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Appealing to Japan's "Playful Heart" Proves Key at Rooms 29

With exhibitors pre-vetted by the show organisers, Rooms is Japan's most select and artistic fashion and design trade show. With many high-end attendees present, financial motivations are not the sole consideration for purchasers.

Photo: Rooms 29: The most eccentric/eclectic Tokyo design event.
Rooms 29: The most eccentric/eclectic Tokyo design event.
Photo: Rooms 29: The most eccentric/eclectic Tokyo design event.
Rooms 29: The most eccentric/eclectic Tokyo design event.

Rooms, Tokyo's biannual fashion and design trade show, has been building up a steady reputation as a showcase for innovative, high-quality goods for several years now. Its most recent iterations have been held at the iconic Yoyogi Gymnasium, designed by world-renowned architect Kenzo Tange as the centrepiece of the 1964 Olympics.

Unlike many of the city's other design events there is a selection process that vets exhibitors. This is designed to help ensure quality, but also allows the organisers to create a distinctive feel and a sense of excitement among those deemed worthy of taking part.

How exactly, though, does a show like this fit into the present unsettled Japanese business climate? A key idea to bear in mind here is that although business is the realm of "homo economicus" (the economic man) – individuals motivated by a rational appraisal of their direct economic interests - a lot of business is actually conducted by transcending simple economic utility, by introducing other more emotive and intangible factors into the equation. Rooms 29, then, proved a good place to explore this aspect of the commercial world.

One of the key features of Rooms is that it is a trade show that doesn't look like a trade show. At times, it looks more like an art exhibition. The venue, which is one of Japan's most artistic examples of modernist architecture, helped to set this tone from the off, as did the many exhibitors who were selected more for their artistic merit than their commercial utility. This helped establish the mood that not everything was about business and raw market trends. Instead of looking out to the wider market, the show seemed to look in on itself in a self-confident and even self-indulgent way. As if those there could follow their own rules.

The mainstream economy is, of course, much more geared towards "homo economicus". As a result of this, it can be directly buffeted by economic winds – notably the rise in consumption tax to 8% earlier this year – but, at Rooms 29, there was a feeling among many that they were somehow insulated from such factors. This may, of course, also attest to the strength of the high-end market.

Aries Sin is the Creative Director and Chief Designer of Mode Creation Limited, a Hong Kong brand that was showing a range of coolly minimalist garments in black and white. She emphasised the alternative nature of the show and explained how it suited their approach.

She said: "On the one hand, companies like Uniqlo and fast fashion are booming, but we are doing slow fashion and something quite different. The tax increase is not good for importers, but we are doing edgy things. Edgy is niche, so we think we will be insulated."

Norimasa Maruyama is the Vice President of i.d.o, a Japanese manufacturer of a variety of handcrafted leather goods, including glasses cases and mobile phone covers, all typically retailing for around US$300. He was also keen to emphasise that different rules apply to niche markets.

He said: "We are here because Rooms is very famous for its creativity. The other trade shows in Japan are mainly for mass-market products. Our goods are not mass market. Our market is small, but it has a future. As it is small, it has great possibilities for growth. Any large market has already grown, meaning there is not much room for expansion."

The high degree of skill required for the production of i.d.o's leather goods has made it difficult for the company to outsource its production overseas. The fall in the value of the yen has, thus, helped its business. Maruyama reported that, while the general retail market has been inhibited by the tax rise, his products have not felt any negative effects.

Perhaps the clearest example of a business sector that is not just about the bottom line has come in the growth of ethical goods – from green products to free trade items. Significantly, Rooms had a particularly large ethical area. This featured a range of innovative products, including the Pocket Disc. This comprised a knitted wool frisbee (US$16) made in Guatemala and imported under the free trade banner by the Aloha Corporation, a Nagoya-based distributor.

