By  on August 28, 2009

TOKYO — The driving range has become the latest spot to make a fashion statement here.

An increasing number of young Japanese women are playing golf and apparel makers are taking note, offering up a mix of sporty-chic goods that work both on and off the putting green. While most of Japan’s retail scene is languishing, this segment is proving resilient and increasingly competitive. More than 20 new brands have entered the Japanese golfwear market so far this year.

The recent success of several young female pro golfers such as Ai Miyazato, Momoko Ueda and Sakura Yokomine have boosted the sport’s popularity with young women over the past few years. There is even a magazine catering exclusively to the demographic. Regina, launched in 2006, offers readers a mix of fashion and sports news and hosts its own tournament. Although many city-dwelling golfers in Japan never set foot on an actual golf course, they hone their skills on driving ranges and at a host of schools — some with video simulators.One of these schools even sits on the roof of Laforet, a Harajuku shopping center targeting fashionable young women.

Apparel makers have been quick to capitalize on the sport’s momentum and create a whole new reason for fashion-hungry women to go shopping.

“We are catering to girls who want to play golf but don’t have anything to wear,” said Kiminori Takeno, president of Blue Crush, a brand that caters to Tokyo’s Shibuya girls, known for their short-shorts, crystal-incrusted nails and wildly teased hair.

The pieces, like sequin-covered polo shirts and pink sun visors, barely break the price barrier of 10,000 yen, or about $100, targeting women in their 20s and undercutting traditional sporting goods makers. Blue Crush sells about 2,000 pairs of golf gloves, which come in 15 different colors, every month.

Yano Research Institute estimates that Japan’s total golfwear market should rise about 1.3 percent to 97 billion yen, or $1 billion, this year, registering its fifth consecutive year of growth. Traditionally, the sport’s apparel offering has catered to golf’s core constituency of middle-aged Baby Boomers. But women, who make up only 15 percent of Japan’s golfing population, are considered a lucrative and unsaturated market.

Keiichi Nagata, merchandiser of Odakyu Department Store in Shinjuku, has noticed the significant demographic shift taking place at driving ranges and other practice facilities in Tokyo.

“I am surprised at the number of young couples, and groups that include females that go to practice on the weekends,” Nagata said. “It seems that this new hobby is winning even against an economic recession.”

Some of Japan’s highest-profile golf brands include Glam Field, Green Banana and Sanei International’s licensed brands Pearly Gates and Callaway. Both Pearly Gates and Callaway are broadening their reach to a younger clientele with thematic merchandise. This year Callaway launched a line of Tweety Bird items, and last year Pearly Gates did the same with Barbie.

Foreign labels such as Le Coq Sportif’s Japan-manufactured Le Coq Golf collection, Kappa Golf, San Francisco-based Birdie and U.K.-based Mentality are also making inroads in the Japanese market.

Japan’s denim giant Edwin has also decided to enter the fray after its clientele started asking the company to move into golfwear.

“Our regular customers were asking us: ‘Will Edwin start to make golf clothing?’ and ‘Where can I buy it?’” said Nobuyuki Ogawa, head of Edwin’s sales department, adding the brand’s points of sale for golf-related items will jump from 150 to about 300 this fall due to strong demand. To wit, Edwin had one of the busiest booths at Japan’s Golf Fair trade show, held in February at Tokyo Big Sight.

Despite the fact Le Coq Golf has posted double-digit growth for the past three years, the company’s director, Minoru Morishita, warned that companies should be cautious.

“It is difficult to say if the young female golf market will grow any larger,” Morishita said. “We are also competing with the regular ladies apparel market. If we can’t offer new products, then our failure will come just as quickly as our rise to success has been.”

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