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Old Favourites and New Tech Still in Style at Japanese Fashion Expo

Although technical innovations, ethical back-stories and new sales channels were very much à la mode at the recent Fashion World Tokyo, Japan's innately nostalgic and conservative take on what to wear was also very much in evidence.

Photo: Baby steps: Japan’s willingness to embrace global fashion trends remains slow and faltering.
Baby steps: Japan's willingness to embrace global fashion trends remains slow and faltering.
Photo: Baby steps: Japan’s willingness to embrace global fashion trends remains slow and faltering.
Baby steps: Japan's willingness to embrace global fashion trends remains slow and faltering.

While fashions may vary from season to season and year to year, general tastes in Japan remain relatively static. As a result, visitors to Japanese fashion events tend to be greeted by an array of familiar styles, rather than anything shocking or new. This was certainly the case at the latest edition of Fashion World Tokyo, where well-known looks once more dominated the show aisles.

This relatively steady taste in clothing creates something of a problem for apparel companies seeking to create excitement with their wares in the hope of gaining a competitive advantage in a market that already knows what it likes. New technology and materials may offer something of an answer, if exhibits at this year's event are any indicator. Ethical marketing may be the way forward for some, as the trend is gaining increased prominence in Japan. Also important, especially for market entrants, is the growing variety of sales channels and the opportunities these create.

Hitting the right stylistic note with Japanese consumers can still be difficult, as Taiwan-based footwear maker Puhu discovered after a three-year gap attending the show. The company's Brand Manager, Ocean Shiue, admitted its brightly coloured offerings were too vibrant for local tastes, saying: "Some of the people I've spoken to think our construction is interesting and like the shape, but they think the colour is too vivid and they want the style to be more elegant."

With certain flamboyantly whimsical subcultures the exception, Japanese tastes generally lean towards the subtle, muted, comfortable and modern – often with a European flavour. Both Japanese firms and companies from elsewhere in Asia aspire to this ideal.

Although based in Japan, Robot Fou Japan has mainly Chinese staff. Founded just two years ago, the brand was showing some sleek and stylish shirts and jackets (selling for about US$100) at the event, that made use of what Sales Representative Shu Yi Tang claimed was "seamless" technology, saying: "The fabric is pressed together with the special tape that binds it as strongly as a sewn seam. This is our special technology and it has been extensively tested."

Tokyo-based accessory brand Paisley was presenting a similarly cool and unfussy aesthetic, with items that included a wood bracelet at $40, quartz earrings for $40 and ribboned hair bands at $20. The modern style was all the more impressive as the company's President, Koh Matsuura, revealed that the brand was an offshoot of his family's 140-year-old hair accessory company. He said: "The brand concept is a style that relaxes and recharges your energy. This is why we've gone for a very pure look, with gentle colours and 'healing' materials."

Another style that is always popular in Japan is the cute, frilly look, something epitomised by Taiwan-based brand Ruby Collection, which was showing items such as a blue lace dress finished with a large ribbon for $150 and flanged woollen cardigans at $45.

Here, too, fashion was a means of restoring and recharging a person's energies, according to the company's Owner and Designer Ruby Hung, who said: "I believe every girl has a princess dream. When you are a small girl you want to be the Princess Elsa and then on the day you marry you will dress as a princess. Our fashion tries to tap into that dream. We want women to recover their 'princess dream' because that makes them powerful."

Photo: Puhu: Vivid – but elegant – footwear.
Puhu: Vivid – but elegant – footwear.
Photo: Puhu: Vivid – but elegant – footwear.
Puhu: Vivid – but elegant – footwear.
Photo: The Hamoru tooth-friendly pillow.
The Hamoru tooth-friendly pillow.
Photo: The Hamoru tooth-friendly pillow.
The Hamoru tooth-friendly pillow.

A key to Hung's success has been selling to the Japanese market through e-commerce and having a Japanese partner, Ayako Nakamura, to help 'localise' her business. Hung explained: "For a foreign company to get into the Japanese market is so difficult because it needs long-term trust. Even for a Taiwanese company it is difficult.

"Most Japanese retailers rely on distributors. If you don't have a distributor to introduce your company, they won't buy clothes from you. It's vital that they have somebody in Japan whom they can directly contact if there's a problem."

Hung uses her own website to sell clothes in Taiwan, but in Japan platforms such as Rakuten and ShopList are good ways to expand. She said: "Three years ago I started to expand overseas – Hong Kong, Malaysia, Vietnam and Japan – but the Japanese market is the best market for us. We are on a platform in Japan called ShopList, which specialises in ladieswear. We are now the number-one Taiwanese brand there."

Hung was keen to increase her sales channels to expand the business and also improve profit margins, but there are other advantages. She said: "It's good for stock also, because some designs are good for this platform and other designs are good for another platform. If I only have one platform it's more difficult to manage my stock."

Accessory brand Paisley was also looking at selling its wares through multiple sales channels. Matsuura said: "We are developing our website and targeting pop-up stores. Basically, we want to demonstrate the brand's saleability so that we can negotiate the best distribution deal."

The multiplication of sales options for new brands has greatly levelled the playing field, but this makes standing out more important. One way that Paisley is doing this is with a special edition of its accessories inspired by famous artists. The first in the series features Mexican surrealist painter Frieda Kahlo. Matsuura said: "Our designer incorporated the artist's teardrops motif into some earrings among other things. We're going to make this kind of product a seasonal thing, so for next season were going to pick up another artist and make a range of themed accessories."

The need to stand out on a relatively level playing field may also be adding energy to health and ethical marketing. Hiroshima-based sewing company CNT was exhibiting its Hamoru product ($60-70). According to the company's CEO, Tetsufumi Fujimoto, this is a new kind of pillow with a hole in the middle that is designed to reduce pressure on children's jaws when they sleep, and allow the correct formation of teeth.

Singapore-based shoe brand Zanetta was promoting its orthopaedic footwear ($30), which the brand's Director, Moses Boon, said was directed more at young than old people. He said: "From youth it's important to take care of your body shape. Many young people don't have a healthy lifestyle. Our shoes are designed to improve posture and prevent problems like back trouble in the future."

Another selling point, apart from the health benefits and fashionable Italian-sounding name, was the use of recycled rice husks in the manufacturing process. Many participants at the show testified to the growing importance of the ethical and ecological aspect in the Japanese market.

Paisley's Matsuura emphasised his brand's use of recycled wood, saying: "Ethical marketing is becoming more important. In addition to the style, it's another way for people to make a statement with the product."

Hiroki Sato, the head of Japanese fashion brand Zucchero, agreed with this point, saying: "Recently, we have been seeing a very strong trend towards eco and ethical products. This coat uses fake fur lining instead of real fur. A short time ago this would have been a negative. Now, because it's considered eco-friendly and kind to animals, it's considered a positive."

Photo: Fashion World Tokyo 2019: One of Japan’s foremost fashion forums and style showcases.
Fashion World Tokyo 2019: One of Japan's foremost fashion forums and style showcases.
Photo: Fashion World Tokyo 2019: One of Japan’s foremost fashion forums and style showcases.
Fashion World Tokyo 2019: One of Japan's foremost fashion forums and style showcases.

The autumn 2019 edition of Fashion World Tokyo took place from 2-4 October at Tokyo Big Sight.

Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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