Photo: Shooting stars: Peace bullets from Fabrica Fabrico.
Shooting stars: Peace bullets from Fabrica Fabrico.
Photo: Shooting stars: Peace bullets from Fabrica Fabrico.
Shooting stars: Peace bullets from Fabrica Fabrico.
Photo: Pocket Disc: A Guatemalan knitted eco-Frisbee.
Pocket Disc: A Guatemalan knitted eco-Frisbee.
Photo: Pocket Disc: A Guatemalan knitted eco-Frisbee.
Pocket Disc: A Guatemalan knitted eco-Frisbee.

Also representing the ethical sector was Elways, a Hiroshima-based jeans maker, with factories in China, Southeast Asia and Japan. This year, it was branching out with a new range of environmentally-friendly clothes, featuring botanical dyes-made natural ingredients – such as avocado and figs – rather than any chemical products. Its tops were priced at around US$300, while its trousers were about US$200.

Aya Shimamura, one of the company's apparel merchandisers, said that although ethical clothing was still a relatively small part of the market – under 10% – it was growing in popularity, especially among younger people. She said her company had become particularly interested in the ethical market following the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011. Other companies also identified this event as a trigger for their more toward more ethical products.

Other eye-catching ethical products were spoons (US$18) and jewellery (US$28 to US$38) all made out of bomb material originally dropped by the US Air Force on Laos during the Vietnam War. These were available courtesy of Fabrica Fabrico, a Tokyo-based importer.

According to Miho Ito, a Director of Fabrica Fabrico, the products had a lot of symbolic meaning and were a good way to promote peace. She also emphasised another important factor – their appeal to the Asobi Gokoro ("playful heart"). Despite their serious message – "From bombs to peace" – she was keen to underline that these were products that also had a touch of the ironic and demonstrated something of a sense of humour, even if it was a trifle macabre.

She said: "Ethical goods are growing, but the ethical element alone is not enough to sell them. They need to be fun and interesting."

Overall, Asobi Gokoro was apparent in many of the products and fashions on show at the event. It had also been worked into the trade show's live program, which included a display of performance art by Maywa Denki, an avant-garde art group that parodies Japanese industry through the creation of nonsensical machines.

Rooms provides a rich and sophisticated environment and one that offers participants an inside view of the Japanese upper-end market sensibility. Many of the participants, including Kenneth Wong, the Creative Director of Dream Republic Creative Ltd, a Hong Kong-based graphic design agency, confessed that the opportunity to learn was one of his main reasons for attending.

He said: "People recommended that I come here just for the experience. I want to look around and pick up ideas. Hong Kong goods are not really unique enough. They can be a bit general and a bit bland."

Also keen to test Japanese waters were a selection of Argentine companies, all supported by their government and gathered in an impressive Argentine pavilion. Umbrella brand Cuarto Colorado, for instance, was showing a range of brightly coloured items with the promise of "changing the colour of a grey day". The company was looking to promote its brand in Japan, although its particularly vivid colours and designs may have proved a little rich for local tastes.

Addressing distinctly Japanese preferences, Marianela Balbi, the founder of Cuarto Colorado, said: "We're finding it's very different from what the locals are used to, largely because of the colours and the patterns. They are very surprised by the amount of colour we're using."

Despite this, Balbi reported a positive response from a number of outlets, including Isetan, one of Japan's leading department store chains. It seems, however, that in her case at least, it was "homo economicus" who was very much to the fore.

She said: "We've been told – by everybody who has contacted us here – that we have really competitive process, so we're doing pretty well."

Photo: Fin de cycle: Avant-garde exhibits at Rooms 29.
Fin de cycle: Avant-garde exhibits at Rooms 29.
Photo: Fin de cycle: Avant-garde exhibits at Rooms 29.
Fin de cycle: Avant-garde exhibits at Rooms 29.

Rooms 29 was held from 9-11 September, 2014 at Tokyo's Yoyogi Gymnasium. The event attracted around 15,000 visitors and 350 exhibitors.

Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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