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Japan Fashion Week Receives Lukewarm Response

The four days of Japan Fashion Week drew a mixed response from buyers and observers on the originality and commercial viability of the clothes on offer.

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TOKYO — The four days of Japan Fashion Week drew a mixed response from buyers and observers on the originality and commercial viability of the clothes on offer.

This story first appeared in the March 30, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

As usual, designers delivered an eclectic mix of clothes during the shows, which ended on Friday. For women’s wear, key looks included ruffles, lace and an abundance of fake and real fur. Men’s wear, which is becoming an increasingly prominent part of the week and the Tokyo fashion scene in general, featured fresh, well-executed takes on sportswear. Buyers cited particular interest in labels like Miharayasuhiro, Phenomenon, Beautiful People and Fur Fur.

Designers here face plenty of challenges as they navigate their small businesses through tough economic times, but they have a few trends working in their favor. For one, Japanese department stores, which have been grappling with declining sales for more than a decade, seem interested in finding new names to diversify their selling floor.

On Monday, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said the country’s large-scale retailers, including department stores and supermarkets, posted their 15th consecutive month of declining sales in February. Same-store sales at large-scale retailers slid 4 percent to 1.4 trillion yen, or $15.1 billion, while the overall retail market actually grew 4.2 percent to 10.4 trillion yen, or $112.3 billion.

Haru Suzuki, women’s fashion merchandiser at Barneys Japan, said her budget for Japanese designers has increased by about 20 percent from several years ago.

“It has been increasing a lot over the past two years, and it is still increasing,” she said. “The collections are good. Compared to other countries, they are very competitive now, and they know what real Tokyo girls want to wear.”

Yukiko Sudo, a buyer for Isetan’s ladies contemporary designers department, voiced a similar sentiment.

“The quality is really rising to the international level,” she said, adding her store is paying increasing attention to homegrown talents. “Japanese brands are realistic to our customers.”

Nobuyuki Ota, president of Issey Miyake Inc. and chief of JFW’s collection project committee, also noted the shift. He said some of Japan’s department stores are even rethinking the way they buy merchandise and reducing their reliance on consignment, a practice that can penalize small brands.

“Now some department stores here have the plan to bring more new names [to their floors] because the customers are a little bit tired of seeing the same labels in stores around the nation,” he said.

But not everyone is convinced. Miyako Sekimoto, fashion director at Matsuya, said she was impressed with a handful of labels that paid attention to details and had a strong personality to them, but her store can’t justify buying many of the brands that showed during the week because they lack a clear identity. Complicating matters, designers are wary of taking too many risks in a challenging economic climate, she explained.

“If the economy is not so good, the customers don’t want to buy something they already have. So at this time, the designer has to make something very impressive but wearable. So that’s the balance,” she said. “But not so many designers can do it in Japan.”

Fast-growing Asian markets like China present another opportunity for Japanese designers, most of whom do the bulk of their business in their home country. JFW continues to be a predominantly domestic affair, but event organizers are attempting to raise the week’s international profile by paying journalists’ travel expenses to attend and by staging promotional events in New York.

A total of 17,821 people attended the four official days of shows and presentations this season, up more than 16 percent from last season and almost 12 percent from a year ago. A new trade show called Rooms Link, held concurrently with the shows, attracted 6,500 people.

But only 62 registered international buyers came to government-subsidized JFW. That’s about half the number of foreign retailers that showed up last season — although a JFW spokeswoman explained retailers often attend shows without officially registering.

Michael Mok, a senior buyer for Hong Kong-based Joyce, said he thinks the Tokyo collections are gaining momentum with each season.

“We are buying more Japanese brands this season because their cutting and styles are suitable for Hong Kong and China customers,” he said.

Still, it seems some Japanese brands are taking their international prospects in stride and concentrating on their home markets.

“For now I’m going to continue showing my collection in Tokyo,” said the designer behind label G.V.G.V., who goes by the name Mug. “But eventually I’d like to expand the sales reach of my brand to other countries.”

Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, was one of the week’s front-row fixtures. She was in town to research her upcoming exhibition “Japan Fashion Now,” which opens in September.

Steele characterized the men’s wear shows, including Phenomenon, Factotum, White Mountaineering and N. Hoolywood, as an “epiphany” and said she was struck with their level of sophistication. She didn’t express the same level of enthusiasm for the city’s women’s wear designers and reserved her praise for brands like Sacai and Toga, which don’t participate in the official week.

“The women’s side — apart from Sacai — was less impressive, was more derivative [of Western fashion],” Steele said, adding she thought Matohu’s modern interpretation of the kimono was interesting. She expressed surprise that more designers here weren’t exploring similar themes.

“I realize historically that Western fashion has equaled modernity in Japan, but there are a lot of aspects to traditional Japanese aesthetics which are very conducive to contemporary fashion,” she said.

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