JAPAN’S JACKET JAG
Byline: Eric Wilson / with contributions from Koji Hirano, Tokyo
NEW YORK — Japanese consumers seem to be turning American.
A clear example of the Japanese consumer’s thirst for Americana can be found in the active outdoor apparel market. Shoppers in Japan spent almost as much money on clothes that evoke the spirit of American conservationism last year as the National Parks and Conservation Association spent protecting American parklands.
Sumikin Bussan Corp., one of Japan’s largest apparel manufacturers, posted nearly $10 million in wholesale volume over the past year during the retail launch of a licensed collection of outerwear, sportswear and accessories bearing the NPCA label, available only in Japan.
American outerwear manufacturers are similarly taking advantage of an ongoing trend in Japan that inspired the NPCA deal: Japanese consumers are living increasingly more active, outdoor lifestyles, and as a result they are enthusiastically shopping for active apparel.
Fishing, for instance, has become popular since Japanese celebrities such as actor Takuya Kimura and television commentator Shigesato Itoi said on national television recently that they love lure fishing.
“Because there are more people loving fishing, fisherman’s vests and jackets have become a trend on the street,” said Ichiro Ieda, senior commercial specialist for the American Consulate General in Tokyo.
The NPCA line, which features sport-inspired jackets and coats geared for hiking and camping activities, is sold exclusively through Jusco department stores as a house brand. Jusco is the majority shareholder of The Talbots Inc., the Hingham, Mass, specialty chain.
Jusco contributes a portion of its profits on NPCA apparel to planting trees in Japan. Plans are also under way to post NPCA membership applications at cash registers.
“It’s the sort of licensing arrangement many not-for-profits dream about,” said Neill Heath, marketing director for the Washington-based NPCA, the nation’s oldest conservation group dedicated to saving the national parks system.
NPCA’s deal with Sumikin Bussan is its sole apparel venture. Heath would not disclose NPCA’s royalties on the deal but said it represents a significant portion of the group’s $21 million budget.
Based on its success, Sumikin Bussan has also licensed an outdoor lifestyle collection under the Pacific Trail label, which began to appear at Ito Yokado Group department stores last month. Ito Yokado, which is Jusco’s biggest competitor in Japan, began opening 158 Pacific Trail in-store concept shops throughout Japan this summer and will complete the rollout this month, said Brian Cohen, manager of business development for Sumikin Bussan.
The Pacific Trail venture is projected to generate an additional $10 million in wholesale volume the first year. Each line is expected to expand to a $30 million to $40 million business within five years, Cohen said.
“There are a lot of hot trends in Japan,” said Bill Dragon, president of Pacific Trail, a Seattle-based subsidiary of London Fog Industries. “Bowling is hot one year and then not the next, but what we see here is long term because we see it as a fundamental lifestyle shift.”
Other established U.S. outerwear makers, including Columbia Sportswear, Nautica, North Face, Pendleton and Patagonia, have recognized the growing demand for active apparel in Japan.
“In addition to the interest in more active lifestyles,” said a Pendleton spokeswoman, “there is also a very high interest in American heritage. History and heritage are widely respected in the Japanese culture.”
As a result, “things with a close tie to American heritage, like the ‘Great Outdoors,’ are very popular,” she said.
For example, Pendleton blankets with a Native American print are one of the most popular items sold in Japan, for instance. In outerwear, a women’s zip-front bomber jacket is its bestseller, which has been distributed in Japan through Daiwa-Seiko exclusively for the past two years.
Baffin Yip, director of Asian marketing for Columbia Sportswear, said fishing, camping and hiking have grown in Japan as leisure-time activities the past few years. Consumers have a heightened interest in nature and the outdoors as well, boosting the demand for outdoor apparel.
Columbia Sportswear, which sold about $53 million worth of product overseas in 1996, has distributed outerwear in Japan since 1989. Sales there grew 76 percent from 1995 to 1996, according to company officials.
Capitalizing on the prospect of a continuing increase in sales based on both the active lifestyle trend and an interest in American brand name apparel, Columbia plans to directly manage sales to Japanese department and specialty stores starting in January 1998.
The sales had been handled through Haward Corp., a distributor, which will continue to manage sales to casualwear stores.
The $172 million Himaraya retail chain has seen an increasing sales volume from outdoor gear and apparel at its 42 stores. About 4 percent of sales comes from outdoor merchandise, according to a spokesman.
“Although we don’t deal in a lot of American apparel for the time being, the share for American apparel in the stores will expand according to the increase of people who love trekking,” the spokesman said.
Ieda of the American Consulate General’s office said that after Japan’s economy collapsed in the early Nineties, Italian designer brands became less popular and American casualwear gained popularity.
“The selling points of the American sport-oriented clothes are inexpensive, high quality and easy-to-wear,” Ieda said.