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Yohji’s New Man

PARIS — The Yohji Yamamoto, Y’s and Y-3 collections all mixed up in the same store?<BR><BR>Why not, says Keizo Tamoto, the new chief executive at Yohji Yamamoto, who is bringing a blast of change to a troubled business that had become...

PARIS — The Yohji Yamamoto, Y’s and Y-3 collections all mixed up in the same store?

Why not, says Keizo Tamoto, the new chief executive at Yohji Yamamoto, who is bringing a blast of change to a troubled business that had become shackled by habit and hurt by its unapproachable image.

“The first step is to come closer to the customers,” Tamoto said in an interview, his first since quietly joining Yamamoto last July, succeeding Yoshinori Maru. “I’m pragmatic.”

Putting Yamamoto’s three lines into company-owned stores — including the New York flagship in SoHo — is emblematic of Tamoto’s commercial drive and his desire to jump-start Yamamoto’s privately owned business, which has made limited inroads outside Japan after more than 20 years of creation.

At present, only about 12 percent of Yamamoto’s estimated revenues of $110 million are generated outside of Japan,  and Tamoto’s ambition is to grow that to as much as 60 percent, primarily via the secondary line, Y’s.

A frenetic, but reflective, executive with shoulder-length hair, 49-year-old Tamoto already has made some tough decisions in his new role. In the interview at Yamamoto’s offices here, he said the company recently laid off 30 people in Paris and has closed, or intends to close, several freestanding stores and in-store shops, including “most probably” its landmark location on Rue de Grenelle on the Left Bank here.

Tamoto insisted the company must renew its retail “investments” to changing times and rebuild its “know-how” in each city and neighborhood. Shops in London and New York are slated for redesign in order to become fully multibrand by fall, and a new Paris location with the new concept is also in the works. Tamoto dubs his modus operandi: “Scrap down, then build.”

Born in Rome but raised in Japan, Tamoto worked as an accountant for Arthur Anderson in the U.S. before setting up his own management consulting firm in Tokyo. There he helped a wide range of companies — from Giorgio Armani and Fila to Ermenegildo Zegna and Versace — drive their export businesses in Japan.

At Yamamoto, Tamoto has to put himself in reverse, leveraging the designer’s reputation abroad. He described Yamamoto’s core Japanese business, which comprises 120 boutiques and in-store shops, as “solid” but mature. That means aggressively growing the business in key markets like the U.S., Europe and the Middle East.

“We are only touching niches. I have to think how to enlarge our niches,” he said, gesturing with his hands to show small boxes becoming slightly larger. “I’m optimistic. We think, for the next three seasons, we can comfortably increase our sales.”

Integral to his customer-friendly approach is extending Yamamoto’s wholesale campaigns — and simply taking collections where buyers congregate. That means selling in Milan in addition to Paris for both women’s wear and men’s wear. Previously, retailers had a narrow window in Paris to buy Yamamoto’s various collections. Wholesale orders for the fall Y’s collection for men increased 53 percent, and Tamoto is gunning for an 80 percent uptick in Y’s women’s line.

Accustomed to wearing Italian made-to-measure suits in his previous life, Tamoto said he always wore Yohji Yamamoto only during his free time. “I could not afford to wear [Yohji] in my business, otherwise my fee would go down,” he said with a laugh.

Ever the pragmatist, with bigger niches in mind, Tamoto said he plans to introduce a tailored Yamamoto clothing line for spring-summer 2006 retailing.