StyleZeitgeist founder and fashion critic Eugene Rabkin knows a lot about stores. Like, a lot about stores. Do you want to know how Rick Owens came up with his dreamy "fog wall" interiors? Ask Eugene. Where the ink was sourced for the floors in Ann Demeulemeester's Antwerp flagship? Ask Eugene. When I discovered a few months back that he would be opening his own space with partner and Wish owner Lauren Amos, my only surprise was that it had taken him until now to do so.
ANT/DOTE is the latest addition to Atlanta's burgeoning retail scene, the name hinting at how it operates as a highly-curated panacea to some of the multi-brand monoliths that have begun to pockmark high-streets everywhere. There aren't many, if any, logos to be found in this place. It's more along the lines of gorgeous silver by Werkstatt München; Antwerp Six rarities; and a smattering of Japanese cult favorites such as HYKE and Junya Watanabe. Think Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory for the discerning, high fashion geek.
"For fashion fans, by fashion fans" is the strapline, which feels like a bit of an understatement where Eugene is concerned ("obsessive" would be more accurate), so I was gassed to catch up with him over Zoom to talk about his plans for ANT/DOTE and the year ahead. The store is now open, so be sure to check it out if you find yourself in Atlanta. If not, have a gander at the website here.
Congratulations on the store, man. Was this always in the career plan?
The first time I wanted to open a store was before I launched StyleZeitgeist, but it was a pipe dream. We're talking about a very long time ago, although I did go around and look at some spaces. In retrospect, knowing now what it takes, it was unrealistic. When Lauren told me about her vision of opening a multi-brand boutique and asked if I would help her realize it, I was thrilled to be offered such a rare opportunity.
I think on some level, any fashion critic wants to do it. It’s putting your money where your mouth is. “Well, we can write about it and we can talk about it?" People can nod in agreement, but will the world actually care about your vision?
I think it’s a fantasy for a lot of people involved in fashion because it represents something truly tangible. Almost like the ultimate way of validating your tastes. I'm betting the reality is much scarier...
Any business is a risk, right? We’re going into a fashion milieu where no one quite knows what fashion even is anymore. No one quite knows what luxury is anymore. No one quite knows what design is anymore. We want to build a store that carries fashion with a capital F, because the store is about fashion design.
It’s a risk we’re willing to take. We think there are enough fashion fans to support a business like ours. The multi-brand retail industry has really become a desert. There are so few dependent stores now, especially after Covid, that we feel like it's very much needed. I think people and even some brands are a bit tired of department stores and the "everything for everyone" approach that they take.
Knowing you, I imagine a single detail hasn’t been missed.
I went to Rome after Pitti Uomo, just to hang out. I was in that posh area near the Spanish Steps. I was walking around; the neighborhood is so beautiful, and you had all these beautiful stores. It made me really want to buy something, even though I wasn't really looking for anything. I didn't need anything. I thought, "This is it.”
You put a great store in a great location with great merchandise to make people feel good about themselves. You don’t need anything else. We don't need strobe lights, LED screens, or whatever. I feel that's just dressing up.
It's why places like Savile Row still endure.
You hit the nail on the head. I love walking on Savile Row and just taking in that sense of history and the care and craftsmanship and beauty that is so rare these days. I'm the furthest guy from that kind of dressing, but it makes me want to walk in and get a custom-made suit.
What was the idea behind ANT/DOTE in terms of the interiors?
We are now in a preview space by Chris Benfield, who did most North American stores for Rick Owens and Balenciaga. We are also putting the finishing touches on the main store by him. His vision is incredible. People can't believe it when they walk in.
I really think that once we open, Atlanta will respond incredibly well to the interior, because it has not been seen before. Atlanta is a mall city. We wanted to break away from that, so we bought a standalone building which we’re going to refurbish.
You tread on my toes there. What’s the shopping culture like there, and why Atlanta?
The answer is very simple: my partner and the principal owner of ANT/DOTE, Lauren, lives in Atlanta, and it was important for her to put a store of a global caliber there.
These high-low concept stores like END. have been wildly successful back in the UK, but they have a kind of homogenizing effect on people’s style. I swear I’ve never seen as much BAPE camo around as I do now.
It’s funny that you mention END. of all places, because I was just listening to a podcast with Gary Aspden of adidas Spezial. He talked about how our culture is getting so homogenized across the globe and voiced his frustration about it. He said he used to love to travel because that allowed you to experience culture differently in different cities and get ideas. And now you come somewhere and it's fucking Williamsburg everywhere.
