Naomi Yamakawa speaking at WWD's inaugural Tokyo summit in partnership with Lumine.

European and American brands across the fashion industry are looking to expand in the international market, particularly China and Japan, but securing growth there can be tricky.

Naomi Yamakawa, a partner with McKinsey & Co. based in Tokyo focused on apparel and fashion, took a long view of economic history during the Forum, noting Asia was once the economic center of the world around the last millennium and it’s starting to make its way back.

“It shifted to Europe and then to the U.S….but when we look at the rise of cities, we see the economy is going back East,” Yamakawa said.

And the cities aspect is vital for the numerous brands and companies planning to do more business in greater China and Japan, because of how differentiated and localized tastes and trends tend to be within relatively small regions of the countries, which are quickly becoming major shopping and consumer hubs.

“You need to think of a strategy related to cities instead of nations,” Yamakawa said.

She added that the likes and dislikes of people in Shanghai and Beijing “are completely different.” The cities are roughly the same distance apart as Los Angeles and Portland, which certainly have different overall tastes, but probably not enough for a major brand to adjust a marketing campaign for each.

“If you tackle China, [the different tastes] can be quite difficult,” Yamakawa added. “As far as branding, sometimes a brand may just not be very interesting for people in a given city, so you really have to think about where you want to put your brand, too.”

Every label from Prada to Michael Kors, Lululemon to Nike, seems to have their sites for expansion set largely on China and, with its rapidly growing middle class, Japan, as Tokyo has continued its steady ascent as a major fashion city.

Yamakawa noted that there are hundreds of smaller and sometimes less developed cities around the world that are poised to become major markets for fashion in the next few years. Along with Osaka, Beijing and Shanghai, she pointed to Mexico City, Atlanta and Holland as some up-and-coming regions that are likely to pull the attention of consumer-driven companies with their available market share.

“The apparel market in a European city is just as important as it in Osaka,” Yamakawa said. “You’re going to need to look at the total size of a market in strategies going forward.”

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