TOKYO — Rag & Bone’s founder and chief executive officer Marcus Wainwright hosted two events in the Japanese capital last week, in his first trip to the country since switching to a new local partner. He launched his limited-edition Leica M. Monochrom at the camera company’s Ginza store, and the next day unveiled his own brand’s newly revamped Omotesando store.
While Rag & Bone has sold its products in Japan nearly since its inception, Wainwright recognized that it was difficult to understand and control the business here from across the world. A few years ago the brand partnered with a local company with the goal of growing its business and brand awareness in Japan.
“It didn’t really go the right way. They didn’t do a very good job, and we lost the sort of essence of what we had been in Japan originally, which was focused on what Rag & Bone is good at: the craftsmanship, the denim side of things, and the made in America thing. And the business has continued to grow, but the brand recognition hasn’t really continued to grow,” Wainwright said.
Now Rag & Bone has chosen a new partner — a company called Eastland — and Wainwright is optimistic about the future.
“It’s almost a bit of a reset for the brand in Japan. It’s a very small business here and it’s not that well-known, so we have a bit of a blank slate in terms of what we can do to position the brand and grow the brand the way we actually want to. Masa [Shimada, president of Eastland] is the perfect partner for that,” Wainwright said.
One of the first things the brand did after changing partners was to renovate its main Tokyo store, which opened in 2010. Located in the back streets of Omotesando, the three-floor store counts Fred Perry and Visvim among its neighbors.
Rag & Bone has added a coffee shop to the basement of the store. Working with Verve Coffee Roasters of Santa Cruz, Calif., the space includes a small but inviting seating area and a long counter, from behind which baristas serve cold nitro brews and espresso drinks. Wainwright said the addition of the coffee shop is about building a community, which ties into the overall goal of raising the brand’s awareness in Japan.
Japanese customers are not particularly clear on what the brand stands for, which is “a brand you can go to for just awesome pieces of very wearable clothes and bags and shoes, and I don’t think it’s been presented in that way,” he admitted. While he said this should be the same as it is in the rest of the world, that doesn’t mean the business should be the same, as the market in Japan is very different, and the brand is at a different stage of its life cycle here. He said he is working closely with Eastland on how to position Rag & Bone here.
“The first time I came here, I remember walking around Harajuku and I saw a queue outside of a shop. That was 2001, and that didn’t happen in America for another 10 years, 15 years,” Wainwright said. “Japan was a place where it was quite easy to build a very hyped business. You saw these stores explode and then die very quickly. One of the challenges in Japan is to build that desirability in a brand, the aspirational part of the brand, but without having something that could give us a steep rise and even steeper fall.”
In addition to the Omotesando store, Rag & Bone has a shop in the sprawling Ginza Six complex. Wainwright said he has been searching for another new space for a few months, and that he plans to focus more on freestanding stores than on department store corners.
“We’re not going to be a multi brick-and-mortar location kind of brand here at all, but I think we need a couple more of our own stores over time,” he said. “The challenge with Rag & Bone, and we had this problem when we started in America, is the clothes aren’t graphic t-shirt kind of clothes, and when you put them in a sterile department store type of environment or a multi-brand store type of environment, they can get a bit lost. Because they’re not supposed to be sort of flashy, stand-off-the-rack kind of clothes. But if you can build the environment around Rag & Bone, people understand the aesthetic of it much better.”
Wainwright declined to provide a sales target for the brand’s business in Japan, but said that while it is still small, it’s a market he considers important, and he hopes sales will grow by double digits in the coming years.
“The Japanese customer is very important to us. I’ve always loved Japan since the first time I came here,” he said. “It’s a very inspiring place.”