Tokyo Fashion Week Earns Plaudits Despite Hurdles

Retailers generally praised the collections, but said the timing of the shows and prices might limit their buying.

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TOKYO — Retailers generally praised the collections at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tokyo, but said the timing of the shows and prices might limit their buying.

This story first appeared in the March 25, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Key trends at the six days of shows, which ended Saturday, included the use of men’s wear fabrics, variations on suiting, baseball/varsity jackets, romper suits for both genders and asymmetric detailing. Buyers, some of whom received complementary trips to Tokyo from the Japanese government and fashion week organizers, were mostly upbeat in terms of the quality and execution of the designs. Still, there are some lingering questions, including the fact it is already late in the fall buying season.

Tokyo Fashion Week organizers said international buyer registrations for the fall shows rose to 212, up from 192 last season in October. Registrations from China dropped to 48 from 52 in October, while those from the U.S. grew to 35 from 28 last season. Those were the two top markets.

See the Fall 2014 Tokyo Collections Here >>

Miyako Sekimoto, fashion director for Matsuya and a Tokyo Fashion Week regular, said she appreciated an individualist spirit among the designers this season. “I think that each designer showed…more characteristics of their brand,” she said, adding that Mint Designs and Support Surface were her two favorite shows. “Everybody did different things.”

Sekimoto said she thinks Matsuya Ginza will stock more merchandise from Japanese brands this fall as a weak yen cuts into the store’s buying power when it comes to importing brands from Europe and the U.S. She said the store’s multibrand retail concept on the third floor currently stocks about 80 percent of its merchandise from Japanese brands and the rest from imported brands.

“I think for Japanese designers…it’s a big chance,” she said.

Kazuyoshi Minamimagoe, senior creative director at Beams, said he felt it was a stronger season for men’s than for women’s. That is a common refrain at Tokyo Fashion Week. His top picks for men’s were Yoshio Kubo and Mr. Gentleman. For women’s, he liked Facetasm.

“For a little while now there have been more men’s brands [than women’s ones] that have an energy and are interesting. And I also think there are a lot of them that really show a kind of Tokyo-ness,” he said. “What I thought when I saw Yoshio Kubo’s show was that the men’s style in Tokyo is kind of genderless. And it’s different from the European kind of genderlessness — like J.W. Anderson putting men in skirts. It’s men’s looks, but with a kind of femininity.”

Similarly, Nick Wooster, a consultant who formerly worked for Neiman Marcus and Atrium, said he thinks the city’s men’s brands are more “fully developed” than the women’s in terms of understanding international customers. His top picks for men’s were Mr. Gentleman, Yoshio Kubo and 99%IS from South Korean-born designer Bajowoo.

Specifically, Wooster said women’s brands in Japan need to think more about how footwear alters the perception of the volume and movement of the clothes. He also said they need to do a better job with fabric selection and making high-quality Japanese fabrics translate through the design and structure of garments.

“In terms of color, design, trend, shape, I think that Japan is on par with Europe as well. It’s just the footwear and maybe the type and quality of fabric that could be the next part to work on. Because I think in men’s wear they have it nailed,” said Wooster, a guest of Tokyo Fashion Week organizers.

Natalie Kingham, head of fashion for U.K.-based Matches, was enthusiastic about the brands she encountered in Japan, although she declined to name drop out of a fear of giving away “trade secrets.” She said she was impressed with brands’ use of traditional Japanese fabric treatments like shibori — a tie-dye technique dating back centuries. Kingham said she thinks brands that tap into their Japanese identity stand the best chance of resonating with Western consumers. Kingham said Matches has done well with the Japanese brands it already carries such as Toga, Julien David and Undercover, which prompted her trip here. The Japan External Trade Organization (Jetro) subsidized her trip.

“There are things to be found over here that are unique,” she said.

Eric Pech, men’s and luxury buyer for Galeries Lafayette, said he is always on the hunt for new Japanese brands. “Japanese designers do a great job….[There’s a] good balance between creativity and [the] commercial aspect,” he said, citing the presence of the season’s big trends like oversize shapes, technical fabrics and the color purple in the collections he saw here.

Pech, also a Jetro guest, said Still by Hand, Diet Butcher Slim Skin and Nude:Masahiko Maruyama caught his eye but he needed to look at his budget since it is late in the season and his team will start to buy spring pre-collections in just six weeks time.

Kevin House, who runs a recently launched U.K.-based e-commerce site dedicated exclusively to Japanese women’s fashion called Collectionaires.com, said he liked Yasutoshi Ezumi and Somarta as well as select pieces from Atsushi Nakashima and Lamarck. But he cited a lack of consistency elsewhere, without naming names.

“A couple of designers that I’ve liked before have disappointed me by seeming to leave behind the strengths I saw in the last two seasons, particularly in terms of moving towards more casual or softer styles… and [become] consequently less distinctive,” he said.

Although a weak yen helps make Japanese clothing more attractive to foreign buyers, House expressed some concern about Japanese brands’ pricing strategies. He said the brands needed to be more realistic about the value of their names while they are still relatively unknown identities outside their home market.

“I’ve found that few Japanese brands have any appreciation of export realities; some have even tried to charge a premium to me because they think I sell at a higher price and therefore that I make a higher margin than Japanese retailers,” House said. “There is also a sense that they don’t appreciate what supports a market price — they feel that quality/cost of production is the key determinant rather than appreciating the importance of consumer perception.”

Beppe Nugnes, who owns and runs online multibrand retailer Nugnes1920.it as well as three stores in the southern Italian town of Trani, said he is planning to pick up Still by Hand and some accessories for fall. But Nugnes, a Jetro guest, said he is unable to buy more because there are high tariffs to bring the merchandise back to Italy and his budget is limited because it’s the tail end of the fall buying season.

Nugnes said he thought Japanese designers succeeded in terms of manufacturing quality and their attention to detail on particular pieces but they need to think more broadly in terms of developing a cohesive and commercial collection.

“They concentrate on an idea but they don’t sufficiently expand on that idea to create enough other products,” said Nugnes.

Some retailers and fashion week attendees complained about logistical problems within the Japanese fashion system. As in past seasons, there were large gaps of several hours in the schedule with no shows or events. Another complicating factor is that brands often hold their market presentations a week after their runway shows or even later. Meanwhile, a few brands, such as Anrealage and Christian Dada, decided to stage their runway shows a full week after fashion week.

Wooster said this type of thinking needs to change to attract more foreign buyers to Tokyo.

“I know a retailer in the United States that buys Japanese brands and…the three different brands that he buys all have exhibitions on three different weeks. So if you’re a retailer, you need to come once and not three times,” he said.

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