I’ve experienced the same frustration. Even when I started traveling professionally and going to showrooms and getting a closer look at entire offerings from brands, I was shocked at how much good stuff they had to offer, yet I would never see it ending up in stores. Especially in America, where we tend to be very conservative when it comes to buying. And that's what frustrated me. And that's what frustrated Lauren as well. We bonded over that, and so personally, I don't even shop all that much anymore, to be honest. I've resorted to ordering from showrooms in Paris. And really, a big part of it is, you'd never see that stuff end up in stores.
It really is an art. I remember going to places like The Broken Arm in Paris for the first time and my mind being blown at how particular the selection of stuff was.
I want people to know that if you want something really cool and interesting, ANT/DOTE is the place. There are not many stores that mix not only challenging pieces but interesting and cool pieces, too. When I get messages like, "Man, this is incredibly well-curated," that's the highest compliment.
I loved that word “challenging” you used earlier. You like to make people think and aren’t scared of pushing buttons when it comes to your writing. Does that approach also apply to the store?
Absolutely, at least on some level. But it's more like, “Why is my writing challenging?” Because at the end of the day, I think it will lead people to new insight and enrich their lives. That’s what I want to do with the store. I'll give you a different example. Most of the music that I've come to love, I wasn't sure about at first. The first time I listened to The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, I was like, "What is this?” I didn't love it at all, but it had enough to hook me in to listen to it again and again and again, and to finally realize what a genius record it is. And that's been the blueprint for me to say like, "Hey, listen, if you just put in a bit of time and effort, you're going to be rewarded in a much more meaningful and deeper sense than gorging on this junk food of premium mediocre." You're going to be much better rewarded.
I love the music comparison — I think it’s the effort that matters, too. To have that will to force yourself. It reminds me of when I was younger, listening to Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa records. I still to this day have never got into it, but by God, I tried.
And that’s okay, listen, everyone has their own level. I am not a fan of progressive rock, but maybe I would've been if I grew up in the seventies. Who knows? But ultimately I've never found this sort of junk food of culture rewarding.
Let’s get on to the brand selection. I imagine this was like playing god for you!
Oh, yeah. That was the most exciting part.
What was the MO?
It has to be about design. It's that simple. What I mean by design, is that it's thoughtfully considered. So there aren't logo T-shirts or pool slides in the store. It's an UNDERCOVER Evangelion graphic. Not a box logo.
If we've stocked a hoodie, it's going to have an element of design in it, whether it's the fabric or the silhouette, or the detail. There is no lowest common denominator stuff at all. Again, it doesn't mean we're trying to make things purposefully complicated. I'm a fan of minimalism and simplicity as well, but it's going to be well done; worth it. I'm not into duping people into spending money. At this point, there is nothing in the store with a logo on it.
That's exactly what I'd expect from you!
It’s been fun. I have to credit the brands that have put trust in a completely new store in Atlanta; an independent store. We got the entire COMME des GARÇONS family from season one and that just doesn't happen. That’s exclusive to Atlanta. We got some [Thierry] Mugler season one exclusive to Atlanta and that doesn't really happen. So that's been the really exciting part for us, that the brands as well are willing to put trust in us from the beginning.
You don’t need to be able to afford it to enjoy it either, right? There’s a really interesting thing going on in fashion these days, where younger kids are happy to participate from the sidelines - be it chatting in online communities or going into stores and trying stuff on without actually purchasing.
Exactly. If they don't buy anything, we're fine with that. I specifically instructed my staff to make anyone who walks in through the door feel welcome. And if they don't buy anything, you know what? That's totally fine. We've all been there. Just for them to have exposure to this kind of fashion, that's a reward in itself.
And that is why the name ANT/DOTE makes sense. I don't think I have to ask why it's called that.
Our motto is, "For fashion fans, by fashion fans." We could not put it in any better way, but everyone is welcome. What I want to do is, my ideal fantasy is that a person walks into ANT/DOTE and haven't been exposed to this stuff. And all of a sudden, they realize that what they have been exposed to is not as interesting as what's in front of them. Because that's how I felt the first time I walked into Barneys, I was like, "Holy shit. I had no idea this existed. This is incredible." So that's what I would like to do. And we already have that, people walking in the store and being like, "What is that?"
But I think to do that, you do need brands that people know about to get them into the store and we are going after some of those big brands, but these are the brands that we respect ourselves, and that there are few and far between. But it's not a StyleZeitgeist store, right? Because if I worked in the store I was making, everything would be black. So, of course, we had to mix it up, but everything that's in the store, we stand behind. That's the most important thing for me.
Let’s segue a bit. You mentioned Barneys, what other stores in NYC are on your radar these days?
