Radical Retailer

The Retail Strategy of Rei Kawakubo

Kat Duffy , Karinna Nobbs

Business Case
Source: Bloomsbury Fashion Business Cases
DOI: 10.5040/9781474208796.0043
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Rei Kawakubo and Adrian Joffe have, over the last forty years, created an evolving bricks-and-mortar retail strategy with Comme des Garçons (CdG) and the CdG owned Dover Street Market, reporting annual sales of $280 million. Kawakubo and Joffe have been pioneers, as the first luxury brand to experiment or twist the rules of established retail strategies. From a strategic perspective, successful formats can and do emerge from structured business models. Often, however, winning formats can also materialize from an opportunistic and incremental process, based more on intuition than rational analysis. The CdG brand values fit into this more organic method, with Kawakubo being known for looking at the “anti-”version of what the rest of the market is doing, thereby adopting an anti-establishment approach to their retail strategy. Based on both secondary research and primary research, this case explores the retail strategy of CdG examining the form and function of the brand’s unique approach. The case poses questions for the brand’s future retail development and highlights the unchartered area of digital for the brand.

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this case study, students should be able to:

  • Evaluate the retail strategy of Comme des Garçons (CdG), including the role of the multiple retail innovations of Kawakubo.

  • Assess how the retail strategy encapsulates CdG’s brand values

  • Analyze the challenges and opportunities of the Dover Street Market retail format 

  • Critically evaluate areas of future growth for CdG and Dover Street Market.


Rei Kawakubo was born in Tokyo in 1942. In 1969, she established luxury fashion brand Comme des Garçons (which means “like some boys”), opening her first retail store two years later. Within a decade, she had 150 stores across Japan, earning $30 million annually. Intensely private she has, since the 1990s, filtered communications through her husband Adrian Joffe, the president of Comme des Garçons (CdG) International.

Kawakubo is known for forging her own fashion path, working against established fashion norms and received wisdoms, she is renowned for her abstract and unconventional designs (such as her Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress spring/summer 1997 collection—renamed “lumps and bumps” by the press). The Kawakubo aesthetic has cultivated a cult-like following. Her recognition as a fashion pioneer reached a peak in the 2017 Costume Institute exhibition and Met Gala 2017: “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons.” As reported in Vogue (2017):

“Rei Kawakubo is one of the most important and influential designers of the past forty years,” said the Costume Institute’s curator in charge, Andrew Bolton, “ … by inviting us to rethink fashion as a site of constant creation, recreation, and hybridity, she has defined the aesthetics of our time.”

The creative vision and aesthetic values of Kawakubo impact on the retail strategy of Comme des Garçons in the continued innovation of the store formats and the search for new experiences for customers. The need to evolve and innovate is core to the brand values of CdG.

Retail strategy

The creative energy of Kawakubo has extended to the retail strategy of Comme des Garçons. The CdG retail strategy consists of a variety of retail formats within its 230-store portfolio, including flagships, guerrilla pop-up stores, and the CdG owned iconic Dover Street Market (DSM) concept.

CdG is established with its many lines, diffusions, and subsidiaries, so that each part can support another, with total revenues over $280 million in 2016 (Schneier 2017). True to their brand values, in many of these diffusion lines and brand extensions, Kawakubo and Joffe have been pioneers, being the first luxury brand to experiment or twist the rules of established retail strategies. In a rare Wall Street Journal (2011) interview, Kawakubo states that the brand is “about finding new ways to do things, not only with clothes but also with retail strategies.”

Business Problem

This case documents the variety of retail formats used by CdG under the strategic and creative direction of Kawakubo and Joffe. From the CdG flagship stores to the birth of the guerrilla pop-up store format, and the development of the retail model from the single CdG brand stores to the CdG owned multibrand format of Dover Street Market. Strategic questions emerge as CdG continue to invest in flagship stores and customer experiences in store regarding the sustainability of this strategy in an ever more digital market place.

Flagship stores

The first CdG store opened in Aoyama in Tokyo in 1989. Kawakubo designed every single fixture and piece of furniture in the store. Kawakubo and Joffe understand the concept of freshness and relevance and they update their flagship stores every five to seven years to ensure that their hard-core fans or “fundamentalists” as Joffe calls them, have a store that stimulates them. This spurs Joffe and Kawakubo to create an “even stronger, even more forward-looking store”.

Comme des Garçons and the luxury flagship store format

Size and location

Flagship stores are the lead retail stores owned by a company, acting as a showcase for the brand. They are typically larger than other stores and are found on the most prestigious streets. A small portion of flagship stores, however, do not follow this typical pattern, and instead form an “attention grabbing alternative” in fringe areas of cities that add “frisson” (Bingham 2005, 46). CdG falls into this latter category as their flagship stores are often found not on the most obvious or most expensive street and there is an element of discovery on the part of the consumer in finding them for the first time. The Japanese CdG flagship store is in Aoyama, Tokyo’s high-fashion district not Ginza, as one might expect. This can also be seen with their stores in other fashion capitals, such as CdG Paris being based in Rue du Faubourg St-Honoré, rather than the Champs Elysees, CdG New York being based on West 22nd Street, not 5th Avenue. By placing their flagship store on West 22nd Street in particular, CdG decided to choose a nontraditional luxury fashion destination and, more cleverly, one which is associated with art as it is next to Chelsea and the gallery district.

Figure 1. Unusual sloping glass windows of the Tokyo flagship store Ayoyama by Future Systems in 1999. Source: Marc GANTIER/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images.

Unusual sloping glass windows of the Tokyo flagship store Ayoyama by Future Systems in 1999. Source: Marc GANTIER/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images.

Distribution hierarchy

Generally, flagships stores should offer the broadest and most in depth product selection. To add value, they should also stock exclusive ranges that are not available in any other location. Joffe has described the company’s structure as horizontal, with each of its brands and products supporting the other (Banks 2016). CdG flagships generally stock the main lines and diffusion lines (such as CdG Play, Play Converse, Wallets, Parfums, Beatles CdG, Junya Watanabe Man) and showcase key designers (DSM built a reputation as an early advocate for designers such as JW Anderson, Vetements, and Simone Rocha).

Enhanced design and visual merchandising

The first flagship store in Hong Kong took the anti-establishment concept to a new level, in a world in which the luxury fashion sector is being criticized for its ubiquity and adoption of a white-box approach. Kawakubo and Joffe created the ultimate white box in their original flagship store in On Lan Street. Described by Kent and Brown as austere and architectural, it is windowless with an all-white interior (2009). Typically, CdG flagship stores are quite recognizable by their white and minimalist interiors.

Many CdG flagship stores share another signature feature in that their entrance is quite hidden and usually features a tunnel-type structure that transports the mind and body between two worlds. The fixtures and fittings inside the stores are a mixture of found objects that have been repurposed, like industrial racks, warehouse tables, and refrigerators. The recently refurbished London flagship store in Chelsea has been described by the Retail Design blog as an “uber-chic funhouse which represents the purest expression of the brand’s essence and values” (2014).

Third space

Bricks-and-mortar retail strategies are increasingly focused around in-store experiences (with an emphasis on a space for socializing, interacting, and community). An important differentiating dimension of the flagship stores are their “third space” and the organization of cultural events and experiential elements within it (Allegra Strategies Limited 2005; and Nobbs, Moore, and Sheridan 2012). The link between art and fashion is crucial in CdGs flagship stores as there are frequently feature spaces for art installations and this provides a unique consumption experience for the customer.

Unique management structure

Because of their unique status within a firm and the increased pressure on standards and performance, many flagship stores operate a differentiated management structure in terms of operations, sales and visual merchandising. CdG follow a flatter hierarchy than other retailers with the store manager playing a vital role in directing the product mix and visual appeal in collaboration with head office. Joffe explains that retail and the role of the retail staff is central to Kawakubo’s ethos, they want staff to have a “rounded knowledge” (Forbes 2016).

