It’s a busy Wednesday afternoon in Mayfair but, while the nearby Bond Street jewellers and Oxford Street chains are welcoming tourists and their wallets, Dover Street Market is turning customers away.
That’s right, the store, created by Rei Kawakubo, founder of Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons, has actually shut its doors for three days. Not only that, with boxes, bubble wrap, ladders and display cabinets cluttering the floor, it looks more like an Ikea stockroom than one of the world’s most influential concept boutiques.
The reason for this apparent chaos? The store’s Tachiagari event, a radical, cathartic and, some might say, counterintuitive approach to embracing the new season. While other shops gradually push the spring/summer sale stock into a corner as they introduce autumn/winter collections, every six months for the past seven years Dover Street has shut while new spaces are introduced, existing ones revamped or moved, and new ranges displayed.
“We probably lose about £100,000 over the three days,” says Adrian Joffe, president of Comme Des Garçons and Kawakubo’s husband, “but the commercial aspect is the second most important thing here. We’ve got to be viable, we’ve got to make money, yes, but what’s more important is creation and strength and newness.”
A sense of theatre and individuality is crucial given the competition from online retailers. Sarah Bailey, a course director at the London College of Fashion, says: “The experience becomes a lot more important in terms of retail strategy and one of the challenges for stores is to bring consumers in and make the shops a destination.”
Ed Burstell, managing director at Liberty, where the transition between seasons is more of an “organic process”, says: “I’m really jealous that Dover Street has the luxury of doing this – it’s unusual and special. Our vendor base is much larger and it’s difficult to control these deliveries – for fall, we have about 50 new labels across the store.”
At Liberty, the changes happen in stages, and overnight, to avoid the drastic step of shutting up shop completely. Burstell says: “We have a loyal clientele and also quite a few tourist customers. It would be a disservice for us to shut down.” It’s a similar story at Harvey Nichols. Janet Wardley, head of visual display, says: “We make big changes to the decorative theme each season. There is such a large area to cover so the changeover is a gradual process and works in stages.”
Tachiagari means new beginnings in Japanese but, though Comme is a Japanese brand and the ritualistic nature and romantic name of Tachiagari might imply that it’s a cultural tradition, the process was dreamed up by the label. While it might cost the company money, it’s also a way of generating extra excitement around the new collections, just as waiting lists are increasingly used by some department stores and boutiques. There are no lists at Dover Street but that doesn’t mean that some pieces don’t get sold before they hit the shop floor – 10 of a certain Céline sweater have been pre-sold.
The reason the store has to close is down to the scale of the reinvention. Inside the building, which, with its bare white walls and concrete staircases connecting the floors, resembles a modern art gallery as much as a shop, many of the spaces devoted to individual labels are completely reconfigured by the brands and, sometimes, the designers themselves.
This is visual merchandising par excellence – although somehow that seems like a rather corporate term for the giant sculpture that greets visitors as they come through the doors or gaze through the windows. On the first day of the Tachiagari, the Ship of Fools installation by artist Matt Clark was still no more than a pile of planks inside a lorry but the giant wooden tugboat was assembled and placed inside the window in time for last Saturday’s reopening. Its lack of captain or direction is intended to depict the human condition but, with the prospect of a newly refurbished Céline space conceived by Phoebe Philo, the store’s first Rick Owens area, and the arrival of Alexander Wang men’s wear to be perused, customers are unlikely to linger over its existential message.
Stephen Jones is one of the designers who has taken the opportunity to strengthen his brand identity by creating his own area – a boudoir-ish white dressing table with stalk-like poles on which autumn/winter hats such as a taupe trilby and black leather beret are perched. Jones says: “I wanted it to look like Barbie’s dressing table as a contrast to the hats themselves, which are quite elegant and discreet. If they blend too much, then the designs can get lost.”
Jones says Dover Street – and the Trading Museum store it also owns in Japan – are the only major stockists that invite him to imprint his own stamp. “It makes for a more charming, fun experience for the customer,” he says. “Hopefully, it brings a smile to their face and puts them in a hat-buying mood.”
The Lanvin area is similarly fun. It features a big-eyed mannequin hiding inside a giant blue Lanvin box and reinforces the playful side of designer Alber Elbaz’s vision, while the Céline space reflects the brand’s clean and unfussy aesthetic without being austere. A pink wall for the sleek satchels and totes, and a sheepskin rug on top of a white, bolster-like sofa give the industrial cubes on which some products are displayed a softer look.
In the World Archive area, with its vintage and ethnic clothes and curios, designer Michael Costiff is tinkering with the arrangement of a 100-year-old Chinese theatre crown and a feather headdress, having put flower collages on to the wall and hung up neon prints of Mao Zedong. It’s “my enchanted garden”, he says. Then there’s Rei Kawakubo’s inside-out cave, a white igloo-like edifice with mini-shelves on which accessories will be displayed.
Reinvention complete, the thrill of the new is palpable. “The whole company is about what’s new,” says Joffe, “and when the latest collections come in all at once, it’s a bit like a parade or a procession. We want to stand up and sing, so to speak.”
New season at Dover Street Market: The key pieces
Spotty jumper by Comme des Garçons
Comme’s grey wool knit with smudgy spots is a wear-to-death piece that’s perfect for autumn’s polkadot trend. £300
Sheepskin biker jacket by Céline
With beige suede arms, motocross quilting and a shaggy panel at the front, this is a luxurious, cool take on texture mixing. £3,700
Black wool cloak by Rick Owens
The narrow, hip-length cloak is easier to wear than Owens’ long style but still conveys an air of (slightly monastic) mystery. £1,130.
Navy wool dress by Azzedine Alaïa
This dress with cutout detailing at the hem is in the signature Alaïa shape and works for day or evening. £1,795
Hammered silver rings by Lynn Ban
Tough, almost heavy-metal inspired rings which cover up half the finger. They can be worn two-to-a-digit for an extra-fierce look. £290
Sky blue silk dress by Aganovich
Design duo Aganovich are stocked at Dover Street for the first time, and this flared, tunic-shaped dress is light, fluid and floaty. £620