The location is counterintuitive to the point of brilliance. The founder of Comme Des Garçons, Rei Kawakubo, decided to open the New York branch of her international fashion empire, Dover Street Market, not in SoHo or the Meatpacking District—places where fashionistas congregate—but at the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 30th Street. Sitting immediately north of a stretch of Indian restaurants generally referred to as Curry Hill, this is one of the last stubbornly un-chic precincts in all of Manhattan.
The building itself is a hidden-in-plain-sight gem: I’ve walked by it countless times but never noticed it before I came looking for Kawakubo’s outpost. It’s a classical temple, circa 1908, relatively compact, decidedly vertical, with Ionic columns and a frieze poached from the Parthenon topped with a roof pitched a bit too steeply. The architect was Harvey Wiley Corbett, a proto-modernist who is also responsible for the beloved landmark Art Deco tower at 1 Fifth Avenue (1929) and the infinitely less beloved New York City Criminal Courts Building (1939). The building now occupied by Dover Street Market New York (DSMNY) was originally the home of the New York School of Applied Design for Women, an institution founded to train women for careers as artists and architects. Kawakubo couldn’t have found a location with a more appropriate backstory if she tried, although Daphne Seybold, who handles communications for the store, tells me that Kawakubo found the building pretty much by accident.
On the outside, the former school (landmarked in 1977) is as sober, beige, and unrevealing as it was the day it was completed. It suggests nothing of the “beautiful chaos”—Kawakubo’s term—contained within. Kawakubo explains her approach as “the mixing up and coming together of different kindred souls who all share a strong personal vision.” Indeed, each of DSMNY’s seven floors contains a cluster of mismatched pieces, with different fashion labels displayed within artistically wrought spaces. The most diverse floors contain 20 different brands. On one, a lush, mural-covered, greenish cave for high-style Prada abuts a utilitarian display of street style by Supreme, a clothing line that grew out of skateboarder culture. Everything clashes. “It’s this interaction we’re interested in,” Seybold says.
In a rare (and rather brief) interview, Kawakubo told Women’s Wear Daily in December that she wanted to “impregnate” the New York version of the store—the other locations are in London and Tokyo—“with a spirit of outsider art.” And so she has. Near a display of stylish deck shoes, for example, there’s a pig-shaped sculpture made of cast-off alarm clocks, gears, fabric scraps, and random detritus. A bored-looking salesman tells me that it’s from Kawakubo’s private collection, and that she found it at a “reclamation art fair.”
Seybold insists the store is entirely Kawakubo’s creation. “We conceive of her as the architect.” (According to the New York City Department of Buildings, Richard H. Lewis is the architect of record.) There are some distinctly architectural gestures, the dominant one being a glass elevator that runs through the center of the building’s seven floors like a skewer—designed, of course, by Kawakubo. Here and there, in the middle of the sales floors, are freestanding shacks of the sort that might be assembled by a beachcomber. Those, again, are Kawakubo’s handiwork. The other overtly architectural gesture is the imposition of columns—non-load-bearing—that go from the ground floor to the sixth. They are there, like everything else, as visual punctuation marks, serving as surfaces for artworks by Magda Sayeg, the “mother of yarn bombing,” who has knitted brightly colored cozies for some of the columns; arts practice London Fieldworks, which clad a number of the columns in wood blocks; and artist Leo Sewell, who turned his columns into collages of found objects.
The one actual architect who turns up on the store’s lengthy list of credits is the visionary Madeline Gins, who created the “Biotopological Scale-Juggling Escalator” with the Reversible Destiny Foundation, which she founded with her husband, the artist Arakawa. This “escalator” is actually a stairway connecting the second and third floors through a bulbous tunnel that resembles a giant wasp’s nest. The design, with its striking color scheme and serpentine handrails, is intended to “operate against the aging process,” but those seeking eternal youth should note that it didn’t quite work for Gins, who died in January.
In truth, it’s very hard to classify the store and its aesthetic as architecture, or design, or fashion. Rather, it’s the inner world of the designer made visible. In fact, it’s even difficult to think of it as a store. What it feels like is a museum, not a place where you would actually buy anything. (Although I was tempted by a $925 Comme des Garçons jacket, navy with white splotches.) Instead it calls to mind the 2011 Alexander McQueen exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in that the clothing often takes unexpected forms, from Andre Walker’s voluptuous sculptural dresses to Junya Watanabe’s oddly misshapen suede fringe dusters to pairs of shoes that sit by themselves on pedestals looking like little gargoyles.
On the ground floor, DSMNY provides a small respite from beautiful chaos: namely, a café that serves simple meals from a stainless steel kitchen (it looks like a space station module) to diners seated at a row of marble-topped communal tables. I sat there one afternoon and was mesmerized by the way sunlight streaming through high windows was refracted by the glass water bottle on my table. After all of the riotous visual stimulation of the sales floors, I felt as if I’d somehow walked into a Vermeer painting.
If architecture is about creating space, DSMNY is more like anti-architecture, an exercise in breaking space. It’s all interruption. If architecture is about permanence—and it’s not clear that it is—this place is about transience. The corporate culture of Dover Street Market even dictates that each store undergoes something called “tachiagari,” a word that translates as “beginning.” Twice a year, in January and July, each shop will bring in new artists to remake everything. It’s a perpetual pop-up.
It’s tempting to write off what’s taking place here as mere fashion, as something inherently trivial, but what Kawakubo has succeeded in doing is merging the strong voices she cultivates into an aesthetic experience that’s as unpredictable, bedazzling, and profound as a good Biennale.