Strategic function

The operational function of a flagship store is to sell products, to be a commercial success, and generate profit, it also plays an important role in the retailer’s strategies to represent the brand’s identity, values, and philosophy internally and externally. This is evident in respect to CDG because of their unique visual identity and the level of control and detail, which is derived from Kawakubo’s vision.

Pop-up or “guerrilla” stores

Comme des Garçons has been proclaimed as changing retail forever with their innovation of the short-stay retail format, the pop-up store, which is often referred to as a “guerrilla store.” In 2004, the store format was created to sell end-of-line and sale goods. This is relevant to highlight as this format choice was born out of an operational incentive which then evolved to be something more culturally and strategically meaningful.

CdG were transparent in their objectives: they wanted to open shops in yet-to-be-gentrified areas for minimal cost, selling current and past merchandise. The concept was mainstreamed so successfully that pop-ups are now an everyday part of retail. CdG terminated the guerrilla project in 2008. CdG’s confidence to stop doing something which was now not “anti” and had become mainstream, is a testament to how they approach their brand values. They replaced the pop-up store project with their POCKET stores which are dedicated to Play T-shirts, leather accessories, and fragrances.

The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi (beauty in decay) is evident in the store format evolution (English 2011, 87). The stores were open for a year, had an artistic interior, and were in raw urban yet-to-be gentrified areas. Challenging retail conventions in search for radicalism and revolution, the pop-up spaces of CdG must be understood or categorised in relation to what they are clearly not, which is the predictable, sanitized, and controlled environment of the shopping mall and luxury store.

Within this unconventional retail model, the CdG stock was also key to the success. CdG chose out of season (or old) stock, effectively using the store as a means of reducing inventory. Adopting this approach increased the value of the stock and changed its meaning from old and redundant, to exclusive. There was also a maximum limit of $2,000 that consumers could spend in the store.

The pop-up stores were low budget, with the first two costing only 3,000 euros. They were also low risk and served to reduce inventory costs. As David Mullane states regarding the last UK guerrilla store in Glasgow:

The space here is quirky and beautiful and they gave me the last guerrilla store. They are very serious about what they do [as a company] but they make decisions based on what they think is right, what they feel is right and they back these decisions. (David Mullane, interview with Kat Duffy, February 2016)

Within the wider retail sector, the pop-up format has emerged as a legitimate retail format that has been adopted by both luxury and high-street retailers, as an innovative way of connecting with customers and extending brand reach. However, the concept has increasingly been criticized for being ubiquitous and losing the essence of uniqueness that CdG started in 2004. Indeed, the most recent incarnations of the pop-up store has been online.

The deconstructed department store

Dover Street Market was created to be an antithesis to traditional department stores, which Joffe describes as formulaic, and this impulse relates to every part of the retail marketing mix from the music to the store staff (Bagley 2014). The DSM concept features all the CdG brands and a list of other designers, both established and emerging, which are showcased in their own individual spaces. It highlighted a move from a single-brand approach with CdG, to a multibrand approach (DSM houses all CdG lines as well as a variety of other labels such as Vetements, Raf Simons, Junya Watanabe, and Balanciaga) and the creation of a lifestyle destination store.

As of 2018, the DSM stores include the newly located London (Haymarket) store, Singapore (in Como Dempsey—housed in an old army barracks), and rumors of a Los Angeles store in 2018. All current stores have elements of third space, for example, in London and New York (Lexington Avenue) they partner with the cult French bakery Rose Bakery. Each DSM concept also has an “incubation” area that is reserved for emerging designers. The core value of DSM is to “share a space with people with vision, people who have something to say” (Joffe quoted in Menkes 2013). With the “deconstructed department store” aesthetic of DSM taking its creative direction from Kawakubo (Bagley 2014), the retail space showcases captured moments that are transported in space and time: hotel rooms recreated and disrupted as merchandise displays, Portaloos as fitting rooms, and huts serving as stockrooms and register points.

Figure 2. Original Dover Street Market location in Dover Street, London. Source: View Pictures/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.

Original Dover Street Market location in Dover Street, London. Source: View Pictures/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.

Figure 3. Unconventional store design for the Dover Street Market interior. London. Source: View Pictures/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.

Unconventional store design for the Dover Street Market interior. London. Source: View Pictures/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.

The retail format of DSM is centered on depicting a notion of “beautiful chaos,” the premise of the constant changing and shifting of the product and the visual merchandising disrupts the security and safety of a conventional use of the store space. The visual merchandising of the space is part of its differential charm. There is a biannual tachiagari (beginning); during this time, the store is closed for three days and the store is redressed and reconfigured with fresh designer collections and installations. Closing the store to allow for this change is unconventional in today’s twenty-four-hour “always on” retail environment.

The DSM format aims to challenge preconceptions of what fashion retail may or may not be, with Kawakubo opting for a more organic (and far less expensive) process, one that aims to entice the customer through experimentation and innovation. As this format continues to grow, one is led to question how these concept stores will continue to remain new, innovative, and relevant to CdGs brand values, whilst also providing a stimulating store experience.

Future retail development

One area in which CdG is not prominent is in e-commerce. The CdG website was launched in 2011, which was relatively late in comparison to other luxury brands. This is one area where the brand could be criticized for not being as inventive in relation to their brand values of offering something unexpected for the customer. There has been some experimentation with the DSM e-commerce platform, which has to date remained fairly limited. Kawakubo states that she wants to take her time with technology as she believes the clothes need to be touched (HB Team 2011). According to Joffe, their current CdG bricks-and-mortar strategy can continue to thrive because the physical stores, unlike e-shopping platforms, offer customers a uniquely social experience—which he strives to maximize in the DSM stores (Yuen 2017).

The CdG digital and social media presence is also limited, DSMs social media presence started in 2014 including official Instagram account @doverstreetmarketlondon and also @COMMEGARCONS which is rumored to be a fake Instagram account not associated with the official brand.

CdG’s appears determined to continue pursuing a bricks-and-mortar retail strategy with little investment in the digital, social and e-commerce space, despite retail continuously evolving more and more into a digital sphere. This leads to further questions regarding how CdG will remain true to their brand values whilst continuing to innovate for the retail consumer of the future.

Business Questions

  1. Assess the importance of the flagship format within the CdG retail strategy.

  2. Kawakubo has challenged fashion norms. To what extent do you think this anti-establishment approach has influenced the CdG retail strategy?

  3. Discuss how CdG can maintain their brand values and grow further.

  4. Discuss the balance between retail strategy and Kawakubo’s creativity. As a retailer, how do you ensure balance to achieve commercial success?

  5. With the expansive scope of CdG and their continual innovation, critically analyze how the brand could further adapt to the digital retail space whilst remaining unique.

Extended Teaching Notes

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Table Appendix 1. Overview of key milestones of each retail concept by geographical location in chronological order

  Boutique Flagship Guerrilla Store DSM Pocket Shop Trading Museum Good Design Shop
1983New York      
1999 Aoyama, Tokyo     
2004  Berlin, BarcelonaLondon (Dover Street)   
2007  Beirut    
2008  Glasgow, LA Tokyo  
2009Hong Kong Hong Kong  Tokyo 
2010 Seoul BeijingSingapore  
2012Berlin  TokyoBerlin, London  
2013   New York   
2014 London     
2015     Paris 
2016   London (Haymarket), Singapore   
2017Berlin (reopened)      
2018   LA?   

References and Further Reading

Find in Library Allegra Strategies Limited. 2005. “Project Flagship: Flagship Stores in the UK.” January.

Bagley Christopher. 2014. “Behind CDG Stands Zen-Loving Contrarian CEO.” Bloomberg Markets, October 7. Accessed August 20, 2017. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-10-07/behind-comme-des-garcons-stands-zen-loving-contrarian-ceo .

