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Sunday, March 23, 2008

WATCH OUT MILAN, LONDON AND THE LIKE!

Tokyo's thrilling new fashion feast


Staff writer

With an improved turnout and more labels on the runways, last week's Japan Fashion Week '08-'09 Autumn / Winter Collection was, on paper, a near- soaraway success.

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Hiroko Koshino (left) with a model at the opening reception for Japan Fashion Week, where she made a keynote speech on behalf of Japan's fashion designers. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS

As well, the event's official inclusion in the government's budget for fiscal 2008, finalized at the end of last month, is also another positive development.

But still, these gains are somewhat overshadowed by the ever-growing juggernaut that is Tokyo Girls Collection, the hip consumer-oriented fashion show that hit Tokyo during the same week, and which in the long run may prove to be even more influential in the machinations currently in play that will determine JFW's ultimate fate.

JFW '08-'09 Autumn / Winter Collection was held from March 10 to 16 in Midtown, Roppongi, and other venues around Tokyo. In some ways it was the most successful since autumn 2005, when the twice-yearly series started. A total of 44 fashion shows were held — up from 36 at the '08 Spring / Summer event held last autumn — and the combined attendance at all the fashion shows was up a tad too, from 18,100 to 19,100.

Nevertheless, problems exist. A source of disappointment for many visitors was the absence of former "headliner" labels such as DressCamp and mercibeaucoup. The former abandoned the Tokyo event for the world stage of Paris, while the latter held their show on Tuesday, but outside the JFW umbrella.

That exposed the event to criticism for lacking quality labels. As Jean-Francois Soler, associate director of fashion-news organization Station Service, France, put it: "Some shows were quite innovative and fun, but others were mostly lacking in energy compared to what we see in other global fashion weeks."

To combat this exodus, JFW's strategy has been to draw increasingly younger designers into the fold. This year, 11 labels, including Motonari Ono and Aguri Sagimori, were invited to participate without having to pay the regular fee of ¥1,700,000 (for a show at the Midtown venue).

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Akira Amari, Japan's economy, trade and industry minister, at the opening of Japan Fashion Week

Some brands not up to scratch

While helping to liven up proceedings, the downside of this focus on youth can be to lend the event an air of amateurism. This can be problematic, and 31-year-old Soichiro Ito, of the soe label — who elected to go it alone after one JFW show in 2005 — said by e-mail: "I think designers who aren't ready for it — in terms of lacking in the quality and originality of their designs — shouldn't be participating in JFW."

Questioned about this, Nobuyuki Ota, the president of Issey Miyake Inc. — and one of the directors of the Fashion Strategy Forum, which has organized JFW since its inception in 2005 — agreed, saying that he also felt some brands were not up to scratch in terms of preparation. Some "can't even be bothered to make an exhibition of samples for buyers to look at," he said during a recent interview.

While that might be true of the designers, buyers in turn have issues with the organizers. Paul Everitt, a buyer for British vendor Shinshi complained, "We have had trouble finding out about shows, and we don't hear anything until the day after they happen."

This lack of good information in English — let alone Chinese or Korean — exists despite the support of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and their cohorts at the government's Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO).

It is worth remembering that, prior to 2005, Japan didn't have a "fashion week." Under the very loose guidance of the Council of Fashion Designers, Tokyo, each label held shows when they felt like it, resulting in a collection season spread out over months. During those years, Ota explains, "the CFD didn't have any money, so we really didn't promote the events overseas at all."

It was METI's rather unexpected cash injection in 2005 that allowed the events to be brought together in one fast and furious week, and for a measure of international public relations — including promotional press conferences staged overseas and foreign journalists invited to the event (all expenses paid) — to take place.

Yet, not one of those invited journalists has been moved to return to subsequent JFWs under their own steam.

This in turn suggests that at least one of METI's stated objective for supporting JFW — to make Tokyo a fashion industry hub in Asia — is clearly not being achieved. Fashion weeks are now being held in Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Mumbai, and Ota's comment on the situation, though smacking of defeatism, is perhaps true: "In this Internet-linked world, it's not a question of one place being the center of a region anymore. What's important is having your own identity."

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The show by Mintdesigns (top) at Japan Fashion Week; a model at Tokyo Girls Collection (above); and a take on the Ato show at JFW (below) YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS (top and above); JAPANESE STREETS.COM/KJELD DUITS PHOTO
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With this past fashion week rounding out the 2008 financial year, a series of budgetary and structural changes are about to be implemented.

As of Feb. 29, when Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party rammed their fiscal 2008 budget through the Lower House of the Diet, JFW for the first time became official national business. Consequently, some ¥600 million has been budgeted for JFW.

Still, the reality is that these funds represent a decrease in funding to date. JFW will get "considerably less funds than in the past," Ota explained, before adding that the onus will now be on the organizers to find even more sponsors than they have in the past.

The other change is that the Fashion Strategy Forum will now be called the Japan Fashion Week Organization. While sounding like a meaningless bureaucratic detail, this actually reflects a change in the body's legal status, from being a mere "private group" to being a limited-liability intermediary corporation. It is an indication of the national government's seemingly fanciful hope that the group will one day become an independent corporation.

A revolutionary type of show

"That step will come further down the line," said Ota.

Still, while the problems at hand go unaddressed — and JFW waits for unconfirmed steps "down the line" — a revolutionary type of show has emerged with the potential to fundamentally alter the way fashion is shown and bought.

In 2005, as METI was approaching the Council of Fashion Designers about starting Japan Fashion Week, the online fashion retailer Girlswalker.com was selling almost ¥10 billion of clothes to teenage and twentysomething women each year. Buoyed by that success, site operators Xavel Inc. started the ambitious Tokyo Girls Collection. They invited the mostly local, generally cheaper-ranged brands that were selling on their site to stage shows dressed up as rock concerts during one-day fashion festivals held in 20,000-plus-capacity stadiums.

With the focus squarely on consumers, all the items on display were made available online immediately, and the events were held "in season." For example, last week, while JFW was showcasing autumn and winter clothes that retailers could potentially sell six months down the line, TGC was showing spring and summer goods that consumers could wear tomorrow.

"There is a real tension in TGC," commented Ota. "Unless the brands put on a good show, their sales are affected immediately." Likewise for the consumers: It's either buy now, or be unfashionable next week.

The tension on both sides gives TGC a buzz that is quite lacking in JFW.

"In JFW, all the faces are dreary. There's no excitement to it," Ota admitted. Interestingly, he reported that the excitement of TGC reminds him of the Paris collections, where high-level brands are caught in a desperate battle for the attention of the world's media and buyers.

Conscious of this gap, Ota remembers suggesting, during an NHK interview in 2005, that at some point in the future JFW and TGC could do something together.

"You should have seen the reaction!" he said. "People from the fashion industry thought I'd gone crazy. They saw it as combining major league with highschool baseball."

Still, as TGC grows from strength to strength (it will hold an event in Beijing at the end of this month), at least some players in the high-brow fashion world are starting to take notice.

Two Web sites have sprung up offering what are essentially upscale versions of Girlswalker.com. At nuan.gr.jp and visport.jp, online shoppers can purchase items by JFW regulars such as everlasting sprout, GVGV and Kamishima Chinami. Perhaps more worrying for JFW are signs that TGC-style business-to-consumer fashion shows are spreading beyond the 15 to 24 demographic.

Tokyo Runway

Well-established brand mercibeaucoup chose to show outside of JFW this season because the existing format did not allow them to hold two fashion shows — one for industry-insiders and one for consumers. Going it alone, they were able to hire a venue in Ebisu and invite 500 lucky fans — mostly from their shoppers' lists.

Meanwhile, as part of its celebrations of its new Akasaka Sacas building in central Tokyo, television company TBS is hosting an event called Tokyo Runway, scheduled for today. Headlining this event are a host of JFW brands, present and past, including ato and DressCamp.

No TV company has deigned to sponsor JFW in the past, and few have given it more than passing coverage. Now one of the major broadcasters is jumping in to hold a fashion event themselves.

If anything, this should make the Council of Fashion Designers and their METI backers take notice.

That's because, as such estimable organizations continue their halfbaked attempts to make conventional, industry-insiders-only fashion shows work in Japan, innovative retailers have hit on a model that is not only commercially viable in itself, but is making waves worldwide as it redefines the fashion show as a form of mass entertainment.

Additional reporting by Misha Janette.



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