Chinese Millennials Discover Avant-garde Retailer Dover Street Market—and Can’t Get Enough

On a Thursday afternoon in New York, I went to the avant-garde boutique retailer Dover Street Market on 30th Street and Lexington Avenue. Tucked away in Midtown with no window display, it’s an easy place to walk past without noticing—unless there’s a line outside the store.

“Today is a Supreme ‘drop’ day,” explained Rui Wang, the guide for my trip, referring to the New York streetwear leader well-attended weekly product release. Wang is earning her graduate degree in art business at Fashion Institute of Technology by day and blogging about fashion on the buzzy lifestyle-focused Chinese social media platform Little Red Book by night (a “hobby” that reaches 1.9 million fans daily). She is no stranger to Dover Street Market New York, and she has bought multiple pieces here, from Gucci, Balenciaga and her favorite fashion label, COMME des GARÇONS (or CdG).

Wang is far from the only Chinese shopper in the striking seven-floor complex. Dover Street Market has become the place for young Chinese travelers to visit because of a varied mix of luxury, streetwear, runway pieces, indie magazines, global hand-crafted and design pieces.

Dover Street Market, first launched on the brand’s eponymous street in London in 2004, has grown into a lucrative retail model that now boasts locations around the globe. According to the The Wall Street Journal, Dover Street Market reported $130 million in revenue across their five stores in the first half of 2018, a 130 percent increase over 2017 (which, in turn showed solid growth over 2016).

There is almost too much to look at and indulge in at Dover, that is perhaps Tokyo-Paris based founder and creative designer Rei Kawakubo’s goal. She once stated that she likes to “create an ongoing atmosphere of beautiful chaos.” While many retailers struggle to make ends meet, Dover Street Market is thriving with a textbook example of “experimental” retail that combines fashion, art, and culture.

Two Chinese international students enjoying a small bite at the Rose Bakery café. Photo: Jing Daily

In the Rose Bakery café on the first floor, we met two Chinese international students visiting from Washington, D.C. One of them is a loyal Dover fan. “I have been in every Dover store in the world, except the London one, which is my next goal,” she said, sipping her hot coffee and sitting cozily in a treehouse-like structure is decorated with polka dots and colorful wall fabrics. She told us that she picked up a few little purchases during her visit—a vintage notebook by designer Maison Margiela and a delicious piece of carrot cake the bakery is famous for.

The wall displays include hand-crafted pieces from folk artists from all over the world. Photo: Jing Daily

“The audience at Dover Street Market is a different caliber,” said Wang. “You won’t find many Daigou [overseas resellers] here; it’s more [high-end] collector types.” And the store’s prices reflect that, with sneakers starting at $100 to artwork that goes for as much as $28,000.

Located on the top floor of the store, Supreme is likely among the cheapest brands on display, but it’s also the hottest and most hyped brand. “The register opens every Tuesday morning at 11:00, and we come here on Thursday with an assigned time to buy,” said Daniel Li, a student at New York University, about his shopping routine. He started reselling Supreme goods as a side business a year ago, and now he can count on this activity as a steady income stream.

Daniel Li shows off his proud purchase – Supreme x The Killer collaboration T-shirt. Photo: Jing Daily

The day’s product drop for Supreme paid homage to one of China’s most iconic action films— The Killer, a ’90s Hong Kong classic directed by John Woo—by putting scenes from the flick onto the brand’s shirts and skateboards. Fans compare the film to Scarface and Akira and believe this drop targets pop-culture conscious Asian consumers and cinema buffs.

One of Daniel’s purchases, a black short-sleeve shirt priced at $48, was his favorite. He predicted that the shirt would be resold at double the retail price. His estimate proves correct. On the trending streetwear platform StockX, Daniel’s purchase had already more than doubled—to $100—and when we checked with the store’s sales associate after an hour, we heard that this new shirt had already sold out.

The Supreme sales associate told us that if you don’t want to wait in line, it’s easier to purchase Supreme products at Dover. Photo: Jing Daily

When asked if a lot of Asian buyers came into the store, the Supreme store associate confirmed that they did but explained that this particular shirt release has gained exceptional attention among the Asian community—and with people of all nationalities—because the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan once sampled lines from the John Woo movie for one of their albums. “Kids can now appreciate the music and movies from back in the ’90s. That’s what streetwear like Supreme is trying to pass on.” And that culture is in demand. Despite the 100 percent potential profit off the shirt, Li said he won’t sell it and instead considers it a “passion purchase.”

Aside from brand names, celebrities heavily impact young Chinese consumers’ shopping choices. Ambush, a contemporary Japanese jewelry label has found fame thanks to the K-pop star G-dragon. “A lot of clients would shop with pictures of the Ambush collection that G-dragon wears,” said the Ambush sales associate.

An inside-out T-shirt by Vetements that’s priced at $230. Photo: Jing Daily

We hit the floor most beloved by young Chinese shoppers: the third floor, which is where hot names like Balenciaga, CdG, and Maison Margiela are found. There, we ran into a Chinese student who was visiting New York from Guangzhou. He referred to himself as a “victim” of Balenciaga’s Triple S “dad sneaker,” priced at $895. “I got it back in the days when it was hot, and now it’s everywhere,” he said in a regretful tone.

Gucci store Photo: Dover Street Market New York/Website

There are many sub-brands of CdG at Dover. For example, the brand’s Play collection is the cheapest (starting at $135), but a true CdG dress can sell for as high as $10,770. Many young Chinese consumers are familiar with the commercial line, but still find the avant-garde design of CdG harder to style than a mainstream luxury brand like Gucci.

The Chinese-speaking sales associate we befriended at the jewelry counter confirmed that preference. “When I used to work for Gucci, I noticed young Chinese kids would come in head-to-toe in Gucci,” she said. “It’s like they are in a Gucci uniform.”

Wang found a CdG apron-style dress priced at $980 and saved it to her Shopstyle.com shopping cart. She’s debating whether to place the order or not—perhaps next time she’s in the store. Whether young Chinese consumers choose to purchase at Dover or not, the unique DNA of this retail store seems to strike a chord with young luxury lifestyle lovers, and they all seem to stay there a little longer than your average shopper.

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Consumer, Market Trends