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Weak Yen Seen Boosting Japan Fashion

Tokyo’s fashion week capped its seven-day run Saturday, showcasing a tamer, more conservative range of fashion that stands to profit from a newly weak currency.

TOKYO — This city’s fashion week capped its seven-day run Saturday, showcasing a tamer, more conservative range of fashion that stands to profit from a newly weak yen.

This story first appeared in the March 26, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Designers appeared to take a more guarded ­— and arguably more commercial — approach this season, turning out more clothing in black and neutrals and largely eschewing the over-the-top pieces and runway antics of past seasons. Pastel colors, fur and embellished coats were just a few of the trends that emerged during the week.

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In line with past seasons, buyers stuck mostly to touring showrooms and trade events, rather than attending runway shows. Several gave positive feedback and were quick to point out that the weaker yen eased their buying decisions.

“I can still find a lot of creativity here, which some of the [other, more established] fashion weeks may not have. In general, men’s wear is very strong in this market,” said Michael Mok, divisional merchandise manager for Joyce Boutique Ltd.

Mok said he is keeping an eye on several Japanese brands, including Dresscamp, Mr. Gentleman and Nozomi Ishiguro, but he hasn’t made a final decision on how to allocate his budget.

David Fung, men’s merchandising manager for I.T Ltd., was more reserved in his view of the season, although he was speaking very early into his buying trip to Tokyo and had several more appointments scheduled for the week.

“Now in Hong Kong, European brands are selling better at the moment because nothing is really happening in the Japanese fashion industry,” Fung said, lamenting the fact that there have not been new, strong brands emerging over the last few seasons. “We always pick up new Japanese brands, but their scale is really small, so it’s kind of difficult to promote them in the Hong Kong market or China because the collection is small and they are quite independent.”

Both Mok and Fung said they were happy to accommodate a more favorable exchange rate, as it means they can keep their retail prices in Hong Kong competitive.

Anna Aileen McDonough, owner and buyer of Coup Boutique in Edmonton, Canada, said she thought the more favorable currency exchange rate had a significant impact for Japanese brands this season.

“I think it has a lot to do with why suddenly a lot of these brands are getting exposure,” she said.

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Since the last edition of the Tokyo shows wrapped in late October, the yen has shed about 16 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar.

As in past seasons, Japan Fashion Week organizers paid for trips to bring foreign buyers to Tokyo. McDonough was part of this group. This was her first buying trip to Japan and she said she was pleased with what she found. Her store is aiming to carry more Japanese brands to offer her customers something they can’t find elsewhere, she explained.

“I find Japanese design is probably the most unique we’ve come across,” she said. McDonough said her favorite brands included Mitsuru Nishizaki’s Ujoh and Hanako Maeda’s Adeam and she might pick up one or both of them this season.

Kang Segoo, a luxury women’s buyer for South Korea’s Hanwha Galleria Luxury Hall in Seoul, was another guest of Japan Fashion Week organizers. He said he felt that Japanese brands and designers are targeting more of a global customer than in the past. Segoo said he thought the brands he found here offered the right mix of trendiness, fabric quality and price. He cited the brands Near.Nippon and Usual as two of his favorites.

“I found these [brands] to be quite a good match with our department store customers in Korea,” he said.

Debra Langley, founder and chief executive of the recently launched e-commerce site Inverted Edge, said she is particularly interested in Matohu, Mint Designs, GVGV and A Degree Fahrenheit. She said her Singapore-based site, which focuses on designers from the Asia-Pacific region, will also continue to carry Etw. Vonnegut.

Langley said she also enjoyed checking out brands from elsewhere in Asia at the RoomsLink trade show, which runs concurrently with fashion week and hosts some of the runway shows. While in Tokyo, she placed orders with Stolen Girlfriends Club from New Zealand and Fleamadonna, a South Korean brand.

“I think the thing about the Asia and Pacific region is they haven’t leveraged their power as a region,” she said. “I look at all the things going on in each country, and I think, it’s OK for a single-country event, but it would be so much bigger and more beautiful [to pool it together]. And that’s how you get the Western buyers.”

Matohu designers Hiroyuki Horihata and Makiko Sekiguchi said they managed to score more appointments with foreign buyers this season compared with past fashion weeks. Horihata cited interest from Russia, Singapore and the U.S.

“It’s strange, a lot of foreign buyers came,” Horihata said, uttering a laugh. “Maybe [it’s] the yen.”

Anrealage designer Kunihiko Morinaga said he is also seeing success recently.

“Over the past two years, both company-owned stores and franchises have increased, and we’ve seen sales steadily rise,” Morinaga said.

Outside of Japan, Anrealage is currently carried at I.T Beijing Market, I.T in Hong Kong and Club 21 in Singapore. Morinaga said that all of these stores have made appointments again this season, as have other retailers from Shanghai and Taiwan.

Last season’s shows took place in October, as political tensions between Japan and China flared over a territorial dispute. Chinese consumers were boycotting Japanese goods, and there was a noticeable drop in Chinese representation at fashion week. Relations between the two countries remain strained, but the situation appears to be improving.

Still, both I.T’s Fung and Joyce’s Mok acknowledge that the conflict does influence some Mainland Chinese consumers’ buying decisions.

“Of course, there is a certain number of customers who will hesitate to buy Japanese brands. In this case, they may choose other brands instead,” Mok said.

Fung said the situation is starting to get back to normal, but there are some Chinese customers who “are afraid someone will say something bad about them” if they wear Japanese fashion. Fung said I.T cut back significantly on buying Japanese brands for its stores in Mainland China for the spring season.

In terms of the Tokyo Fashion Week logistics, a spate of off-calendar shows competed with on-calendar events and sent editors scrambling to try and cover as much as possible. Two of the week’s highlights included a visit from Vivienne Tam, in town to celebrate her 15th year of doing business in Japan, and a sequence of fashion shows on Saturday that were open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis.

According to Japan Fashion Week organizers, 168 international buyers registered for the shows and events this season. That’s up from 153 foreign buyers in October. Of that total, 53 were from China and 16 were from Hong Kong. Those figures are roughly in line with those of last season.

Peter Levy, senior vice president and managing director, IMG Fashion Worldwide Events and Properties, said he was stunned at how much the quality of the shows had increased in the nearly three years since his company had taken over corporate sponsorship for the week. Mercedes-Benz became a title sponsor of the week four seasons ago.

“Our goal right now is to really connect the energy of what’s happening during fashion week with the mind-set of the people in the streets,” Levy said. “That’s still a work in progress.”