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DSM Singapore’s guardians of cool: buyer Jenny Ji and special projects executive Kai Evill

It’s one of – if not the – most anticipated retail experiences to hit our shores in years, and trying to lock down and report on what exactly it would mean for shoppers has been a long process. And it’s not just because of the usual delays that come with most boutique openings.

This is Dover Street Market, or DSM for short, the multi-disciplinary, multi-label concept store created by Rei Kawakubo and her husband/company president Adrian Joffe. When it launched 13 years ago, on the posh yet fusty London street from which it gets its name, it disrupted all fashion retail conventions.

It certainly wasn’t the first high-end multi-label concept space. That honour is better suited to Milan’s 10 Corso Como and Paris’ Colette, both founded in the ’90s and still revered for their own idiosyncratic approaches to blending fashion, design and lifestyle. But if 10 Corso Como is cosily eclectic, and Colette achingly trendy, DSM is radical and unpredictable, with a proclivity to combine extremes. In other words, it is “Comme” (to use the name of Kawakubo’s label as an adjective), which also means it’s intensely esteemed and equally enigmatic.

Word that Singapore would be getting its own outpost – the fifth in the world after London, Tokyo, New York and a franchise operation in Beijing – first got out in the local papers in December 2015. The venture would be a collaboration with homegrown luxury multi-label retailer Club 21.

True to the DSM spirit, its location has no doubt added to its hype: a colonial-style building within the new yuppie lifestyle enclave Como Dempsey on quaint Dempsey Hill. Then after that: nothing – not for months, before rumours of its slated opening date started spreading, only to be officiated, then realised, late last month.

It was only after multiple conversations that we were given permission to explore the site in early June, ahead of its recent opening, when it was still an empty shell. The architecture of a DSM store is partly what makes it a destination. The Dempsey address – devoid of the artful, installation-like displays DSM is know for – was an expansive, light-soaked, single-storey space with a soaring 10m-high ceiling. It could have passed off as a church, one to be regenerated by Kawakubo – she’s behind the store design.

Also adding to the singular mystique of any DSM is its staff. At the other branches, their preternatural ability to be walking DSM billboards has received much press. Joining us on our visit were Jenny Ji and Kai Evill, buyer and special projects executive respectively of DSM Singapore.

Both previously part of the London store, they weren’t allowed to go on record (the company has a strict policy that only Joffe or vice-president Dickon Bowden can give interviews), but their distinctive air said enough. DSM staff reportedly get to dress any way they want, and both wore Comme des Garcons as effortlessly as off-duty models wear skinny jeans and tank tops.

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Which leaves us with the top reason why most people cannot wait to get into DSM here: the merchandise showcase. Besides carrying unexpected, exclusive collaborations with some of the most well-loved luxury labels, every outlet functions as an incubator of sorts for emerging designers who catch the eye of Kawakubo and Joffe.

While genial and charismatic in person, the latter could at times come across as cryptic in our e-mail interview – scant on details. What we do know is that the one-of-a-kind products to expect here include a collection designed by Gucci, a Singapore special edition tee by Gosha Rubchinskiy, a Balenciaga sneaker, and – alert Hypebeast types – a tie-up between DSM, Vans and the cultish streetwear brand Anti Social Social Club.

dover street market
Among the five emerging labels to look out for: Danish designer Cecilie Bahnsen and her ultra feminine take on modern staples

As for the up-and-coming labels, Joffe singles out tailoring wunderkind Grace Wales Bonner, this year’s LVMH Prize winner Marine Serre, the Comme-meets-Simone Rocha-esque Roberts Wood, the equally intellectually pretty Cecilie Bahnsen, menswear designer Kiko Kostadinov, “plus many, many more”. No further elaboration.

Abstract, esoteric answers are a reporter’s worst nightmare, but this is DSM – it marches to the beat of its own drum. Not knowing what to anticipate is part of the experience, and people will wait, not wanting it any other way. Here, printed verbatim, an excerpt from our e-mail interview with Joffe on DSM Singapore, and why a visit is something no e-shop can recreate.

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Exclusive products in DSM Singapore include a collection by Gucci; special items from Stussy; and tie-ups between DSM and Nike, as well as DSM, Vans and Anti Social Social Club.

Why Singapore as the next DSM location?

We don’t plan anything. The opportunity arises and we look at it and decide whether to do it or not. Club 21 and DSM discussed the chance to open in Dempsey Hill, and we both thought it was a great idea.

How is DSM Singapore going to be different from other stores?

Every country, every city, every environment is different, and we design each DSM in relation to all that. DSMS will be very different visually from the others because it’s all on one floor.

How does DSM Singapore pick the brands and merchandise it sells?

We keep the DNA of DSM intact and have most of the brands we have in the other stores, but also look for different ones (that are) more pertinent to the market. We pick with a mixture of instinct, luck and foresight.

At a time when e-tail is the norm and brick-and-mortar stores are getting hit hard by the economy, how do you make people excited about wanting to step into a store again?

Online will never replace brick-and-mortar stores. Online will never replace the human contact, the service, the sense of community, the odours and energy that you get in our stores.

There is also a DSM e-store (the Singapore website launched last December). What’s your approach then with e-tail?

It is just a part of the business. It’s a service to our customers who can’t necessarily pop into the store every day.

What are some of the key features of DSM Singapore that people should know about?

The height of the ceiling is extraordinary. The overall design will therefore take that into account. There will be giant huts and arches as the overriding architectural features.

What was the inspiration behind the store design?

There is never any one determinable source of inspiration. If anything, Rei Kawakubo is inspired by the arduousness of daily life, and anything strong and beautiful.

Name 10 things to know about DSM Singapore.

All on one floor, high ceiling, endless pillars, hottest brands of today, hottest brands of tomorrow, sounds as music, giant furniture, giant arch structures, local Singapore designers, and beautiful chaos.

Photography Frenchescar Lim Art Direction Adeline Eng Hair & Makeup Benedict Choo, using Nars Clothes Subjects’ own

This story first appeared in Female’s August 2017 issue.

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