14 Aug 2019
Ethical Textile Innovations Supplant Big Ideas at Tokyo Fashion Expo
At this year's Fashion World Tokyo event, it was those exhibitors with the low-key commitment to new material and techniques, as well as the more ethical business models, that outperformed those with the more radical style concepts.
The latest iteration of Fashion World Tokyo, Japan's leading expo for the modish textiles and garments sector, was not defined by any big startling statement pieces or any unlooked-for new looks. Instead, the attentive attendee would have come away with a distinct impression of several subtler trends, with their influence increasing incrementally against an otherwise familiar backdrop. Chief among these understated undercurrents was the rising significance of ethical marketing, low-key improvements to both materials and technology and the tacitly acknowledged accession to rising standards.
As a counterpoint to such subtlety, the show proper was undeniably lively, with business both brisk and conspicuous. Most notably, many of the exhibitors – particularly those from elsewhere in Asia – had made the trip to Tokyo in search of OEM business. In this regard, those companies that could offer a range of styles, all customisable to local tastes, had a particular advantage.
One company navigating these potentially choppy waters for the first time was Guangri Trading, a Hangzhou-based slipper manufacturer. Among the range of comfy footwear the company had opted to highlight were styles that varied from the casual to the comic and from the needlessly elaborate to the undeniably elegant.
Confident that these would, indeed, help to drum up OEM business, Sales Manager Bonnie Huang said: "We can offer a variety of different designs for individual customers. Quite simply, we believe the more options we can showcase, the more orders we will secure."
Commenting on the company's most popular style – an embroidered slipper with a smiley face, a nod to the Japanese love of kawaii (cuteness) – she said: "While this is largely machine-embroidered, it also requires a fair amount of manual work. As we have our own in-house design team, we can quickly change styles in line with what is currently popular. At a push, once we receive design specifications from a client, we can present the finished items within two to three days.
"Despite such flexibility, this is still proving to be a difficult event for us. Many of the buyers have favoured suppliers and are not really looking to change. I think we have to attend a number of times before we really get to grips with what works and what doesn't. While it seems that price is, of course, important, establishing trust also seems to be essential."
While some companies retained a clear focus on OEM business, others were hedging their bets by also looking to establish proprietary brands. While making this particular leap is famously difficult, in changing times, this has become an economic imperative for many businesses.
According to Chun Ye Won, Assistant Manager of the Korean SMEs Trade Association (KOSTA), several businesses that fell within his remit were now committed to this particular transition. Giving his take on the phenomenon, he said: "Many of the South Korean companies attending this expo are more than happy to work with Japanese clients on an OEM basis. At the same time, though, they want to follow the lead of their European counterparts and develop strong brands for themselves."
For this year's show, KOSTA had organised a national pavilion as a means of showcasing a cross-section of South Korean fashion businesses, with each of them chosen on the basis of their distinct individual offerings. According to one of the companies represented within the pavilion, the overall aim was to seem "more European", but it was also conceded that few of the participating businesses were willing to forefront something too bold in case it deterred any of the more conservative Japanese buyers.
For many, the thinking seemed to be that outré designs were no longer a guaranteed means of filling order books. Instead, the more prudent – and likely more effective – approach was to demonstrate multiple options for adding value, while emphasising the use of natural ingredients / processes, as well as an ethical business model, was seen as a particularly astute means of doing so.
Pretty much embodying this approach was Hunny Bunny, a Singapore / Hong Kong-headquartered kids' clothing brand. Essentially, the company's proposition is that all its range is made entirely from organic materials, while being ethically produced in Cambodia.
Explaining how the company's thinking had developed, Business Development Manager Celestine Ang said: "While we have offices in Hong Kong and Singapore, our factory is based in Cambodia, where we source all our natural dyes. Often, even when they are supposedly certified as 100% organic, kids' clothes are still full of chemicals.
"This is partly why we opted to manufacture in Cambodia as they have natural dyes available that you can't source in Singapore or Hong Kong. On top of that, we also work closely with the local community to ensure that we are giving something back."
A number of other exhibitors – most notably those from countries traditionally regarded as low-cost production centres – were at pains to emphasise that their own facilities complied with the relevant safety and quality standards. This is a particular issue in Japan where awareness of such issues is high and enforcement is a matter of course. Indeed, such is the nature of the local market that a raft of businesses has emerged that specialise in helping overseas companies comply with the stringent entry requirements.
One such quality control inspection company attending the event was Fuzhou-headquartered HQTS, which was in Tokyo to promote its services to overseas companies hoping to crack the Japanese market. At the same time, it was also touting its new subsidiary, Yoshida Sorting Inspection, which specialises in helping Japanese businesses comply with European and North American standards.
Introducing the business, Seiko Komich, the Assistant to the Chief Executive, said: "We launched about 25 years ago in Hong Kong, initially inspecting goods to make sure they were suitable to be exported to Japan. We then expanded into Europe and mainland China.
"Initially, a lot of companies resented the fact that we were tasked with inspecting their goods and facilities. The situation now, though, is very different, with many businesses realising that we actually make a positive contribution."
While improving quality and ensuring compliance with ever-changing standards is clearly one way to prosper, another – arguably a more difficult one – is to create new products that actually set new standards. This, though, was the task that TFJ Global, a Seoul-based manufacturer of high-tech textiles, had set itself. With an ambitious, eye-catching display, this year it was looking to showcase a new, water-repellent material, which was produced using non-fluorine technology, apparently a world-first.
Outlining the nature of the company's breakthrough, Chief Executive Euikyu Jin said: "While there are many water-repellent technologies on the market, the environmentally unfriendly fluorine content is always a problem. Our technology, by contrast, is 100% environmentally friendly.
"We're already working closely with Goldwin – the Tokyo-headquartered company behind the North Face brand – and we're now talking with Asics, the Kobe-based sportwear company that is one of the lead sponsors of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics."
The 2019 edition of Fashion World Tokyo took place from 27-29 March at Tokyo Big Sight.
Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo