Made for Right Now: You Shop Until It's Dropped
By CATHY HORYN
BERLIN, Feb. 14 - Fashion changes radically every season, so why shouldn't the boutiques that sell the clothes?
That is the strategy - some might say gimmick - behind the new Comme des Garçons Guerrilla Store that opened here on Saturday. In the first example of provisional retailing by an established fashion house, the store plans to close in a year - even if it is making money.
Instead of spending millions to build or renovate a building, Comme des Garçons spent just $2,500 to fix up a former bookshop in the historic Mitte district. Because the company doesn't plan to stay long in the 700-square-foot space, it didn't bother to remove the name of the previous tenant from the windows. Advertising consisted of 600 posters placed around the city, and word of mouth.
"Of course it seems outrageous to close something once it becomes a success, and I think we will be successful," said Adrian Joffe, who conceived the store with his wife and partner, Rei Kawakubo, the avant-garde Japanese designer. "But to be creative at anything takes an unbelievable amount of energy, and the minute you start to feel content with your success is when you lose it. You don't want to get too comfortable."
There is little chance of that, because all 20 stores that the Tokyo-based company plans to open by next year, including one in Brooklyn in September, will adopt the same guerrilla strategy, disappearing after a year.
Opening just days after the behemoth Louis Vuitton flagship on Fifth Avenue in New York, the Comme des Garçons Guerrilla Store flouts conventional wisdom in almost every way. And other retailers are beginning to adopt tactics that acknowledge the highly perishable nature of fashion and reflect the consumer's desire for a different shopping experience from what she might have in a mall or an upscale store. Last fall, Target opened a "pop up" outlet in Rockefeller Center for Isaac Mizrahi's latest fashion, closing it after six weeks, and the mass merchant has also sold goods from a boat at the city's piers. This approach "eventizes" shopping, said Seth Matlins, a brand agent at Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles, which provides marketing advice to companies like Motorola, Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble.
That a mass merchant and an avant-garde designer hit upon the same idea is no coincidence. Nancy Koehn, a professor at Harvard Business School, finds the underground approach of Comme des Garçons completely consistent with a trend toward more direct marketing.
'''"Accessibility has really been redefined for consumers," Ms. Koehn said. "Young people are taking the cues from their friends and less and less from established channels like fashion magazines and mass advertising." She noted that brands like Red Bull, the nonalcoholic energy drink, and Trader Joe's, the specialty grocery chain, have built their followings by word of mouth. "Trader Joe's uses total guerrilla marketing," she said. "This is the wave of the future.''' One of the most cost-effective ways to reach a consumer is through their friends."
For virtually every segment of the fashion industry - from Parisian luxury houses to small-fry entrepreneurs selling one-off clothes over the Internet - the challenge is how to capture what marketers call "mind share," that part of consumer consciousness not staked out by other influences.
Some companies, like Asprey and Louis Vuitton, do it with aspirational advertising and monolithic real estate, which by its very size works to establish a presence in peoples' minds. Louis Vuitton's 20,000-square-foot Fifth Avenue store, its opening marked by lines of disgruntled guests stuck out in the cold and a heavy police presence, is its largest store - that is, until an even larger Vuitton opens in December in Paris.
Fashion is one of several industries facing its own perishability. The music and film industries have experienced a similar blight as CD's and movies have shorter and shorter shelf lives. But to sense the change in fashion one need only look at the runways in Bryant Park in New York. Last week, 130 designers presented their fall 2004 collections, with more to follow over the next month in Milan and Paris. Yet by the time their clothes are manufactured, a factory in Malaysia or China will have produced cheaper versions. Stores like H&M and Zara will have them on their racks - and the consumer will be on to the next thing.
Even for an industry that survives on change, this sense that nothing lasts for long constitutes a radical shift, affecting moods and economies but also lives. No one understands the paradigm of impermanency better than Tom Ford, whose career at Gucci was abruptly shortened. Asked recently if he thought people would remember him after he leaves Gucci in April, Mr. Ford said to Women's Wear Daily, with a snap of his fingers: "They will forget. This is today. This is the world. Six months, a year, two years. Whatever happens goes away."
For years, corporations have recognized that "the medium is the message." But as the sheer glut of information clogs up the sensory canals, making traditional news media less effective - Ms. Koehn estimated that American consumers w are bombarded with 750,000 individual advertisements a year - marketing experts say how a product is sold can break through the clutter. "What you'll see is that distribution will become the message," Mr. Matlins said.
"The young people, the people in the pit of fashion: they're turning in a different direction," said Mr. Joffe, who added that the hyped-up atmosphere of fashion - the megashows, the stars - has led people to seek a more "authentic" experience. "Big brands mean less and less to them."
Melissa Kirgan, 23, who graduated last year from the Fashion Institute of Technology, gave up a good job with a sportswear company to form a collective of designers and artists, one of several such groups in Manhattan. "Our approach is anti-Wal-Mart," she said. "It's turning against all the branding and noise."
Perhaps no retail concept is more reflective of these provisional times than the new Comme des Garçons Guerrilla Store.
'''Mr. Joffe said that when he and Ms. Kawakubo visited Berlin last summer, they were impressed by the authentic-looking atmosphere of the Mitte district, especially at Monsieur Vuong, a Vietnamese noodle bar that draws a mix of old and young people, and at Elternhaus, a boutique run by a group of artists whose name, in German, means "parent's home."''' None of those places seem to devote a great deal of attention to décor or displays. Unconsciously or not, their owners were recognizing a fundamental shift in young consumers' attitudes: that content and product now counts for more than image.
By early October, Ms. Kawakubo and Mr. Joffe had formulated the idea for Guerrilla Store, enlisting Dat Vuong, the owner of the noodle bar, to help with décor. They also spread out their risk, creating a partnership with Christian Weinecke, an architecture student, who will run the shop.
Because Comme des Garçons is a small company, with annual sales of $120 million, it isn't encumbered with layers of bureaucracy and can respond to changes quickly.
The Guerrilla Store also makes commercial sense. With a monthly rent of $700, the store gives Comme des Garçons an inexpensive means to channel avant-garde pieces from the runway, sell off clothes from past seasons and reduce inventory.
Still, even if companies like Gucci and Louis Vuitton are too invested in their luxury images to be sincere guerrillas, marketing experts say they need to be much more attuned to the fact that young people, whether in New York or Shanghai, are tapping into the same underground. And that can make a designer wallet seem a lot less desirable than a customized pair of jeans.
"The influences today are terrifically eclectic," Mr. Matlins said. "One of the things we're seeing with kids is how much they're buying from eBay." When Sidney Toledano, the chief executive of Dior, visits New York, he makes a point of stopping in the Apple computer store.
"I learn more from a store like that than I do fashion stores," he said. `You're not just buying merchandising, you're exchanging information."
Berlin, with its long history of occupation, may be the perfect place to start a revolt. Among the 200 Berliners who passed through the store searching through cotton shirts and boiled wool jackets was Claudia Skoda, a knitwear designer who used to have a shop in New York.
"It seems a little bit funny," Ms. Skoda said of the notion of a store not meant to last forever. Still, she bought one of Ms. Kawakubo's orange checked skirts and planned to return for a pair of silver sneakers. She said she already knew of a designer who was thinking of opening a similar store in Mitte. And she was pleased to find something different in her own city. "I think people are tired of things you can get everywhere in the world."
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