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Dover Street Market Aims to Reinvent Retail (Again)

Comme des Garçons’ chain of luxury bazaars reimagined multi-brand retail. Now, CEO Adrian Joffe is aiming to do it again with radical events platform 3537.
Comme des Garçons CEO Adrian Joffe inside the 17th-century hôtel particulier that is the epicentre of his latest project: events platform 3537. Vikram Alexei Kansara.
Comme des Garçons CEO Adrian Joffe inside the 17th-century hôtel particulier that is the epicentre of events platform 3537. Vikram Alexei Kansara.

PARIS — Comme des Garçons CEO Adrian Joffe is bouncing around the 17th-century hôtel particulier that is the epicentre of his latest project: a platform designed to blend luxury shopping and his growing roster of young brands with cultural events at a time when Covid-19 has increased pressure on physical stores.

As the mastermind behind the Japanese group’s Dover Street Market chain, Joffe reimagined the department store as a luxury bazaar filled with fast-changing creative installations where new and niche labels shared centre stage with anchor brands. The success of the concept has allowed Dover Street Market to open locations from New York to Singapore, but the approach has been widely copied.

Now, the 68-year-old husband and business partner of Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo is looking to Paris, where he is based, and aiming to reinvent multi-brand fashion retail again with a new events division named 3537 after its headquarters in the Hôtel de Coulanges at 35-37 Rue des Francs Bourgeois.

The team behind Dover Street Market’s 3537 events division. From left to right, Djeason Valerio, Ambre Chambon, Latif Samassi, Floriane Aupetit, Kate Coffey, Romain Campens, Adrian Joffe, Ugo Nardini, Lucien Heritier. Courtesy.

Located in the Marais quarter that is home to Supreme, Off-White and many of the city’s top art galleries, but far from traditional luxury shopping zones like Avenue Montaigne, the 33,375-square-foot mansion is set to become Dover Street Market’s first major Paris store next autumn, by which time retailers hope the Chinese tourists who drove a significant chunk of luxury sales in the city before the pandemic will have returned.

In the meantime, the space, which is part of a Paris revitalisation plan backed by the city’s government, has been hosting a busy programme of happenings, from music concerts and art exhibitions to film screenings and dance performances, some attracting more than 2,000 people over the course of a few hours, including plenty of cool kids and those that follow them. In October, Little Amal, a 12-foot puppet on a trans-European trek to generate sympathy for child refugees, made a visit. “It’s not just art meets fashion, it’s political, it’s activism,” said Joffe.

In October, political puppet Little Amal made a visit to Dover Street Market’s 35-37 Rue des Francs Bourgeois space alongside Palestinian rapper Osloob and flutist Naïssam Jalal. Courtesy.

As much a pragmatist as a visionary, Joffe hopes these events will “activate” the premises ahead of the retail opening and aid the store to break-even faster than previous outlets. It helps that Joffe has secured the space rent-free until April 2022.

But longer-term, Joffe aims to integrate events into the retail experience itself, adding a layer of entertainment and community to the creative installations and carefully curated product selections that made Dover Street Market successful.

A new approach to retail

Comme des Garçons, which owns labels including Junya Watanabe and Noir, as well as producing a range of secondary CDG lines like Shirt and Play, generates about $400 million in annual turnover, no small feat for an independent group.

Its Dover Street Market division has grown significantly since its 2004 launch and now accounts for just over one third of total revenue. Like many retailers, Dover Street Market was hit hard by Covid-19. Sales fell by 25 percent in 2020, but have slowly rebounded, surpassing pre-pandemic levels, said Joffe.

“Dover Street Market offers genuine discovery,” said retail consultant Robert Burke. “It has always veered away from being overly commercial and focused on innovation and newness. They have a very devoted customer and a level of creativity that brands love. The approach is less like a retailer’s and more like an artist’s.”

The 2017 closure of Paris concept store Colette created a gap in the local market for a sophisticated multi-brand player like Dover Street Market. But in recent years, e-tailers have grown their market share and major brands have ramped up their own distribution channels, putting pressure on multi-brand stores. At the same time, Dover Street Market’s once radical approach has been widely mimicked.

