By  on October 18, 2010

TOKYO — Japan’s emerging design talents take to the runway today as Japan Fashion Week kicks off its five-day run through Friday.

This spring/summer schedule is a departure from seasons past on several levels. A handful of the city’s up-and-coming men’s designers are choosing to present their collections abroad or stage off-calendar events. What’s more, the show locations are disparate — a logistical hassle for back-to-back shows —and fewer brands are using the week’s official venue of Tokyo Midtown.

There are other significant changes of note. JFW organizers are opting to use their tighter budget to sponsor buyer trips for the week rather than pay for journalists to cover the shows, a decision that is likely to affect the quality of international press coverage. The organizers are also broadening the scope of the week beyond the high-end, luxury segment of the market to better reflect what makes this city so special: its unique and hyper-trendy street fashion.

Liz Lisa and Vanquish are two of the newcomers participating this season with runway shows. Both labels have stores in the iconic Shibuya 109 shopping mall, where young women snap up crystal-encrusted charms and HotPants. Liz Lisa currently offers items such as a ruffled floral jumpsuit for 8,295 yen, or about $102, and a lace poncho top for 7,245 yen, or $89. Vanquish sells sequined mini-skirts for 5,775 yen, or $71, and sweaters bearing a Betty Boop pattern for 5,985 yen, or $74.

“In order to make JFW’s identity much stronger, I would like to get more unknown young designers or newcomers, who are creating the casual wear we see on the street,” said Nobuyuki Ota, chief of JFW’s collection project committee. “Young-looking, funky casual wear is much more important in Tokyo, compared with other fashion cities.”

On the more cerebral and conceptual end of the fashion spectrum, Somarta, Matohu and Mikio Sakabe are some of the most anticipated shows of the week. Men’s labels Phenomenon, Yoshio Kubo and Discovered are also noteworthy participants. As usual, some brands have opted out of the five-day official calendar. Mint Designs and Sunao Kuwahara showed Friday, for example.

This is a transitional season for Japan Fashion Week, which is gradually weaning itself off government funding and hunting for new corporate backers. To that end, JFW has delegated all sponsorship negotiations to IMG Fashion. Peter Levy, senior vice president and managing director of IMG Fashion worldwide, will visit Tokyo this season.

“I am very excited to come to Tokyo and learn about the event and its current positioning and help identify future possibilities,” Levy said, adding that IMG will be looking to establish sponsorship deals both within and outside the world of fashion.

The Japanese government is contributing a total of 335 million yen, or $4.1 million, to the 2011 spring collections this week and the 2011 fall collections in March of next year. That amount is about two-thirds lower than the sum JFW requested. The government will stop funding JFW as of next year, although it has pledged to support the nation’s fashion industry in other ways. Ota predicts that turnout for the shows will be roughly in line with that of the spring/summer shows last year. The number of people attending that round actually slid to 15,311 from 17,774 people last year, an outcome JFW blamed on some brands choosing smaller venues.

Ota also noted encouraging signs for business. He mentioned that some Japanese department stores, like Mitsukoshi Ginza, are carrying more merchandise from emerging labels. Department store operators, which have seen lagging business for more than a decade, are looking for new ways to distinguish themselves and attract customers. Japanese brands are attractive to Japanese retailers, as European brands are comparatively more expensive, Ota said. He added that stores are on the hunt for affordable, unique merchandise.

“Next season, I believe more big stores will promote the unknown domestic designers,” Ota said.

Still, it’s clear that Japanese brands are facing hurdles on the business front, including a strong yen. Although some designers have snagged international accounts, most of them do the bulk of their business in Japan. This country’s saturated and sluggish market conditions have been well documented. Last Thursday, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton said its third-quarter sales in Japan fell 6 percent, and its chief financial officer, Jean-Jacques Guiony, said he doesn’t expect a “big upswing” in the near future. At the same time, some in the industry say they think the luxury market has hit bottom. Italy’s Altagamma, which releases fresh statistics today, is expecting the Japanese market to grow slightly in 2011, according to its executive director Armando Branchini. Last week, Takashimaya said it is beginning to see a slight recovery in business.

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