By and
with contributions from Kelly Wetherille
 on October 28, 2009

TOKYO — Designers here showcased everything from frilly Victorian lace numbers to hard-edged looks with an Eighties feel at the ninth edition of Japan Fashion Week, which wrapped its six-day run on Saturday.

Although fewer people attended the spring shows than the year before, there are signs that Tokyo labels are gaining some international momentum — albeit in very small quantities.

The number of people attending the official spring shows actually slid to 15,311 from 17,774 people last year, a phenomenon government-subsidized JFW blamed on some brands choosing smaller venues this season. But there were more foreign media and buyers present this time around. Some 249 representatives of foreign media organizations came to the shows, up from 212 last year, while the number of international buyers rose to 125 from 19 the year before.

Nobuyuki Ota, president of Issey Miyake Inc. and chief of JFW’s collection project committee, said the shows attracted more buyers from Asia than expected and he’s thinking about staging a fashion-related event at next year’s World Expo in Shanghai.

“It’s very important to get more buyers and press from China,” he said at Tokyo Midtown, the week’s official venue.

Tapping into the ever-growing Chinese market can help designers offset sluggish demand in Japan and other mature markets. Bain & Co. recently forecast that luxury goods sales in Mainland China will grow 12 percent this year, while those in Japan will fall 10 percent. Over the next decade, growth in China and other Asian countries could propel Asia past Europe and the Americas to become the largest global luxury market region in the world, the consultancy said.

Japanese designers, many of whom run extremely small businesses with a string of retail accounts, are facing plenty of challenges as the economic crisis persists, consumers trade down to fast-fashion labels and retailers continue to be hesitant about stocking untested brands. This month’s news that Yohji Yamamoto filedfor bankruptcy protection and lost control of his company to a group of investors dealt another blow to the Japanese fashion industry’s image.

Ota said he was surprised the number of presentations didn’t decrease from last season, but instead actually increased slightly from a year ago, to 39 events.

“The reason is that [the designers] are keeping their business,” he said. “But we need more support.”

Designer Mikio Sakabe, who runs his label with his Taiwan-born wife, Shueh Jen-Fang, said his retail accounts in Europe are stable and he expects the same for his business in Japan.

“Not everyone is taking risks, but some are really trying to get new types of designers. So that’s partly helping us,” he said.

Ota said Japanese buyers tend to be more reluctant than their counterparts in the U.S. and Europe when it comes to placing orders with new designers. Although there is evidence that’s starting to change.

“Fortunately, now the big department stores like Takashimaya, Mitsukoshi and Isetan are buying more domestic young designers. It’s good,” he said.

Design highlights of the week included:

• Mikio Sakabe’s macabre reworking of heavy-metal T-shirts into dresses.

• Akira Naka’s edgy form-fitted tailored pieces.

• DressCamp’s dresses in bold prints featuring intricate beading and jewel details.

• Matohu’s fresh geometric prints, kimono-wrap jackets and a blue green palette inspired by ancient Japanese pottery.

• Tiny Dinosaur’s stunning trenchcoat with lantern sleeves and delicate dresses with abstract, kaleidoscopic bursts of color.

• Mint Designs’ dainty dresses featuring textured fabrics and quirky graphics.

Overall, retailers had a mixed reaction to the week.

Miyako Sekimoto, Matsuya’s fashion director, said she was pleased to see brands like Mint Designs, Matohu and Somarta develop a good balance between creativity and wearable, commercially viable clothing.

“That is the consumers’ feeling. They don’t want to spend money on clothes they can only wear for one season,” she said. Sekimoto added her store will probably buy more Mint Designs pieces this season, but can’t increase its overall budget or pick up any new Tokyo designers since Matsuya is in the process of renovating its Ginza flagship.

Jason Brar, director of a soon-to-be-launched e-commerce site called Harajuku Freak, said he found a lot of unique, wearable clothing that isn’t overly architectural and intellectual as Japanese brands can sometimes be. He found bright spots at labels such as Motonari Ono, Ato, G.V.G.V. and Theatre Products.

“The shows were quite dazzling sometimes,” he said. “I’m not going to buy a lot from any designer, I’m going to buy just a few pieces, and I want to keep it quite limited on purpose.”

Takatomo Ogawa, a buyer and representative at Nagoya-based Nara Store, was less upbeat, although he liked Tiny Dinosaur, Suzuki Takayuki and Mint Designs.

“The excitement of the Tokyo collections this time was relatively low in terms of collections that were unique and introduced new styles,” he said.

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