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EXCLUSIVE: A Preview of Paris’ New Spaceship-like Dover Street Market

The sprawling retail emporium features out-of-this-world architecture by Rei Kawakubo, and a daring merchandise mix.

EXCLUSIVE: A Preview of Paris’ New Spaceship-like Dover Street Market

EXCLUSIVE: A Preview of Paris’ New Spaceship-like Dover Street Market

EXCLUSIVE: A Preview of Paris’ New Spaceship-like Dover Street Market

EXCLUSIVE: A Preview of Paris’ New Spaceship-like Dover Street Market

EXCLUSIVE: A Preview of Paris’ New Spaceship-like Dover Street Market

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PARIS — What are the latest lessons from Rei Kawakubo‘s radical retailing handbook?

No window displays — in fact, put all of the merchandise behind curved walls so no clothing is visible from outside, or immediately upon entry — and leave almost half of the sales floor completely empty.

But don’t skimp on out-of-this-world architecture — arresting enough to take your breath away — and add some unexpected jolts of color, including chartreuse, baby pink and sky blue.

The Paris branch of Dover Street Market, slated to open to the public on May 24, again breaks the mold about what a specialty store can look and feel like, cementing the Japanese designer’s stature as a serial retail maverick — and her husband Adrian Joffe as one of the industry’s most audacious merchants.

Leave it to Kawakubo to take a grand 17th-century townhouse and create an ambiance that’s as transporting and majestic as the mysterious, hovering vessel in “Arrival” — as if a spaceship had indeed landed inside 35-37 Rue des Francs-Bourgeois in the Marais district.

Ellipse-shaped rooms, gleaming white metal fixtures in the shape of warped cones and cylinders — some stacked at fearsome angles — and galvanized steel shelving are just some of the unusual features that visitors will encounter as they tour the rambling 12,000 square feet of floor space, spread over three levels and hugging a cobblestone courtyard.

Kawakubo’s is a stern, uncompromising architecture that nevertheless stirs emotions, bringing to mind the Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, who embeds complex ideas and emotions into his building designs. Hers also contain the vivid femininity that goes to the core of her Comme des Garçons collections.

“It’s really a voyage of discovery,” Joffe said as he guided a visitor through the warren of rounded rooms, each with unique fixtures and furniture. “You’ve really gotta look, and I’m sure people are going to miss things.”

One salon’s fragmented white walls evoked Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, while overlapping arches of galvanized steel hovering above racks in another elliptical inner room created an ambiance somewhere between brutalist and feminist, the shapes resembling eyebrows or eyelashes.

Kawakubo’s devotion to rounded shapes extend to the gargantuan white column she installed in the sub-basement for a stunning Paolo Roversi exhibition, his favorite photos of Comme des Garçons fashions painstakingly framed and lit — and appearing to hover on the hulking cylinder. “Have you ever seen a flat photograph on a round wall?” Joffe asked rhetorically.

Chief executive officer of Dover Street Market, and president of Comme de Garçons International, Joffe noted that the rounded walls and rooms — set far away from the building’s original and untouched walls, ceilings and windows — leave only about 7,500 square feet for actual retail space. These blend an array of Comme des Garçons lines with marquee brands including Prada, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta and Miu Miu, along with a host of cutting-edge labels including Denim Tears, Melitta Baumeister, Chopova Lowena, Paul Harnden and All-In. In total, the sprawling shop carries about 150 brands, about a dozen exclusive to the location in France.

The Paris branch upholds and amplifies the emporium’s founding ethos of “beautiful chaos” forged with the original namesake London location that opened in 2004 and ultimately moved in 2016 to Haymarket.

There are also Dover Street Market locations in Tokyo, Beijing, New York, Singapore and Los Angeles, plus a Dover Street Perfume Market a stone-shaped bottle’s throw from the new Paris emporium.

Like other Dover Street Markets, the new Paris one contains a Rose Bakery, whose 48 seats extend out onto a long terrace overlooking a charming public garden planted with corn; an edgy bookshop stocking titles like “House of Psychotic Women” and “Hex Files: The Goth Bible,” plus a busy basement level dedicated to young designer collections like Jacquemus, Martine Rose and Marine Serre, plus streetwear brands hung on industrial scaffolding lit with colorful fluorescent tubes.

But it is unique in that there are no branded spaces — all labels are blended within Kawakubo’s architectural statements — and that the building is mixed-use, containing offices, commercial showrooms, the Dover Street Market Paris brand development hub, plus non-commercial spaces for events that carry over from the address’ previous life as the Association 3537 cultural center. Until last July it hosted a freewheeling mix of exhibitions, happenings, musical performances, brand installations and retail spaces.

“This place became very famous, so we have high expectations. We used to have 5,000 people here for vernissages,” Joffe said, using the French word for “openings.” “Everybody’s waiting for this.”

Joffe related that he and Kawakubo fell in love with the building years ago, and initially signed the lease at the end of 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Operating Association 3537 brought life to the long-empty venue, and made it a fixture of the neighborhood, with its lively mix of art galleries, trendy shops, museums and bars.