Banks Grace. 2016. “Six Questions with Dover Street Market CEO Adrian Joffe.” Forbes, April 12. Accessed March 1, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/gracebanks/2016/04/12/six-questions-with-dover-street-market-ceo-adrian-joffe/#3505af267a92

Find in Library Bingham Neil. 2005. The New Boutique . London : Merrell Publishers.

Blogs Miista. 2005. “Rei Kawakubo, Commes Des Garçons—Measured Madness.” (blog) November 23. Accessed September 3, 2018. https://miista.com/blogs/miista/63376581-rei-kawakubo-commes-des-garcons-measured-madness .

Find in Library Crow Thomas 1998. Modern Art in the Common Culture . New Haven, CT : Yale University Press.

Find in Library English Bonnie. 2011. Japanese Fashion Designers: The Work and Influence of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo . London : Berg.

Frankel Susannah. 2004. “Rei Kawakubo: Fashion’s Greatest Iconoclast.” Dazed, September. Accessed March 4, 2018. https://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/26740/1/rei-kawakubo-fashion-s-great-iconoclast .

Friedman Vanessa. 2014. “Lunch with the FT: Adrian Joffe.” Finanical Times, January 17. Accessed September 10, 2018. https://www.ft.com/content/4ce0c520-7d35-11e3-a579-00144feabdc0 .

Greene L. 2011. “Flagship Armada.” Financial Times, September 28. Accessed September 10, 2018. https://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/e61faf54-e92f-11e0-af7b-00144feab49a.html#axzz1aVrfpluI .

HB Team. 2011. “Adrian Joffe: The Idea of COMME des GARÇONS.” Hypebeast , January 10. Accessed September 11, 2018. http://hypebeast.com/2011/1/adrian-joffe-the-idea-of-comme-des-garcons .

Find in Library Heine Klaus. 2012. "“The Concept of Luxury Brands” ." Luxury Brand Management 1: 2193–1208 .

Hyzagi Jacques. 2015. “Rei Kawakubo’s Radical Chic.” The Guardian, September 20. Accessed September 11, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2015/sep/20/rei-kawakubo-radical-chic .

Kansara Vikram 2013. “Adrian Joffe, Tending the Garden of Comme des Garçons.” The Business of Fashion, September 18. Accessed September 11, 2018. https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/people/adrian-joffe-rei-kawakubo-tending-the-garden-of-comme-des-garcons .

Find in Library Kent Tony and Reva Brown , eds. 2009. Flagship Marketing: Concepts and Places . London: Routledge.

Find in Library Kim Hyejeong, Ann Marie Fiore, Linda S. Niehm and Miyoung Jeong. 2010. ““Psychographic Characteristics Affecting Behavioral Intentions Towards Pop-Up Retail” .” International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management 38 (2): 133–54 .

Find in Library Kozinets Robert 2002. ““The Field Behind the Screen: Using Netnography for Marketing Research in Online Communities” .” Journal of Marketing Research 39 (1): 61–72 .

Menkes Suzy. 2013. “Fashion’s Purest Visionary.” New York Times, December 6. Accessed September 10, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/06/t-magazine/rei-kawakubo-dover-street-market.html .

Find in Library Mikunda Christian. 2004. Brand Lands, Hot Spots & Cool Spaces: Welcome to the Third Place and the Total Marketing Experience . London: Kogan Page Publishers.

Find in Library Moore Christopher and Anne Marie Doherty. 2007. “The International Flagship Stores of Luxury Fashion Retailers .” In Fashion Marketing, 2nd edition, edited by Tony Hines and Margaret Bruce , 277–297. Oxford : Butterworth-Heinmemann .

Find in Library Musso Fabio. 2010. ““Innovation in Marketing Channels: Relationships, Technology, Channel Structure” .” Symphonya: Emerging Issues in Management 1: 23–42 .

