Photography Charlotte May Wales
Dover Street Market still feels fresh as new despite being around for half a decade, making it one of the best, if not ultimate, shopping addresses in our book.
Let’s face it: shopping can be an absolute drag, even for the most athletic among us (and particularly if you’re wearing 6-inch heels). Sure, department stores are convenient – and easier on the Jimmy Choos – but while they’ve simplified the game, they’ve also killed the fun. The brand and designer’s visual identities are wiped out in favour of a uniform, sleek, if not sterile, atmosphere, and before you know it, you’re suffocating on the stench of consumerism pushed to the max. The billboards carrying artist Barbara Kruger’s slogans: “I shop therefore I am” – “you want it, you buy it, you forget it”: that Selfridges displayed in its windows for the launch of its 2007 Boxing Day sale summed it up with a chilling dose of irony.
Comes the curious case of the Dover Street Market. The six-storey shop located in London’s Mayfair district, created by Comme Des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo and her husband Adrian Joffe, does not look like any other place in the world. It operates as Comme’s London flagship store, stocking all ten lines as well as its perfume range, yet offers a cutting-edge selection of other high fashion brands as well as more challenging independent designers. Often compared to Colette, it almost makes the Rue Saint-Honoré’s temple of cool look mainstream. Dover Street is not a department store, and dismisses the trendy label of concept store. And even though the price tags are not for the faint-hearted and there’s a fair chance haggling won’t go down too well, the ‘market’ appellation seems to be the most fitting one. Kawakubo envisioned this project as a tribute to Kensington’s iconic market and has always professed her love and fascination for bazaars all over the world. The goal was to channel their energy and disorder in order to create what she describes as “beautiful chaos”.
The overall raw and unfinished look of the premises: bare ceilings, concrete walls, coarse wood and plastic film covering the elevator’s buttons: put it light years away from the clean and polished interiors of the neighbourhood’s designer boutiques. There are eccentric touches, like the cashpoint machine hidden in a giant hut in the middle of the room, antique dealer Emma Hawkins’ exquisite collection of Victorian stuffed birds and rare animal skulls at the entrance, and tongue in cheek plays on random every-day objects, such as the vending machine that sells Dover Street Market label t-shirts for £25 a pop, or the big portacabins that serve as fitting rooms (trust us, trying on garments in one of those is truly disarming). It’s all topped off with an atmosphere of creative tension spilling from the eclectic stall designs, and the singular sense of style and laid back attitude of the staff, that make them look more like Factory hangers by than busy bee salespeople.
The anti-glam aesthetics are no shocker to those familiar with Comme Des Garçons shops and philosophy, but the novelty here is in the direct collaboration with the other brands involved. Artistic freedom and creative control are offered to designers like Alber Elbaz for Lanvin, Phoebe Philo for Celine or Nicholas Kirkwood, allowing them to direct their own space. In return, Dover Street Market is granted limited edition ranges and exclusives like the Peter Jensen collection and Charles Anastase’s ethereal drawings.
Constantly renewing the space, Dover Street Market undergoes a biannual makeover named Tachiagari, meaning ‘start’ or ‘beginning’ in Japanese. The store is closed for a few days during which all the installations are revamped and new designers introduced. This spirit of perpetual evolution creates excitement among its loyal customer base and it’s now traditional to find an army of fashion cognoscenti queuing outside before each re-opening.
If we were to play one of our favourite games and imagine we were obscenely rich for the day, a pair of Cutler and Gross vintage shades, Bibi’s rings made of prehistoric mammoth ivory, a lifetime guaranteed leather bag courtesy of Bedouin, and a whole lot of Rodarte, Pierre Hardy, Hussein Chalayan, Comme des Garçons, Givenchy, Giles, Ann Demeulemeester, Behnaz Kanani, Giambattista Valli, Bess jeans and Proenza Schouler could all easily find their way into our shopping basket. For now we will just indulge in a veggie pie by Rose Bakery’s organic open kitchen on the top floor, the latest issue of Monocle magazine and a Comme Des Garçons Play striped knit.
Thankfully the visual treat is free. One of the most intriguing areas is the world archive; pieces collected by Michael Costiff from around the globe, from African masks and tribal jewellery, to communist memorabilia. Magazine geeks will thrill to the Idea Books corner, a simple table and chair surrounded by Angela Hill’s jaw dropping collection of vintage magazines, vanished cult fanzines and old art books. The basement stocks enough gems to make any street wear junkie or sneaker fetishist’s head spin in a fraction of a second.
We were lucky enough to be allowed a guided tour before opening hours in order to take shots, and caught a designer presenting his new collection of handmade denim, limited to one hundred pieces, to the team of sales assistants. Sessions of this kind were frequent, we were told, and essential for the creator to pass along the knowledge and love invested in the product. This passion and attention to detail on the part of everyone involved seems to be a kind of key to Dover Street Market.
Adding to the mix is the aura of mystery around the place, sacredly guarded by everyone involved. There is no advertising, buyers refuse to comment on their modus operandi, Kawakubo is notoriously media shy and when she or her husband grants an interview, they remain carefully elusive, reluctant to define the Dover Street Market philosophy. The stubborn secrecy and vagueness could be perceived as presumptuous and almost become annoying, if not for its irreproachable result. The idea is that each individual that comes to the store is meant to make up his or her own answers and interpretation of what it’s meant to be. Dover Street Market is different to everyone. Kind of like a David Lynch film, only with nicer clothes.