When it came time to wedge a Dover Street Market into the vast building, Kawakubo again expressed her belief that retail environments must be as innovative as her fashions, and foster personal discovery.

“For her, beauty is most important, and unexpectedness — designing things you’ve never seen before. It’s all her deep values that she hasn’t moved from for 55 years,” Joffe said. “Nothing is what you thought it might be. You know, throwing away half the selling space: Who would have thought of that?”

To be sure, it’s a more abstract and futuristic take on the “beautiful choas” birthed at the original location on Dover Street, with its hut-like cash wrap, porta-potty fitting cabins and freewheeling mixture of in-house brands — including Junya Watanabe, Tao, Noir Kei Ninomiya, Comme des Garçons Shirt and Black — and creative fashions sourced from all over the world.

“The idea of no borders, no preconceived ideas — not the hall of jewelry, or the contemporary designer floor, whatever that means,” Joffe said. “It’s about breaking all the industry constraints about what’s supposed to go with what.

“The original DSM was about this, creating an interesting new retail concept where people could be stimulated, excited, find things that they would never would think of finding, and also spending time and building that community where people could exchange ideas.”

The unique design of the Paris location of Dover Street Market, with Kawakubo’s architecture and furnishings in close communion with the merchandise, means that events will largely take place away from the retail store: in the courtyard and two large underground spaces that “carry on the spirit of 3537” and “continue that possibility of synergy and accidents and having more to offer the customer,” Joffe said.

For the opening, Kawakubo designed five colossal wooden columns for the courtyard which display more images by Roversi, also the subject of an exhibition at Palais Galliera, marking his first major show in Paris. 

Meanwhile, English designer Matty Bovin, who WWD has described as London’s maximalist-in-chief, has taken over several below-ground rooms for a temporary “artist-in-residence” installation, where he will also be customizing T-shirts and showcasing his densely detailed creations, scrabbled together with deadstock fabric and cast-off clothing.

Among the many brands waiting to be discovered are Dover Street mainstays like Simone Rocha, Craig Green, Undercover, JW Anderson, Random Identities, Rick Owens and ERL, along with designs by Marina Yee and Walter Van Beirendonck, two of the original Antwerp Six, and recent LVMH Prize winners Setchu and Doublet, plus 2024 finalists Duran Lantink and Hodokova.

“There are a lot of brands that you can’t find anywhere in Europe, or the world,” Joffe said.

During the tour, clothes on racks were tightly bundled under heavy plastic to protect them from dust during the final opening preparations, but Joffe wanted to rip open one to show Comme des Garçons shirts that had been customized by Daquisiline Gomis, who runs an African vegan restaurant in addition to his fashion brand Jah Jah Studio.

Other surprises include a small selection of Marc Jacobs hinged on denim and khaki, plus a range Kawakubo did in collaboration with Charles Jeffrey Loverboy.

Joffe has been upfront that the first Dover Street Market was initially met with many raised eyebrows, and that several subsequent locations operated for years in the red.

He said he expects the Paris location to reach profitability within two years, given the building’s existing fame, the draw of its unique brand mix, and the cultural events in the building that will bring crowds, including conferences, film festivals, exhibitions, talks and book signings.

In the future, the plan is “to invite artists to invade the store itself with exhibitions and points of view.”

The shop operates largely on a wholesale model — Dover Street Market owns most of the merchandise — and all vendors had to accept the freewheeling merchandising ethos.

“Denim Tears, for example, they always have their own spaces and they don’t wholesale. That they were willing to sell to us and be mixed up with everything else is a great sign of trust,” Joffe said.

It also reinforces Kawakubo’s aversion to window dressing, and other obvious “please buy me” tactics.

“She thinks if that person discover things for themselves, they’re all the more satisfied,” he explained.

In an interview last year, Kawakubo told WWD: “My ideal is that people search for, discover and then choose the clothes they want to wear, having thought about it and felt something by themselves, on their own.”

Joffe’s ambitions for the new Dover Street Market in Paris are to beckon as many visitors as possible with the promise of discoveries galore.

“It would be great if people come here once, and then come again and say, ‘Oh, I never saw that the first time,’” he said, citing a wish to “keep people on their toes and to keep alive that sense of it being an adventure each time. ‘What will I discover today? Maybe a cup of tea. Or maybe I’ll fall in love with a piece of clothing.’ It’s important that they’re never bored.

“Also what’s important is meeting people here and communicating and exchanging ideas,” he stressed. “The only aim has ever been to create something new, open-minded and borderless.”

And what if Dover Street Market Paris becomes an attraction as popular as the Eiffel Tower or Galeries Lafayette?

“I would love it to be a like a destination for tourists. And a place where Parisians can hang out and be happy and learn and come and have a cup of tea. Our ambition is more to keep on providing something stimulating, something exciting,” he said, adding in jest, “If it becomes more popular than the Eiffel Tower, we’re gonna have to hire some more security.”