A Closer Look: Darklands
A Closer Look: Darklands
- Words Asaf Rotman
- Date September 12, 2016
Between raging face for two days straight at Berghain—provided they let your lame ass in the door—and going to historical sites in order to flex on Snapchat, you will inevitably do some shopping in Berlin. For those itching for both a dose of techno and a matching avant-garde outfit, Darklands is a must. The store, which opened in 2008, has become a worldwide destination, regarded for its singular aesthetic and consistent vision. Founded by Canadian native Campbell McDougall, who has been in the retail game since 1990, Darklands is currently in its fourth rendition, having grown and relocated three times since its inception. Carrying one of the most impressive roster of brands this writer has ever witnessed in person—Rick Owens, Julius7, Ann Demeulemesster, Guidi, Carol Christian Poel and Boris Bidjan Saberi, just to name a few—the massive seven-thousand square foot warehouse is a haven for all things black, drapey and prohibitively expensive.
While the majority of name brand Berlin retailers reside in either the hip Mitte or Kreuzberg neighborhoods, Darklands is purposefully hidden inside a courtyard in the relatively remote Teirgarten district. Upon entering, you are greeted by a looming fourteen thousand dollar Boris Bidjan Saberi kangaroo leather parka—one of only two in the world—hanging overheard. Walk further inside, a soundtrack of ambient techno picks up as you find yourself amongst the largest selection of BBS in the world, even greater than that of the NYC flagship. Next door, in the main room, the bulk of the other stock is packed in wall-to-wall—a massive display of twenty four brands, many of which are independent European labels that can be found almost nowhere else. Up the stairs and into the third room you'll find yourself in "Hyperstation," a recently developed area devoted to high-street labels and diffusion lines such as 11 By BBS and Rick Owens' DRKSHDW.
More than simply a massive retailer, Darklands is a multi-purpose creative space that houses art exhibitions and hosts large-scale installations and events. Currently on display is a chandelier by Parts Of Four designer Evan Sugerman that repurposes a gigantic piece of natural quartz as a lighting fixture. In the BBS room, the retractable hangers can be lifted to the roof and half the warehouse is transformed into a venue where McDougall will invite his favorites DJs to host parties. Attendance often exceeds thirteen hundred people, all of whom can be found dressed in black, naturally.
To learn more about what is easily one of the most impressive shops in Europe, and perhaps the world over, we sat down with McDougall to discuss where he got his start, the evolution of Darklands and what it means to be the adopted ambassador of Berlin's fashion/techno scene.
How did your career in fashion begin?
It started with a shop called Oxygen in 1990 to 2000. Then I opened a shop called Fritz Lang between 1995-2001 and actually it was the blueprint for Komakino/Darklands. Then an acclaimed, but unworkable shop called Bruce between 2000-2004. In 2005 I opened Komakino in Vancouver and immediately started plotting Darklands, which opened in 2008 in Berlin.
You have been interested in this specific aesthetic since you were 17-years-old. What drew you to this particular subset of fashion?
Music primarily and the fact that where I grew up, at that time it was so easy to get a rise out of people with what one wore…
Was it any particular designer?
Rei Kawakubo, no question.
What was the clothing scene in Canada like back then?
Lets just say, "developing."
Your first shop to get some serious traction was Komakino in Vancouver. Back then you were doing something similar, albeit on a much different scale. What prompted the move to Europe? Why open another shop?
It was simply a personal decision. I had been coming to Europe numerous times per year, for many years. Every time I came back home I wondered about living there one day. It just became the right time for me to give it a try. Even though I had a relatively new shop in Vancouver that was going quite well.
You mentioned music really is what got you into fashion, and still is such a core part of what you do. How has your music taste evolved and how does that reflect the shop?
I always liked electronic music, but clearly over time the Berlin soundscape has had an influence on my musical leanings.
Music, particularly Techno and DJ culture, is a big part of Berlin, and it is adequately reflected in the shop. You have even been referred to as the "Berghain of Fashion." How does the music scene coincide with Darklands? Does one influence the other?
I made efforts from the beginning to respond to and adapt to my adopted home and switching from Komakino's indie rock soundtrack to an electronic/techno soundtrack was imperative.
Now, years later, yes, most of the top techno DJ's in the world either live here or pass through regularly, so many of them throw a lot of great music at us, which I sift through and edit into our present playlists. Of course, this music has grown to be one of the defining points of the shop and I like to think that yes, we have some small influence on how these electronic artists present themselves, either on stage or otherwise.
The Internet changed everything, particularly in retail. What is the dichotomy of in-store versus online? Now that you carry brands that are in-store only, how is that dynamic changing?
In the beginning, two-thirds of Darklands sales were online, but that is definitely not the case anymore. Since coming to this space 6 years ago, our in-store business has strongly increased every year. Now, yes, we are starting to sell brands that do not allow online sales, something that was for me, unimaginable, a few years ago. I think there seems to be a push back against online selling from some of the more independent minded designers and I understand their reasoning for this and in many ways, agree with their thinking.
How did the idea for Hyperstation come about? What drew you to embrace these more affordable garments?
Well, in the end of course, Darklands is not so accessible for the majority of people. I wanted to start a small new project that was more approachable, both in pricepoint and in aesthetic. Over time we will see where it goes, but we all agree here that its potential is promising. At the moment, it is located directly beside Darklands, but in the future that could change.
Darklands is a "nomadic" shop, currently in its 4th rendition. How important is location?
Not at all. Other than to make sure that we are at least slightly remote. I like very much the commitment necessary to come to the space. I can’t even imagine being back in Mitte.
Why do you feel the need to explore new spaces?
We enjoy the process of tackling a space and doing something that we have not done before, but on a strict budget. We are not even close to being as ambitious in that regards, as we were back in the Komakino days. But, then again, the business is much larger now, so it brings added logistical challenges. Nevertheless, after 6 years here we are searching again as we need more space.
Your store is not exactly easy to get to, but that seems to be on purpose. What is it about that location? What drew you to the space?
Originally, that it was the premiere gallery district in the former shadow of the wall. 24 different contemporary art galleries beside a couple of ramshackle nightclubs and a guerrilla restaurant. That all, like everything in Berlin, changed quickly. But we remained just because we like the space and it works.
One of your favorite parts of the job is talking about Berlin. The lifeblood of the city seems almost ingrained in the store, even though the customer base is not necessarily from the area. How are the two entwined?
Only a small percentage of our clientele, albeit a very valuable group, are Berliners. I think it is the nature of this rarefied product—expensive, very directional—that our audience is sprinkled out over the entire world. Thankfully though, Berlin is a city that is definitely on most people's radar to visit.
You have professed that you buy based off of intuition, rather than trends. In that way it seems that Darklands is an extension of yourself and your personal interests. What attracts you to specific brands?
Quality, uniqueness, vision, exclusivity, integrity and, of course, having some crossover with our rather focused aesthetic.
Tell us about your relationship with Boris Bidjan Saberi who is a Grailed favorite. How did that relationship come about?
Simply that he approached me after his first runway show in Barcelona, while I was still in Vancouver. The next season he showed in Paris and I came, saw and bought, his debut collection. There were only a very few shops that season that bought him—five if I remember correctly. That was a decade ago. His career has evolved in sync with the development of Darklands. We just grew together.
More than simply a boutique, Darklands is a destination store complete with pop-ups and art installations. What motivates you to go beyond simply clothing and create an experience?
Because I am just as interested, if not more so, in art and music, as I am in fashion. If I was just showing/selling fashion after this many years, I don't think it would be enough anymore to hold my interest.
Do you consider yourself a "fashion person"?
No, not really. I am interested only in our narrow little part of it and I could not care less about trends, fashion magazines, etc.
If not a "fashion person" per se, how would you define yourself and the shop as a whole?
I like visitors to visit, experience it themselves and give me their interpretation of it or not, rather than dictating what it is. I aspire merely to create an odd little world that's very different and out of sorts with what it is like outside of our walls.
What are your personal favorite brands that the store carries?
It is difficult to pick favorites, sort of like a father choosing a favorite child.
Any brands or designers that we need to have on our radar?
Alexander Fielden. Very talented, but also quite obscure.