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L.A. CONFIDENTIAL

A Hip Hideaway

February 17, 2008|Emili Vesilind | Times Staff Writer

Downtown L.A. has officially earned its place on the hipster map.

Comme des Garcons, the avant-garde Japanese clothing label most notable for its deconstructed, tattered and torn black clothing, is opening a guerrilla store here in the historic, but slowly gentrifying, banking district.

Of course, it's not easy to find. There's no sign or street number. It's sandwiched between a bar and a sneaker shop, behind a heavy black metal gate that leads to an alley. There, across from a green city Dumpster, is an industrial hole in the wall. Inside, the most unconventional designer fashion outpost in L.A.

Guerrilla stores, or temporary pop-up shops that offer an antidote to global retail homogenization, are a dime a dozen these days, with Fila, Target and Hanes having established their own versions. But Comme des Garcons (French for "like boys") was at the forefront of the trend, opening its first guerrilla store in Berlin in 2004, with a commitment to focusing on marginalized areas of cities that have grit to spare, including Berlin; Warsaw; Athens; Reykjavik, Iceland; Helsinki, Finland; and Beirut. The L.A. store is the first in the U.S.

CDG designer Rei Kawakubo's clothes aren't for everyone. Her Paris runway shows are famously out there: One collection featured spandex tops and skirts with down-filled lumps and bumps; another fused men's and women's clothing, with a corset superimposed on a men's suit jacket, for example.

But she found a kindred spirit in L.A.'s Brett Westfall, who is opening CDG's L.A. store and whose own conceptual label Unholy Matrimony also specializes in the deconstructed and unconventional -- from pants violently shredded at the knees to tailcoats with checkerboard lapels. Kawakubo and Westfall collaborated on a limited-edition T-shirt collection for Spring/Summer 2005. CDG was "one of the first people to represent me when I started my brand," Westfall said. "I was 23 -- I was like a baby."

The guerrilla concept is simple: Comme des Garcons accepts proposals from fashion fanatics (usually not designers) who agree to keep the store open for no more than a year, whether it's making money or not. The location must be historic and set apart from any established commercial areas. The space itself has to have character (presumably of the fallout-shelter variety).

The rules, according to Adrian Joffe, president of Comme des Garcons outside of Japan, "can be added to and broken as we feel like. Nothing stands still -- only the concept and strategy remains the same. Just like guerrillas who are always fighting for freedom, but change their tactics as they go along."

The faded glory of downtown L.A. is a perfect fit for the brand -- besides, there's not an ounce of seediness left west of Hollywood (where other artsy labels, including Martin Margiela and Marni, have decamped). The block on West 4th Street is home to some of L.A.'s oldest buildings, many of which have lapsed into near post-apocalyptic decay on the outside -- making them look all the more romantic.

CDG hadn't planned on opening a store in L.A., but the proposal, written expressly for the L.A. unit, was too "superb" to pass up, Joffe said. Westfall's partner in the store, known only as Tak, originally leased the space to throw independent art shows nearly a year ago. And the way he went about renovating the space, which is embedded inside a building dating back more than 100 years, is more in line with fine art than interior design.

All four 25-foot-tall walls of the small, one-room store are tiled in white bathroom tiles (6,500 in total), which Tak strategically hand-cracked to create an aged effect. The effect is startling -- a cross between a New York City subway bathroom and a padded cell. This is the antithesis of comfy. Cutting through the tiles are thick steel beams that ascend to the ceiling, with industrial piping running through the beams horizontally, which now act as racks for clothes. Grated factory window frames hang on two walls, and in the middle of the store sits a weird, old metal workbench, now an industrial art installation.

In its brief life span, the boutique will carry new pieces from the company's many CDG-branded lines -- including the lower-priced Comme des Garcons Comme Des Garcons Collection and Kawakubo protege Junya Watanabe's collection for CDG. There will also be a revolving cache of clothes and accessories from seasons past "to give the whole scope of the brand," said Westfall. The brand's highly lucrative unisex fragrances, capturing such offbeat scents as Kyoto incense and Wood coffee, will also be represented.

There may also be the odd guerrilla store item for sale, including some limited-edition pieces from Unholy Matrimony. But for the time being, Westfall has put his line on hold, eager to concentrate all things Comme des Garcons. "I will be doing everything I can handle," he said. "The main thing for me is I want to make sure this is a huge success for Los Angeles."

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emili.vesilind@latimes.com

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