13 Dec 2017
Fashion World Tokyo Offers a Brief Glimpse of Japan's Singular Style
While on the surface, Japan's fashion sense may seem to align with preferences the world over, closer observation reveals that the country's idiosyncratic approach to fashion and grooming is distinct and incomprehensible as ever.
Fashion World Tokyo (FWT) was a bold challenger brand when it launched in the spring of 2014. Despite having been established some 14 years earlier, IFF Magic Japan – then still solely in its International Fashion Fair incarnation – was widely seen as floundering under the onslaught of Reed Exhibitions, the company behind FWT and one of the largest expo-organising businesses in the world.
Flash forward to spring 2017 and the re-branded IFF Magic hoped its newly forged association with Magic, organisers of many of North America's leading fashion events, would restore it to its formerly unassailable position. In the end, despite creating a ripple of genuine interest, the consensus was that the revamped IFF had yet to out-manoeuvre its younger rival. Indeed, among those who visited the autumn iterations of both events, it was widely held that FWT remained both livelier and better attended.
The core appeal of FWT is that it actually came about as an amalgamation of seven specialist trade events, with the combined expo offering an unparalleled opportunity for business-to-business networking within Japan's multi-stranded fashion sector. In essence, it's far more of a "nuts and bolt" event, with less focus on playing to the media than a number of rival shows, an approach that seems to chime well with the current sentiment in the sector.
Although, as many concede, the Japanese economy is performing better than it was just a few years ago, consumer demand is still perceived as lagging behind. Inevitably, this has created a situation where businesses are relying on hard work and prudent financial decisions just to stay afloat, rather than expecting some unearned windfall from merely trusting to the foibles of the fashion sector.
Overall, there are no better barometers as to the overall health of Japan's fashion business than the level of activity in the shoe and bag sectors, two areas where the functionality over fashion element levels the playing field a little and offers some scope for newcomers to the market. Anyone taking such an approach at this particular event would have been immediately struck by just how many Chinese companies were targeting these particular sectors, a consequence – according to gossip around the showfloor – of a continuing shortfall of demand in both the European and North American markets.
For many of these mainland businesses, it was their first time at a Tokyo trade event and, consequently, they were on something of a steep learning curve when it came to understanding Japanese tastes. While, to the novice eye at least, Japanese preferences may seem to more or less align with those prevalent elsewhere, the truth is that the nation's sensibilities really are rather unique.
One first-time exhibitor clearly finding this out for herself was Tina Ho, a Director of Gege Leather Products, a Guangzhou-based bag maker that has long-targeted the European and South American markets. Clearly a little shell-shocked by her first direct exposure to Japanese tastes, she said: "This is the first time we've attended this particular show and we are largely here just to see what sells well.
"We brought along a wide selection of product ranges but, as we sell mainly to Latin American countries, I think many of our styles are too vivid for the local market. From what I can see, the Japanese prefer plainer items and accessories that are not quite so ornate."
Despite – or perhaps because of – this eye-opening experience, she maintained the trip had proved worthwhile, giving her a much clearer idea as to what kind of stock would go down well in future. It also gave her more of a steer as to the kind of OEM business that was likely to be on offer.
Similarly enlightened were the Shah sisters – Tarpana and Archana – joint founders of Mumbai-based Tarpana Design Apparel. In contrast to the majority of Indian apparel manufacturers, Tarpana specialises in the use of entirely natural materials and dyes, an approach that has resonated with many environmentally conscious consumers in the West. The Japanese market, however, tends to focus more on practicalities than on ethical production practices.
Outlining the challenge this represents to the company, Tarpana said: "Because of the entirely natural materials we use, our fabrics have a tendency to change over time. In the middle/upper-middle-class Japanese womenswear market, however, while customers are willing to pay well, they want value for money.
"They want to put items in a washing machine a number of times without them wrinkling or fading. It's impossible to guarantee that without blending polyester into the fabric."
A number of Japan's fashion idiosyncrasies could also be discerned in the footwear sector, a phenomenon that did not go unnoticed by Wendy Wen, Fashion Co-ordinator for Coming Enterprises, a Taiwanese shoe manufacturer. Although only on her first visit to the event, she believed she already had some understanding of the peculiarities of the local market, saying: "As we get quite a lot of OEM business out of Japan, I have a basic grasp of Japanese preferences. Overall, people here tend to go for less formal and more comfortable styles than they do in a number of other markets."
As getting a genuine understanding of Japan's singular approach to fashion is by no means an easy process, a number of companies have found that targeting the sports and leisurewear sector is often the best bet, largely because this seems to be the one area where Japanese preferences and international tastes seem to coincide. It's an approach that Coming Enterprises is only too familiar with, which probably explains why its stand was almost entirely skewed towards this sector.
Leisure footwear aside, many of the exhibitors at the event maintained that the shoe sector, overall, was in the midst of something of a lean period, though few seemed sure of the root cause. Diane Liu, however, a Senior Executive with Long Run International, another Taiwanese shoe brand, was in little doubt as to just what had triggered the current downturn.
Outlining the problem as she saw it, she said: "Shoe sales are affected by two factors in particular – trends and the weather. Shoes are also very season-specific, frequently coming in summer and winter styles. Now, though, on account of climate change, the winters are not as cold and the summers are not as warm. The weather is working against us and, as a consequence, customers are less inclined to spend."
Despite the global climate clearly conspiring against the footwear industry, Liu indicated that certain shoes styles were still selling well. Among her own top tips were embroidered and velvet shoes, while she also noted the increased prevalence of webbing, particularly with regard to sports shoes.
Expanding on this, she said: "Webbing has become almost ubiquitous in the footwear sector. This is largely because it requires less cutting and stitching than most other materials, making its use far less labour-intensive. Labour costs remain a key issue in the shoe business and, in order to remain competitive, we have had to outsource our production to Vietnam and Cambodia, countries where wages have remained relatively low.
"Our Cambodian facilities now produce a wide range of shoes for the UK, including a number of Marks & Spencer's proprietary collections. We have now been in Cambodia for three years and in Vietnam for 20 years but, of course, our involvement with China goes back far longer.
"From our experience, getting the right management in place is the key to success when you open in a new location. When we opened in Cambodia, we brought in a management team from China to train our new local employees.
"While it takes time, eventually you have to hand over responsibility to a local team, otherwise there will always be too much conflict. We find, though, that if people are well trained from the start, they will get a sense of accomplishment and their role will really start to mean something to them."
The autumn 2017 edition of Fashion World Tokyo took place from 11-13 October at Tokyo Big Sight. In all, 917 exhibitors from 31 countries participated, while 17,688 visitors attended.
Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo