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Sunday, March 26, 2006


Japan Fashion Weep

Tokyo's lackluster bid for 'style capital' status is enough to make grown fashionistas cry

Staff writer

Tokyo's embarrassingly amateurish attempt at creating an internationally relevant fashion event appears to have fizzled out with the abject failure of the second Japan Fashion Week in Tokyo, which came to a close on Friday.

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The finale of the Hisui show (above), and esteemed fashion journalist Suzy Menkes, who gave a boost to the JFW event.
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Granted, the combination of some 50 trade-only catwalk collections, along with large-scale events open to the public, was graced by the presence of none other than Paris-based Suzy Menkes, the fashion world's most eminent journalist. But the dire quality of the creations on show under the official banner of the poorly organized and attended event are sure to have left her singularly underwhelmed.

Click for more photos of Japan Fashion Week, Fall/Winter 06-07

"So far, no designer has come up with a standout show," wrote Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, after having seen low-budget offerings from JFW darlings Theatre Products and Mint Designs, as well as a self-indulgent effort from Merci Beaucoup, the newly launched label from former Frapbois designer Eri Utsugi.

Unfortunately, though, Menkes, who last year received an honor from Queen Elizabeth II for her distinguished career in style journalism, will not be in Tokyo to see most of the shows that the city's fashion scene insiders rave about. Labels like Mister Hollywood, Green and Lad Musician refuse to have anything to do with the "uncool" organizers of the official, government-sponsored event, lest the association taint their painstakingly nurtured brand images.

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Actor Hiroki Narimiya and pop star Anna Tsuchiya (above) on the catwalk at the Jeans in Japan showcase for Japan's internationally respected denim brands.

Ironically enough, the kick-off event of JFW was a symposium themed around "Cool Japan," with a keynote speech from Menkes. Most of the suits in the audience wouldn't know "cool" if it slapped them on their bald spots, and the speakers were unable to offer any clues as to how the event might extract itself from the funk in which it finds itself.

This unproductive seminar, held on Friday, March 17, happened to coincide with two big pieces of news for the Japanese fashion business. The first was the announcement that the firm behind office-apparel label Theory had bought the rights to the Helmut Lang brand for around 20 million euro (2.85 billion yen) from the Prada Group.

Theory had agreed to hold a one-off runway presentation as part of JFW's "Holiday Events," which are open to the public, and the high production value of the presentation served as confirmation of the firm's financial clout and of the fact that strength of Japanese fashion lies not with high-end runway labels, but more mass market gear.

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A model at Ylang Ylang (left), which made an unimpressive JFW runway debut; Avian hair at Merci Beaucoup. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS

The other big story breaking on the first day of JFW was that internationally popular Japanese jeans brand Evisu -- beloved by the likes of David Beckham and Beyonce -- was facing investigation by the Tokyo tax bureau for concealing income of up to 500 million yen.

Several Japanese newspapers reported a similar investigation in December last year into the finances of Nowhere, the firm behind popular labels A Bathing Ape, Under Cover, Number (N)ine, and several other street-fashion labels. With rumors of links to unsavory elements having dogged the Harajuku streetwear scene for years now, it seems that the Tokyo fashion brands finding overseas markets are not playing by the rules in their homeland.

Despite Evisu's alleged misdemeanors, Japanese denim is a still a highly respected commodity, and a multi-billion-dollar business. This manufacturing muscle was highlighted by last Sunday's "Jeans in Japan" event, in which celebrities including actress Anna Tsuchiya modeled creations from the Edwin, Wrangler and Lee brands.

What with Theory's show, "Jeans in Japan" and "Tokyo Girls Collection" -- an event run by cell-phone shopping site Girlswalker.com that attracted some 18,000 paying spectators the week before JFW -- the buzz here was all about things happening off the runways. However, it was probably for the best that attention was diverted from the poor-quality presentations happening inside the tents.

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Peasant chic at Yab Yum; minimalism at Ato. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS

The keenly anticipated first showing on the official schedule for womenswear brand Ylang Ylang was an unmitigated disaster, while the over-hyped Dress Camp churned out more of its high-octane but misbegotten evening wear and menswear designer Ato Matsumoto stubbornly persisted in his misguided attempt to create wearable looks for ladies.

Ato was just one of several labels that sought to echo the balloon-silhouetted Sixties looks that appeared on so many Paris catwalks last month, most famously at Balenciaga. But given the limited resources of the designers showing on the officially sanctioned runways what was seen here inevitably amounted to only poor imitations of the international trend.

Click for photos and comments from five JFW attendees.

With so little of importance to see, it is little wonder that Tokyo's flagship fashion event remains shunned by overseas journalists and buyers. Although the JFW organizers arranged a photo call for the prime minister and top designers, and brand boulevard Omotesando is lined with flags promoting the event, it has yet to capture the imagination of the general public.

This indifference is part of the reason why JFW is still yet to find the kind of major corporate sponsor that supports equivalents in other cities. As a result it has been forced to discontinue the erection of tents outside the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery, and from next season will be held inside Tokyo International Forum.

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A model with goat at Taishi Nobukuni; simplicity at Theory. KJELD DUITS PHOTO; THEORY PHOTO

Besides menswear designer Taishi Nobukuni sending various animals, including a goat, out onto his catwalk, perhaps the week's only highlight was a solid showing from veterans Patrick Ryan and Mami Yoshida of Yab Yum, who reprised the most successful designs from their 12-year archive to produce a collection of craftsy, retro peasant chic.

But in a blow to the JFW organizers, who had implored Yab Yum to show in the official tents, designer Ryan vowed that he would "never again" show as part of the event, which he described as "pathetic."

Derisory comments were also to be heard from other attendees.

Jason Campbell, the New York-based publisher of online fashion magazine JC Report, said that the shows he saw "left a lot to be desired."

"There's so much amazing stuff happening here on the Tokyo fashion scene," he said.

"But what I've seen in the tents doesn't seem to be relevant."

Tokyo is widely regarded as an important fashion capital that produces a huge amount of exciting design, but -- with those aging suits at the helm -- JFW's failure to capitalize on the gold mine of creative talent on its doorstep constitutes negligence and or incompetence of catastrophic proportions.

Related stories on Japan Fashion Week:
Virtual retailers forge fortunes with fashion

Half a century of fine memories made from an impeccable 'fusion'

Rochas re-mixed

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