Find in Library Niehm Linda, Ann Marie Fiore, Miyoung Jeong and Hye-Jeong Kim 2006. ““Pop-up Retail’s Acceptability as an Innovative Business Strategy and Enhancer of the Consumer Shopping Experience” .” Journal of Shopping Center Research 13 (2): 1 .

Find in Library Nobbs Karina, Christopher M. Moore and Mandy Sheridan 2012. ““The Flagship Format within the Luxury Fashion Market” .” International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management 40 (12): 920–34 .

Find in Library Oldenburg Ray. 1999. The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community . New York: Da Capo Press.

Porter Charlie. 2016. “The Reinvention of Dover Street Market.” Financial Times, March 11. Accessed September 10, 2018. https://www.ft.com/content/55c2141e-b488-11e5-b147-e5e5bba42e51 .

Find in Library Posner Harriet. 2011. Marketing Fashion . London: Laurence King.

Retail Design Blog . 2014. “Comme des Garçon’s Flagship Store by Rei Kawakubo.” (Blog). February 4. Accessed September 10, 2018. http://retaildesignblog.net/2014/02/04/comme-des-garcons-flagship-store-by-rei-kawakubo-london/ .

Find in Library Reynolds Jonathan, Elizabeth Howard, Christine Cuthbertson and Latchezar Hristov. 2007. ““Perspectives on Retail Format Innovation: Relating Theory and Practice” .” International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management 35 (8): 647–60 .

Schneier Matthew. 2017. “Rei Kawakubo, the Nearly Silent Oracle of Fashion.”New York Times, May 1. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/01/fashion/rei-kawakubos-commes-de-garcons.html .

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Find in Library Tungate Mark. 2008. Fashion Brands: Branding Styles from Armani to Zara . London : Kogan Page.

Tzortis Andreas. 2004. “Pop-up Stores: Here Today and Gone Tomorrow.” New York Times , October 25. Accessed September 3, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/25/business/worldbusiness/popup-storeshere-today-gone-tomorrow.html .

Vogue . 2017. “The 2017 Met Gala Theme Is Comme des Garçons’s Rei Kawakubo.” May 1. Accessed September 3, 2018. https://www.vogue.com/article/met-gala-2017-theme-rei-kawakubo-comme-des-garcons .

Wall Street Journal . 2011. “Rei Kawakubo.” August 25. Accessed September 3, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424053111903918104576500263503794504 .

Yuen Stacey. 2017. “CNBC ‘Comme des Garçons CEO: Others May Like 5-year Plans, But I Don’t.’” CNBC, August 2. Accessed September 3, 2018. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/08/02/comme-des-garcons-ceo-others-may-like-5-year-plans-but-i-dont.html .

The authors wrote this case solely to provide material for class discussion and independent learning. The authors do not intend to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of a situation. The comments and interpretation presented are not necessarily those of the company or its employees.

This case has been written on the basis of published sources only. The interpretation and perspectives presented in this case are not necessarily those of the company in question or any of its employees.


Brand values:

Values that are rooted in the core of the brand’s business model. They should help to define and differentiate the culture of the brand and impact across all their operations.

Bricks-and-mortar retailer:

A physical retail store where customers are served by retail staff and can physically trial and purchase products.

Luxury brand:

Brands that are associated in the minds of consumers with a high level of value, quality, aesthetics, rarity, extraordinariness, and a high degree of nonfunctional associations (Heine 2012).

Retail format:

The physical embodiment of a retail business model: the framework that relates the firm’s activities to its business context and strategy.

Retail strategy:

A strategy that focuses on understanding and planning for a retailer’s capabilities and opportunities or challenges within the market, to reach and attract customers across channels. Retail strategy can be focused, for example, on growth and market share, being different from competitors, attracting and keeping customers, or gaining efficiencies in systems and procedures.

Third space:

A term defined by Mikunda (2004, 11) as “somewhere which is not work or home but a comfortable space to browse, relax and meet people, even enjoy a meal.” It is linked to the trend of experiential retail.