Table of Contents
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):
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.
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.”
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.
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”.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Figure 3. 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.
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.
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Table Appendix 1. Overview of key milestones of each retail concept by geographical location in chronological order
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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:
- Bricks-and-mortar retailer:
- 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:
- 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.