Los Angeles is a Fashion Wasteland. Can One Store Change That?

The store features a balanced mix of avant garde fashion and approachable streetwear.
Eric Staudenmaier

THIS PAST WEEKEND, in the Arts District at the eastern edge of Los Angeles, the world’s sixth Dover Street Market opened its doors. Run by Japan’s Comme des Garçons, the Dover stores sell clothing and accessories both from that company’s 18 brands and from many other labels—a “high-low” mishmash the fashion community reveres. While traditional department stores are organized by clothing type—the formal floor, the juniors floor, and so on—Dover Street Market eschews rigid store organization, favoring a less conventional layout. Stand still in this low-slung, single-story building and you can easily see diamond-coated Chanel jewelry, T-shirts screen printed by a twenty-something Los Angeleno and corduroy suits from New York label Noah, all at the same time.

If not for the steady sun of Southern California pouring through the skylights, you could almost forget that you’re in Los Angeles, often dismissed as the city that fashion forgot. It’s the agency town that popularized the T-shirt-under-a-suit look. The city where men wear flip-flops to business meetings and where women live in leggings 24/7. The city teeming with hoodie-wearing, sneaker-clad, ball-cap donning celebrities who only tuck in their shirts when a dress code absolutely necessitates it.

“Unless you’re going to the Grammys…if you’re in L.A., you’re not really dressing up too much,” said Kurt Narmore, a California native and the founder of Noon Goons, a surf-rooted brand based not far from Dover Street Market Los Angeles, which carries his clothes. Adrian Joffe, the president of Dover Street Market (and husband of the notoriously reticent Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo) acknowledged that Los Angeles hardly brims with fashion fans. “I don’t think [people in Los Angeles] care about [clothing] that much,” said Mr. Joffe, but, he added optimistically, “I think they’re beginning to care about it more.”

Dover Street Market Los Angeles is filled with inventive displays for individual brands, such as this one for the CDGCDGCDG line, which is part of the Comme des Garçons company, who own all six Dover Street Markets around the world.
Dover Street Market Los Angeles is filled with inventive displays for individual brands, such as this one for the CDGCDGCDG line, which is part of the Comme des Garçons company, who own all six Dover Street Markets around the world. Photo: Eric Staudenmaier

Dover Street Market’s arrival in Los Angeles will test that hypothesis. After opening its first U.S. location in New York in 2013, the company considered Detroit and Miami as the base for its next American outpost, said Mr. Joffe, but Los Angeles “just felt like the right time and the right place.” L.A., it’s true, has been flexing its muscle as America’s West Coast fashion capital. In 2012, Hedi Slimane, then creative director at Saint Laurent, moved the French fashion house’s creative team to Los Angeles, and more recently a batch of burgeoning brands have proved it’s possible to operate an American fashion label outside of New York. From Online Ceramics with its loopy tie-dyed T-shirts to Brain Dead, known for primary-colored work-pants, to Noon Goons and its ’70s-skateboarder-inspired polo shirts, these labels bottle the sunny spirit of the West Coast. All three are carried at Dover Street Market Los Angeles.

The store may struggle selling more formal clothing to Los Angelenos, however, for whom the default dress code is still very much “relaxed.” During a recent four-day visit to the city, I saw at most one suit, but no shortage of tie-dyed sweatpants, on the locals I encountered. Just before heading to Dover Street Market on opening day, I passed “Summit,” an “ideas” festival in Downtown L.A., whose itinerary that day featured talks by ex-Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Michael Ovitz, the co-founder of the CAA talent agency. Despite this power crew, attendees mingling about the space were mostly wearing T-shirts.

This is not to say that Los Angeles is a retail desert. The progressive New York boutique Opening Ceremony opened in West Hollywood over a decade ago. Boutiques like Mohawk General Store and Union Los Angeles (both run by ex-New Yorkers) have long peddled a curious blend of Japanese brands and European high fashion. In 2013, Acne Studios opened a short drive from Dover Street Market’s new doorstep. And this September, developer Rick Caruso’s Palisades Village opened with forty-plus shops including a Chanel Beauty boutique and a store from the Italian cashmere kingpin Brunello Cucinelli set to welcome shoppers soon.

The high-streetwear brand Off-White occupies a corner of the sprawling, single-story warehouse.
The high-streetwear brand Off-White occupies a corner of the sprawling, single-story warehouse. Photo: Eric Staudenmaier

But Dover Street Market is the splashiest retail debut of late in a city known for big entrances. Everyone from A$AP Rocky to Diane Keaton to Tommy Hilfiger turned out for its soft opening and opening day drew a line of eager customers. Andrew Delrosario, a 19-year-old from Irvine, Calif., who works at a movie theater, was one shopper. He and three friends arrived at the store at midnight the night before the opening and slept in their car, determined to be among the first people inside. “I just recently got into slightly higher-fashion clothing,” said Mr. Delrosario, who said he did most of his shopping digitally until this weekend. “Los Angeles isn’t the center [of fashion retail] so I do most of my shopping online.”

Though he said, it was “nice to see the higher-end stuff,” like Gucci and Undercover, which he hoped to one day be able to afford, what drew Mr. Delrosario to the opening were casual items on sale that weekend only in celebration of the store’s debut, such as a hoodie from London’s Palace Skateboards and a crewneck sweatshirt designed by the director Eli Russell Linnetz. Mr. Joffe did note that the mix at Dover Street Market Los Angeles will be “less luxury” than its sister stores (meaning more local T-shirt and casualwear labels and less high-fashion, with dressed-down visitors like Mr. Delrosario in mind). Yet, Mr. Joffe also alluded to the “beautiful chaos” that gives Dover Street Markets their imaginative edge—mashing together different brands and turning customers on to new ideas.

There are so many avenues and styles [in the store] that you can find your way,” said Evan Kinori, a San Francisco-based designer whose understated cotton work jackets sit just a few steps from a display of screaming-loud screen-printed T-shirts. If you’re hungry, finding your own way might just involve eating a relatively affordable $5 quiche at Rose Bakery, one Dover Street Market constant from city to city. Because one should never window shop on an empty stomach.

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Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com

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