By and  on March 14, 2013

TOKYO — This city’s runway shows kick off this weekend against a backdrop of significant political and macroeconomic change for Japan.

Mostnotably, the yen has depreciated considerably since the last round ofshows in October, a development that gives Japanese apparel and textilesa competitive edge in the international marketplace. The yen has shedabout 17 percent of its value since mid-November. That reflects a shiftin monetary policy as newly elected prime minister Shinzo Abe and hiscenter-right party, the Liberal Democratic Party, seek to boost theeconomy by stoking exports and ending years of deflation in the world’sthird-largest economy.

Hiroshi Onishi, president and chiefexecutive officer of Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd., said of theoverall climate, “The economic policy hasn’t actually been proven yet,so customers’ and companies’ incomes have not increased. But lookingonly at the [consumer] mind-set, stock prices have increased, so I thinkthere is an expectation that the economy will improve. But as towhether or not that will have an effect on consumption, I think it willstill take some time,” Onishi said.

Japan’s economy actuallyperformed better in the last quarter of the year than originallythought. The country’s fourth-quarter gross domestic product actuallygrew 0.2 percent, according to figures released earlier this month. Thepreliminary estimate showed a decline, which would have indicated thatthe country was still in recessionary mode.

Another piece ofpromising economic news came earlier this week. In February, Japan’sconsumer confidence index for households of at least two people rose toits highest level since June 2007.

Still, it’s especially clearthis season that the brands showing during Japan Fashion Week, whichtend to be small companies catering to a mostly domestic Japaneseclientele, are facing considerable obstacles in the current climate.

Phenomenon,one of Tokyo’s hottest men’s brands on the schedule, was forced tocancel its show a few weeks beforehand. The brand’s parent company,Alison Co. Ltd., filed for bankruptcy. A spokeswoman for the brand saidthat Phenomenon has since secured new financial backers and will stillproceed with a spring collection but the brand had to forego the runwaythis season.

Somarta, one of Tokyo fashion week’s highest-profilewomen’s brands, decided to stage an off-calendar presentation thisseason rather then a runway show. The brand’s designer, Tamae Hirokawa,could not be reached for comment.

Japan Fashion Week chairmanMasahiko Miyake said that these types of problems are somewhat normalfor these brands, which often cater to a niche consumer base. Aspresident of Japan Fashion Week, he is a vocal supporter of fashion weekparticipants and quick to point out that several brands are doing well,even picking up international clients. But speaking from another pointof view, as chairman of fashion manufacturer and importer TSI Holdings,he acknowledges that it is challenging to grow these smaller labels.

“Economically,it’s a difficult [time] for everyone. I think the designers’ strengthsneed to be supported by the strengths of someone who can do business,such as ourselves,” Miyake said. “But these days, it’s difficult to sellthese brands — they don’t create [good] business. Even if you put themin Isetan, they don’t make money. So companies have stopped supportingthese brands, which is why they are all having difficulties.”

Isetan’sShinjuku store has made a concerted effort to carry more Japaneselabels in recent seasons but Onishi explained that it takes time forthese businesses to gain traction.

“Unfortunately, after ReiKawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto…it has been difficult for Japanese designersto have an international reach,” he said. “There are designers thathave become mainstream. For example, Sacai, which shows during ParisFashion Week, originally started in our stores with just one rack. So Ithink it’s best to start like that, and to spend some time growing fromthere.”

For the second season, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tokyo’sofficial venue will be in the Hikarie Building, a shopping andentertainment complex conveniently located across from the Shibuya trainstation. A few runway shows take place Sunday and the action wraps upMarch 23.

“I think [the decision] to move to Hikarie was asuccessful one,” Miyake said, adding that he believed more peopleattended the shows last season compared with previous editions of theshows at the former Tokyo Midtown venue.

Last season’s shows inOctober coincided with a surge in political tensions between China andJapan over a territorial dispute regarding a small chain of islands andthere was a noticeable absence of Chinese attendees. Even though thesituation between the two countries remains tense, this season couldplay out differently in that regard. A Japan Fashion Week spokeswomansaid Thursday that several Chinese retailers have already confirmed theyplan to come to Tokyo for the shows.

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