“I didn’t want to just create another Dover Street Market,” said Joffe. Instead, he aims to develop a new approach by hybridising retail and happenings. The configuration of the future Paris store has yet to be determined. But at present, the building’s top two floors house offices and a showroom, with 19,375 square feet, or about 60 percent of the mansion, dedicated to 3537′s “activity space.”

Dover Street Market’s current locations all have event spaces “to keep the energy flowing to animate and bring interest to the retail space,” said Joffe. But 3537 goes further, making events more central to the company’s overall strategy.

Dover Street Market currently has six flagship locations — London, Tokyo, New York, Singapore, Beijing and Los Angeles — as well as operating two small concept stores in Paris. In June, it formalised its long-bubbling brand development platform, intended “to make Dover Street more financially stable, because retail isn’t easy,” said Joffe. The division offers high-potential young labels, like Vaquera, Honey Fucking Dijon and Rassvet, services from brand management to distribution, though it does not have ownership stakes in any. Currently, the platform has eight brands and generates $18 million a year but is growing fast, according to Joffe.

The new events division is designed to work across both Dover Street Market’s stores and its labels. In September, 35-37 Rue des Francs Bourgeois hosted an exhibition and pop-up shop by Rassvet and artist Slava Mogutin. “3537 is about bringing energy to the entire Dover Street Market company,” said Joffe.

Maybe the retail space will be part of the event, rather than the event being part of the retail space.

Increasingly, this means staging events beyond the Rue des Francs Bourgeois space or any of the company’s Dover Street Market stores, as Joffe did in early November, opening an exhibition by artist Serkan Sarier in a Berlin church. “We’re trying to create something that can live outside this building,” he said. “Maybe the retail space will be part of the event, rather than the event being part of the retail space.”

Dover Street Market’s Paris location “may be the last one,” said Joffe. Rather than opening more stores “why not go to Athens, the new Berlin, and under the aegis of 3537, open a little DSM and connect with local artists on a temporary basis?”

In recent years, Dover Street Market has built up its e-commerce business, in part by working with Farfetch. Joffe sees online as “kind of sad” and believes in the power of physical gathering. “You can’t experience a concert or a rave or a gallery online,” he said. “The whole beauty of those things is interacting.” Still, he understands how events and e-commerce can make for a powerful combination.

Whether cultural happenings will drive sales of €3,000 handbags remains to be seen. But the approach is likely to generate significant indirect value.

“At the end of the day, a retailer’s goal is to try and get customers to spend as much time with them as possible,” said Doug Stephens, retail futurist and the author of Resurrecting Retail: The Future of Business in a Post-Pandemic World.

The underlying logic is simple: the more time someone spends with a retailer, the more money they will ultimately spend with that retailer. But to part with precious time, consumers are increasingly looking for things they can’t get online.

“Uniquely curated products aren’t good enough anymore; consumers are looking for more: entertainment, community, belonging,” added Stephens. “Stores are evolving from points of distribution for products to points of distribution for experiences. It’s not about converting customers to a sale, but converting customers to your brand.”

Joffe is hoping that major fashion labels, which are rethinking their distribution strategies and looking for unique value from third-party retailers like Dover Street Market, come along for the ride. “Maybe our friends like Gucci or Balenciaga, which have their spaces, will want a new way of doing things,” he said.

The raw space that is set to house Balenciaga’s three-week pop-up shop at 35-37 Rue des Francs Bourgeois, showcasing its Gucci “Hacker” project.

On November 15th, white-hot Balenciaga will launch a three-week pop-up shop at 35-37 Rue des Francs Bourgeois showcasing its “Hacker” project, which reinterprets the codes of Kering stablemate Gucci. Dover Street Market will take a commission on sales.

Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo has “zero” involvement in 3537, according to Joffe, but he calls her link to Dover Street Market “primordial.”

“For Kawakubo, always starting from zero is the most important thing; business comes second,” explained Joffe. “Without real creation there can be no progress. As long as I am alive, I want to do my best on the retail side to adhere to the same values, bringing her vision to retail and maybe now to the next level.”

“I don’t see Dover Street Market as a retailer anymore.”

Related Articles:

Adrian Joffe, Tending the Garden of Comme des Garçons

Rei Kawakubo: A Punk’s Pain

How Comme des Garçons Grew Gosha Rubchinskiy

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