was a new and dark house that had symmetry with fashion but never pursued it. Back then, Kawakubo rebelled against a kind of French world imperialism: Paris ready-to-wear was snotty and bourgeois; the woman who wore it had a privileged and doll-like look. Kawakubo wanted to start again. There would be no more submission to men, she argued: high heels went and flats came in. And make-up? Well, you can forget that. Even, the name Comme des Garçons was a sideward cry to women to be more “like men”.
When her Comme des Garçons shop opened in Paris in the early 1980s, Kawakubo dressed the interior with the same agit-prop modernity that inspired her clothes: out with carpets, in with concrete, and a new retail language was born overnight. It looked anti-luxury and austere and, certainly, at the time, very odd. Hangers set out 5cm apart, bearing her clothes filled with holes, caused anger among the Parisian residents who came into the boutique to shout at staff because they just couldn’t under- stand how unfinished garments could cost so much.
It’s this fashion militancy, as creative director of Dover Street Market, that Kawakubo still pursues, five decades later, adding corrugated huts for till points, and street lights that tower above vintage vitrines filled with the world’s top-end jewellery. None of this is normal, or for normal people, is it?
“Why aspire to normal?” asks Joffe. “I have never felt normal. It used to be a problem, but it’s not any more. What is normal, who is normal, what could that be? And why does everybody necessarily feel they have to be happy all the time? If you were happy all the time, then you wouldn’t know what happy is. You need that comparison. The dark to understand the light.”
And there you have it: The Comme way, the Dover Street Market way. The older customer, this mainline shopper, has, for the past 50 years, walked a darker path and it’s brought them here. In a world of normality, where we reward the average all the time and celebrity has become a commodity, it is within the world of Comme, and the like-minded family of designers – Junya Watanabe, Tao Kurihara and the intimidatingly talented Kei Ninomiya – that you will find this darker way. On paper, it sounds preposterous, but in reality it’s that validation of what Joffe calls “always listening to the B-side of the record” of wearing Comme and feeling brave that makes it all worthwhile in the end. But you understand this already, because you’ve shopped there, too.
“Dover Street Market is the B-side, the left-hand path, because everyone else is going right.”
Doesn’t the word “sinister” come from Latin, meaning left?
“Yes, in some religions, the left is the dark path – Zen in Japan, in Judaism it’s the Kabbalah.”
Perhaps Comme and the family and the mothership are slightly to the left, then?
“Oh yeah, for sure. Very left. Left. Anti-authoritarianism is left.”
It’s difficult to get to the essence of Dover Street Market, but there is an old marketing trick that uses some of the senses that helps brands better gauge what they stand for. So, what does Dover Street Market taste like?
“Free spirit.” What does DSM smell like? “Ether and incense.” What does DSM sound like?
“A syncopated cacophony.” Joffe also answered the above question another way, so that is the official answer. But he also said:
“Definitely some Joy Division. Rei loves her Kraftwerk. I like techno.”
If some of the clothes they sell are like art, they come minus the snotty indifference from the shop staff that you sometimes get in galleries. Joffe operates a strict horizontal-style management system at the store. “No hierarchy allowed,” he says. Down-to-earth and approachable, with no discernible ego – that could be down to his study of Zen Buddhism – Joffe moved with his family from South Africa to London when he was eight. He and Kawakubo married in 1992 at the Hotel de Ville in Paris and the two live apart: Joffe in Paris, Kawakubo in Tokyo, and both speak every day on the phone. He adds: “This is one of the problems of getting too big and looking at the future. We don’t have secretaries and PAs. What is a PA? I’ve never had one. She [Kawakubo] packs her own boxes, that’s what we always do, and I think it’s a beautiful thing.
“And we haven’t talked about fake, we are the opposite of fake, because everything comes from a true place. It’s not trying to be anything that we are not.” You can fill in your own thoughts as to which brands Joffe is referring when he says: “They try to pass off, they try to be authentic but they’re not. It’s often just a business idea.”
Since the very beginning – it’s been 14 years since Dover Street Market opened its doors to the public at its original Mayfair address, on Dover Street – Joffe and the team, with Kawakubo at the creative helm, have been in pursuit of what he calls “energy”. And collaborations, something that has allowed brands to operate and occupy their own space in the store, leaving them able to illustrate their “story and vision” for that season.
Any visitor to the store’s mainline Comme womenswear area will have noticed a striking gold fitting room covered in geometric shapes. “This should have been white,” confesses Joffe, but a “breakdown in communication” meant the Californian-based artist given the task of making over the fitting room painted the whole thing gold. Joffe was feeling – his words – “a little worried” about explaining this to Kawakubo when he saw the final result. But he did, finally. “So I said to her, ‘Look, we’ve done it like this, it doesn’t look that bad, but do we have to take all the artwork off and paint it white and do it again?’ Because the woman [the artist] would have gone completely crazy. Rei said, ‘No, it looks fantastic. It looks better and looks good.’ An accident. Happy accidents. Got to be open to them!” It’s part of what Joffe dubs the store’s “beautiful chaos” and its numerous fashion ecosystems.
Over at the Paul Harnden area, a makeshift-looking hut, covered inside with silver foil, the limited-edition, often-single-digit runs of clothes have a small but loyal clientele. These shoppers have always walked a dark path to this master cobbler-turned-clothes maker, whose thoughtful and cleverly tailored
clothes speak of anti-showbiz: they neither telegraph money nor glitz. They speak to an art crowd who enjoy glitchy- looking shapes and fabrics. It’s very clever stuff. One story that we probably shouldn’t be repeating concerns Harnden’s request, at a high-spending, invitation-only film screening for customers, for there to be “no champagne” served to customers, “only cider”. And so it was that Harnden’s brilliantly dressed fans turned up, shopped, drunk tons of cider and wore steampunk-style spectacles to watch the film. As one insider pointed out it, “It was a like a scene from The Hobbit that night.”
But this is all too brilliant for words, isn’t it? It’s this quirk and energy and idiosyncrasy you just don’t get any- where else. Not to mention the fact that Paul Smith is often there on a Saturday selling his wares – “Just like back in my old shop in Nottingham,” as he likes to say to customers.
And the future of Dover Street Market? As well as the original store in London, there are offshoots in Tokyo, Beijing, New York and Singapore – plus another opening in LA this autumn. Will they offer red carpet? After the success of last year’s Met Gala, which was devoted to Comme des Garçons, the global reach for the brand was magnified by a million per- cent, especially after pictures of Rihanna, the actress Tracee Ellis Ross and Caroline Kennedy wearing the more difficult show pieces were beamed around the world. This is new territory for Comme and Dover Street Market, but Joffe and the team are fully aware that those who stand still in the retail game go backwards. But in typical Dover Street Market style, they will do it their way. And only with the right kind of celebrity.
Rumors swirl about a Paris store, too, and after Colette closed its doors last year after 20 years, there’s certainly room for another shopping proposition there. Can he confirm? “I know where I don’t want to go if I did go there,” says Joffe. “I don’t want to go to the Left Bank. It can’t be a ‘destination’ in Paris. The building must have feeling, it must be atmospheric and have history and…” – wait for it – “we can’t be in any old building. But, yes, we’re looking!” Watch your backs, Paris.
Photograph by Elliott Morgan.
Taken from Issue 48 of Ten Men. Quiet, Concealed, Luxury is on newsstands now.