By  on March 23, 2010

TOKYO — Japan Fashion Week, which kicks off its condensed four-day run today, may be shorter in duration than seasons past, but it’s not denting the organizers’ optimism.

Nobuyuki Ota, president of Issey Miyake Inc. and chief of JFW’s collection project committee, said two factors are working in local designers’ favor — a growing contingency of buyers and consumers from other Asian countries and Japanese department stores’ newfound willingness to place orders and decrease their dependency on European luxury labels.

“Every single store carries the same names, the same merchandise, and the customers and the buyers are a little bit tired of seeing the same,” he said. “The market condition is terrible, but it’s in a good condition for the young designers.”

About 40 runway shows, along with dozens of presentations and other related events, will take place this week around the city. Like in seasons past, small home-grown brands with names such as Somarta, Mint Designs and Motonari Ono dominate the lineup. But a growing number of men’s labels, such as Discovered, Factotum, Phenomenon and Yoshio Kubo, also is joining JFW’s ranks, underscoring a widely held belief that men’s designers here are overshadowing their women’s wear counterparts, both in terms of buzz and commercial success.

These men’s brands have been showing in Tokyo for years, but only now became part of the official calendar. Ota acknowledged some designers were reluctant to join what they consider a group initiative, but that mentality is changing.

“If they are off schedule, they lose money, they lose the buyers,” he said.

Still, not everyone is convinced. Daisuke Obana, the designer of men’s label N. Hoolywood, opted to show his collection a week ahead of JFW because he said its dates were too late for his delivery schedule. But it’s somewhat a moot point since he plans to show in New York next season.

“If many brands could schedule their show into the official JFW dates, I think the shows would…be attractive to the buyers from overseas, but regretfully, JFW does not have enough leadership and it cannot propose the best schedule for each brand,” he said.

Ota declined to provide a forecast for attendance at the shows, but said he expects more buyers from Asian countries to attend. Still, the figures from seasons past indicate the government-subsidized JFW has a way to go before reclaiming Tokyo’s preeminence as a fashion capital as it was in the Seventies heyday of Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo.

In fact, overall attendance has been declining, a factor JFW organizers have blamed on designers showing in smaller venues or opting for presentations. Last year’s fall shows attracted 15,970 people, down 16.4 percent from the same season in 2008. But on a brighter note, the number of foreign buyers is growing. September’s spring shows attracted 125 foreign buyers, a big jump from the 37 that attended the fall shows in March 2009.

Most JFW brands do the bulk of their business in Japan, a luxury goods market worth close to $20 billion. There are signs the country’s postrecessionary economy is picking up, but it’s hardly booming, so it is natural that Japanese brands are turning their attention to foreign markets.

Consumers from China, Thailand and other Asian countries are increasingly hungry for Japanese fashion, Ota said. It’s a trend he’s witnessed firsthand at Issey Miyake’s own stores in Japan. He said Asian tourists aren’t fussed about seeing the temples of Kyoto. They’d rather use their detailed shopping maps to seek out trendy boutiques and buy items they can’t find in their home countries, he said, adding Issey Miyake is even issuing special members cards to foreign tourists.

“The foreign customers are coming back a couple times a year. Many Chinese and Thai people are coming back probably each season and buying like crazy,” he said, adding Japanese designers need to learn how to exploit this trend.

Ota also noted that Japanese department stores are warming to the idea of stocking new designer names. These retailers, which are suffering as Japanese consumers rein in their luxury spending, are eager to find fresh, unique merchandise to lure customers back, he said. Isetan and Matsuya have carried some JFW brands for several seasons now. Mitsukoshi, which merged with Isetan in 2008, also is considering dedicating some retail space to local designers, a spokeswoman for the retailer confirmed.

JFW is extending its reach to even more designers by joining forces with Rooms, a trendy trade show that has been gaining momentum over the past few years. An exhibition called Rooms Link will feature a host of brands’ presentations and serve as a venue for a handful of the week’s runway shows. It will take place at the Roppongi Hills complex, near JFW’s official venue of Tokyo Midtown.

But despite the organizers’ upbeat forecasts, JFW will face some challenges in the coming seasons. For the next fiscal year, which starts in April, the Japanese government is reducing its financial contribution to the event. More importantly, the government plans to stop funding the shows altogether the following year.

JFW organizers will need to find new corporate sponsors to make up the lost funds. The new government is expected to contribute a total of 335 million yen, or $3.7 million, to the 2011 spring collections in October and the 2011 fall collections in March of next year. That amount is about two-thirds lower than the sum JFW requested.

This season, JFW picked up an unlikely new partner in Fiat. The Italian carmaker is one of the sponsors of the Shinmai Creator’s Project, a design competition with a runway show for the winners.

Yuko Miwata, deputy director of the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s Fashion Policy Office, confirmed late last year that the government considers it time for JFW to stand on its own.

“Business should be done in the private sector. The government considers the fashion industry a growing field and decided to help JFW at the start,” she said. “Now the government has already helped JFW for five years, and JFW should be able to run itself.”

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