There's nowhere to shop. Totokaelo was the last man standing and that closed during Covid, 10 Corso Como opened and then two years closed. Forty Five Ten opened and closed. There's nowhere to go now. It's just mono-brand stores and department stores. And the coolest one of those has gone out of business as well. So honestly, I hear from so many people that there is nowhere to shop in New York and let it be a call to arms. I hope someone opens a cool multi-brand store in New York, because there's definitely an opportunity for that right now.
Where do you think retail is headed? We hear morbid talk of “apex predators” and the death of the high street, but clearly, you must think there’s hope for physical locations?
It excites me that a certain cohort of people and a certain cohort of brands are moving away from department stores. They’ve become so commodified and so unexciting; they don't train their staff. So the staff doesn't know the product that they're selling; it's not a place for fashion enthusiasts. And to me, it gives hope to retailers that really know what they're doing, really know the products, and are really passionate about what they do. That that's the way for them to succeed. So I am optimistic about independent retail, but it's going to be hard and there isn't going to be a lot of it.
At the end of the day, it's up to the consumer. Personally, I make a point of not buying books on Amazon. I will go to a local store and even though I'm going to pay $3, $4, $5 more, I know that my money is going to that store. Because at the end of the day, a store is part of the fabric of a city and I don't want to live in a city where it's just big box stores. That’s why New York is so great because people realize that and they will support independent retail. Because if those stores are gone, you're going to have incredibly unexciting neighborhoods. And it's happened in New York here. This is what happened to Bleeker Street.
Tell me more about that?
It was a really charming street in the Village, in New York, where it was with mom and pop shops. And then after Marc Jacobs opened, all these big brands started coming in, bringing up the rent, and all the mom and pop stores went out of business. Five years later, all those big brands realized, "Hey, you know what? We're not making money over here." So they all upped and left within a year. And it's something The New Yorker called "blighted by luxury", where you're destroying neighborhoods, not because they're too poor, but because they're too rich. Because all of those landlords, they got so greedy. They've been used to stupidly high rent that those big brands could afford until they decided to leave.
And so we have this absolutely charming street turned into a wasteland by big brands. I hope New Yorkers have learned their lesson. You really need to support independent retail. And going back to department stores, I'll give you another music analogy. The kind of people who go to department stores and the kind of people who go to independent multi-brand retail, think of one, the former is going to a music festival and the latter are going to a concert of a band they really love. That's the difference.
The affordability factor is a difficult one. There are plenty of people who buy fast fashion because it’s all they can afford, and that’s fine. But I know plenty of people who are middle class, even upper-middle class, who still shop in places like Primark. To me, there has to be a certain responsibility on the individual when it comes to their choices.
Look, if you can't afford something, I'm not going to fault you, because I've been there myself. I know you've been there. We've all been there. But if you can, I would love consumers to be more considerate where they put their money because, at the end of the day, they do have power over what gets to live and what gets to die.
And that's the most pernicious thing that you touched upon by fast fashion is not even that they fill the world with crap, but that they have conditioned the consumer to think that anything else compared to that is not affordable. And I would argue that affordability is partly a mental construct. Partly, of course, it's a function of how much money you have. But partly it's your brain telling you, "Even though you have the money in the wallet, you can't afford this." And I advise people to reconsider that position, to consider what you're going to get out of what you buy. Are you going to get a sweater that falls apart after two washes or you're going to get an incredible piece of clothing that you will love and wear for a long time? And to me, the choice is obvious.
Because a lot of those people will be like, "Ooh, $50 for a t-shirt, that's a lot." But then they're going to drop 200 bucks at a bar at night like it's nothing. And it's just because they're used to that.
It's crazy. I was walking by Zara here the other day and they've got a rope set up and it's just queued for miles. People are there every other week out of habit; there's almost a Pavlovian aspect to it now.
Absolutely. We live in a world where shopping is a leisure activity. Whereas before shopping was, you open your closet and you're like, "Oh, I really need something." Or, "I really want something." As opposed to like, "Well, let's go shopping." I've never done that. I never just went shopping. I've gone browsing, but I never went with an intention to buy something that I don't need or I don't necessarily want. It's not a leisure activity. A leisure activity for me is going hanging out with your friends or reading a book or watching a movie. But I don't consider shopping a leisure activity. But that's what fast fashion has catered to, where people go every weekend. They're like, "Let's go shopping." What for?
You have to play one album in the store on loop for eternity. Which are you choosing? To make it interesting, you can’t pick anything by NiN or Trent Reznor.
Oh, that's super easy. Violator by Depeche Mode.
I should have said you can't pick that either. That’s also too obvious.
Fine. Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness.