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Modern Concept Stores Find Success in Frequent Designer Changeovers

Shops like Dover Street Market and Story are finding that there is glory in the temporary.
Noir Kei Ninomiya's spring installation at Dover Street Market New York. Photo: Dover Street Market New York

Noir Kei Ninomiya's spring installation at Dover Street Market New York. Photo: Dover Street Market New York

On July 20, Dover Street Market’s New York City location will host an editor preview of its biannual changeover, called “New Beginning.” The multi-brand retailer, a child of Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo and husband Adrian Joffe, switches up its offerings every six months. Some brands carry over from season to season, but others are brought in temporarily. The process reinforces the impression that Dover Street Market is more like an art gallery than a department store. Visitors from all over the world travel there to see the best of the greatest — like Comme and Junya Watanabe — but also to see new things. Last season, spotlighted brands included Kawakubo disciple Noir Kei Ninomiya and British menswear favorite Craig Green.

The concept of rotating brands is not particularly new. Opening Ceremony distinguished itself in the mid-aughts by hosting seasonal shop in shops, inspired by different countries and their designers. London chain Wolf & Badger, which is slated to open a New York outpost this fall, frequently rotates its offerings. Part showroom, part shop, the retailer allows emerging designers to rent rack space for a period of time. The goal is not only to sell clothes, but to attract more permanent wholesale accounts. Current lines in stock include Rumour London, maker of preppy-with-a-twist sweaters, and the Athens, Greece-manufactured Roses Are Red, which specializes in minimalist lingerie.

The success of these initiatives has inspired more retailers to follow suit. Convincing a shopper to actually step foot in a store is more challenging than ever, and a fleeting lineup of brands adds a sense of both urgency and novelty.

Six months ago, fashion consultant Caryn Neary opened Bene Rialto in New York City’s Garment District. A former Saks Fifth Avenue buyer, Neary has spent the past several years advising young startups on how to get to a level where they might be picked up by one of the “majors,” i.e., a department store with a large footprint. Bene Rialto serves as a stepping stone to that achievement. Some seasonal lines are stocked for three months, most for six. If a collection performs exceptionally well, Neary may keep it around for longer. But, like Wolf & Badger, Neary’s main goal is to get these brands recognized by more mass retailers and give them time to grow. Even if a nascent label does get an order from a major retailer in its first or second season, it might not be able to accept the order because it’s too expensive to produce. A few seasons in incubation at a boutique like Bene Rialto allows it to build up the capital and relationships with suppliers it needs to manufacture a much larger order.

Neary, who currently stocks collections including athleisure label Alala and ready-to-wear line Kung Katherine, doubles as a consultant to the brands she takes on for Bene Rialto. “We’re working to develop them,” she says. “We want to be the launch platform.”

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Sounds like an all-around win, right? Start-up labels get the exposure they so desperately need at minimal financial risk, retailers almost always have something new to show off, and curious shoppers have a reason to surf the physical retail world.

But do temporary concepts like these keep people coming back for more? One of the great things about physical retail — especially at the high end — is the idea that you go to one place for one designer. For instance, if Bergdorf Goodman has a decent selection of Wes Gordon, a fan of the New York-based label knows she can rely on the retailer season after season to stock the best pieces. Single-brand boutiques offer the same sort of convenience. A perennial Proenza Schouler customer might have a salesperson she regularly “works” with at the store, who puts new items aside for her as they’re added to the racks.

The next generation of retailers serve a different purpose, argues Rachel Shechtman, the owner of Story, the New York shop that rotates out 100 percent of its brands every three to eight weeks, resulting in seven to eight entirely new “Storys” each year. Recent concepts have included Her Story, which featured female-led brands in partnership with Dressbar, and Well Being, a collaboration with Yahoo centered on lifestyle and food. “We’re a trade show meets a living press release.” What’s more, Shechtman says, “No vendor, big or small, is buying a yacht off of selling to one door anywhere. We’re developing a relationship.”

Neary is also quick to point out that even short stints in a shop can help build a long-lasting brand-customer relationships. Recently, the store arranged a meeting with a keen shopper and a designer, which resulted in a custom order as big as a seasonal collection. “We’re creating a unique experience,” she says.

Perhaps shops like Story, Bene Rialto and Dover Street Market also speak more clearly to the millennial consumer, who cares less about brands and more about, as both Neary and Shechtman put it, experiences. According to a 2012 report by Boston Consulting Group, “experiential” luxury — including vacations, meals and art — makes up 55 percent of global luxury spending. And the category is growing more quickly than the market for personal luxury products.

What stores like these do is transform the act of shopping into something more. And right now, that’s exactly what the customer seems to want.