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Will Dover Street Market’s Big Bet on Independent Fashion Pay Off?

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PARIS – A steady stream of visitors flooded Dover Street Market’s new Paris outpost Saturday afternoon, sending snippets of French, German, Italian, Japanese and Korean ricocheting across the sunny courtyard where prints by Paolo Roversi were wrapped around enormous wooden cylinders.

Adrian Joffe, the retail guru behind it all, wondered how many of them would actually buy.

“A lot of people see these massive pillars in the courtyard, they are curious, they come in,” Joffe said. As for whether they will spend money, “there’s obviously no guarantee.”

Dover Street Market opened in Paris on May 24 after years of delays. Owner Comme des Garçons secured the lease for a historic manor in the Marais neighbourhood in late 2019 but held back on launching the trend-setting store during the pandemic, which battered the tourist flows that drive significant sales for the French capital’s retailers.

Instead, the company temporarily converted the space into a non-profit cultural centre that hosted art exhibitions, fashion shows and dance performances from 2021 to 2023, a move that helped build excitement around the space as well as securing a break on taxes and rent.

Curated Wholesale Model

By mixing an ever-evolving, curated selection of indie brands with ultra-profitable concessions for global luxury names, DSM’s current fleet of stores (including flagships in London, New York and Shanghai) have managed to succeed while other concept retailers from Colette to Opening Ceremony have shuttered.

But in Paris, a city already saturated with luxury boutiques and department store corners, the group has broken away from the concession model, leaning further than ever into the risky business of selling its own buy of ready-to-wear from indie labels.

Rei Kawakubo designed all the displays for Dover Street Market’s new Paris location, eliminating branded concessions.

Comme des Garçons’ founder Rei Kawakubo’s store design features a series of curved alcoves built out with futuristic, smooth white displays, illuminated by light streaming in from the long-windowed 17th century facade. Branded spaces are nowhere to be seen, and products are mixed together with limited regard for price, category or gender: a €3,622 ($3,934) hand-distressed Comme des Garçons blazer is displayed alongside a stack of €80 t-shirts, arms length from a selection of €566 ecru shirt dresses from Egg.

“Twenty years after opening the first Dover Street, it seemed a nice moment to go to the next level in terms of doing something different. We decided to do away with the branded spaces completely,” Joffe said. “Kawakubo came up with the idea that she’d design it all, so that it would be the spaces that talk rather than the brands.”

The only global luxury names present are Prada, Miu Miu, Bottega Veneta and Balenciaga, which seem to have judged that the cool-factor of being sold at DSM is worth selling at wholesale, even as all of these brands have pulled back from sales outside of their own retail networks in recent years. They appear just steps from a corner stocked with niche magazines, a rack of upcycled deadstock skirts from Chopova Lowena and a display of Duran Lantink’s padded crop tops.

Other propositions include a broad selection from Comme des Garçons Group’s own brands, including Girl, Shirt, Junya Watanabe and Noir Kei Ninomiya — these in-house labels make up around 25 percent of the assortment across DSM locations — in addition to items from buzzy runway upstarts like Vaquera and Weinsanto, both of which are supported by DSM’s brand-development unit. The shop also stocks creative tailoring from Setchi and Torishéju, and skate-inflected concepts backed by the brand-development unit like ERL and Sky High Farm Workwear.

A Rose Bakery with an outdoor dining area opens onto the courtyard. A basement exhibition space currently holds a retrospective of Roversi’s photos of Comme des Garçons designs, displayed on a giant round wall in continuation of the wooden column installation upstairs.

Risky Business

With global luxury names and sportstyle sneakers taking up just a fraction of the space, DSM’s Paris location sees the retailer leaning more heavily than ever into niche fashion at a time when the outlook for independent labels and the multi-brand retailers who sell them is increasingly dim.

Key online distributor MatchesFashion went into administration earlier this year, while luxury marketplace Farfetch narrowly avoided collapse by selling to South Korea’s Coupang.

Meanwhile, indie labels have suffered blow after blow. In recent days, British brand The Vampire’s Wife announced it would close, citing “upheaval in the wholesale market,” as did American label Mara Hoffman, while Roksanda narrowly escaped administration by selling to The Brand Group.

DSM’s Adrian Joffe. Thomas Lohr for BoF.

Joffe has nonetheless chosen to swim against the tide, betting that the group’s increasingly singular positioning as a destination for novel and niche products will drive demand. DSM is focusing on indie fashion at a moment when department stores have mostly ramped up the share of floor space devoted to luxury brand concessions — and as many luxury brands themselves struggle to differentiate their products, stocking increasingly generic “merch” designs.

“The hunger for [independent fashion] for sure is out there — I feel it,” said Joffe. The biggest challenge facing small designer brands is that “they haven’t got the platform — it’s as simple as that,” he continued. “Stores and showrooms cost money, so where are they supposed to show their things except social media? How do they gain a position in a very busy world?”

Fixing Indie Fashion

The other big challenge Joffe sees for small designers: soaring prices that limit their addressable market. “A lot of the young designers now, their prices are ridiculous — and they don’t have to be,” he said. “You don’t have to multiply your costs by five like the big brands do.” (He blames the prices not only on rising costs for production, but on a system that fails to emphasise one of the most basic principles of entrepreneurship: create products at a price people are willing to pay).

Joffe has endeavoured to offer more accessible price points at the new Paris store. As momentum for global streetwear names subsides, he’s also sought to keep tapping into demand for tribal, community-driven propositions by stocking ultra-local concepts. For example, DSM Paris’ inaugural selection includes a collaboration between Comme des Garçons SHIRT and Jah Jah, an African vegan restaurant co-founded by multidisciplinary creative director Daqui Gomis.

“He brought his community; yesterday the people were lining up to buy,” Joffe said. “The prices were correct, they were very reasonable, and he still made his correct margin.”

A wire sales space designed by Rei Kawakubo for DSM Paris.
A wire store display designed by Rei Kawakubo for DSM Paris.

Niche brands can still succeed at selling more high-end items, of course, but the price needs to be backed up by a special product, Joffe said. “[Undercover designer] Jun Takahashi made us these very, very distressed jeans and they were not cheap at all, and we sold all eight pairs the first day.”

“People want authenticity,” he said.

Opening Performance

Joffe says he hopes DSM Paris will be able to reach profitability in year two, though experience has shown this is hardly guaranteed. Previous locations took three to five years to break even.

While the Marais area has struggled to establish itself as a luxury shopping destination — a mid-2010s push to develop a luxury menswear street beneath the BHV department store shuttered during the pandemic — its reputation as a hub for stylish visitors has steadily risen. In addition to Uniqlo and Muji, the area houses key art galleries like Marian Goodman, Perrotin and Thaddaeus Ropac, and some of Paris’ most popular sidewalk cafes.

On its first day of trading, the store registered over 500 conversions from 2,500 visitors to the complex including the cafe and exhibition space, the company said. The opening Friday generated €75,000 in sales, beating its €40,000 budget by nearly two-fold.

By Saturday afternoon, the store was mobbed, with a corner selling sportstyle sneakers appearing to generate the most sales.

“It’s a good start,” Joffe said. “It’s a risk. But it’s a risk we know is worth taking.”

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