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Sunday, Sept. 14, 2008

News photo
Mikio Sakabe's eponymous strong second JFW collection, created with his wife Shueh Jen-Fang, featured futuristic blonde-bobbed powermodels showing off the android styes.

Tokyo's catwalks at last purr with pizazz

Long outside looking in, Japan Fashion Week makes a stylish mark

Special to The Japan Times

"Is Tokyo really the world's fifth fashion capital after Paris, New York, Milan and London?"

News photo
Mintdesigns stage an outdoor spectacle YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

That was the question asked by Li Dong, director of fashion for China TV, which was insinuating the waning sartorial significance of the Rising Sun during last season's Japan Fashion Week.

But possibly, as a collective whole, Tokyo believes it may have this position bagged as it boasts a legion of fashion devotees in the world's second-largest economy, numerous brands that have taken the world stage, and a booming domestic fast-fashion market.

Despite such typically self-centered Japanese wishful thinking, though, the twice-yearly Japan Fashion Week is still crying out for attention in fashion's established capitals that continue to sniff, pout and turn a blind eye to the East.

Perhaps it's because of Tokyo's lack of the heady excitement and sartorial furor that electrifies those other big fashion weeks. JFW is also being threatened from behind by emerging markets poised to deliver what it doesn't — despite belated Japanese plans for how to stay on top.

With all that said, the seventh biannual Japan Fashion Week kicked off Sept. 1 at the Tokyo Midtown complex, with 37 labels presenting their Spring/Summer 2009 collections. To spice up the proceedings, other fashion-related events included the "Best Jeanist" award for celebrities who look good in jeans, a show staged by six emerging Italian designers, the New Designer Fashion Grand Prix awards, and minishows by students from Tokyo's handful of fashion colleges.

This time around, the name of the committee steering JFW has been officially designated as the Japan Fashion Week Organization, coinciding with the government's decision to subsidize it with funds from the fiscal budget. Better late than never, many believe, as this official support comes a full three years since JFW started rolling as a week of concentrated shows.

In light of all this, Nobuyuki Ota, who heads up the JFW organization and is also president of the revered design house Issey Miyake Inc., told The Japan Times: "Of course, JFW should be a stand-alone operation with funds coming from outside sponsors. But it's great to have the support of the government as it shows they believe in the future of Japanese fashion as an investment in our culture."

In another political move, Ota was invited to the Sao Paulo Fashion Week in Brazil in July to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Japanese emigration to that South American nation. Ota came back with a new determination to raise the bar for JFW.

"Everyone, from the sponsors to the attendees was having fun [there]. I know Japan Fashion Week needs to improve in this area. It's something I feel very strongly about," Ota said.

But as well as fun, a successful fashion week requires an excellent lineup of brands and a media juggernaut to support it — a buzz that in turn piques the interest of buyers who flock to it in droves.

However, while there are indeed traces of stupendous collections at JFW, the cumulative score doesn't quite cut the mustard and its muted atmosphere keeps JFW from gaining notice beyond the confines of its own fashion circle.

Despite such downsides, though, this season's event saw a steep rise in international television interest, with China's Guangxi TV network, NHK's Tokyo Fashion Express, and Fashion TV all obviously present at the shows. Yet, sad to say, an ongoing lack of curiosity and wonderment from global fashion leaders continues to undermine JFW's main driving force, which is high-fashion consumerism.

So what do the organizers think of this?

Says Ota, "We need more high-quality, innovative brands."

And what about the atmosphere?

"Well, look at the opening party — boring!"

As what about the attendees, and the ubiquitous front rows of jaded veterans and businessmen in suits?

"I wish they'd die!" Or perhaps, politely step back. "They need to understand that it's important to get young fashion leaders in there, such as buyers and editors. Improve the image, get more sponsors."

It's a relief to know that the organization is aware of its pitfalls, although it seems there are no real plans in the works to actually take steps to rectify them.

"We're changing season by season," Ota explains, "The decision to make a fashion week [as opposed to the event spread over almost a month in years past] was considerably rushed. Now we have to sit down and really think about it."

But politics, egos and pickiness aside, one screamingly obvious solution to Tokyo's JFW problem would be to enlist the wholehearted support of long-established and popular Japanese brands that are already well known internationally. At present, such labels tend to show their collections on their own terms, sometimes weeks or a month after JFW has ended.

"These designers have too much pride," laments Ota. "Remember when New York designers all came out at the end of their shows wearing the same T-shirt benefiting charity? That would never happen here. The designers wouldn't even be able to agree on who designed the shirt!"

True, while the Japanese are not normally adept at being egotistically forthcoming, when it comes to fashion all bets are off.

Michiko Suzuki of Y's Red Label held her show the week before the already early JFW began. "Showing early meant showing first. And first is the best, right?" she beamed.

Meanwhile, designer Mug of G.V.G.V. defends her brand, which has shown both on and off the JFW schedule.

"It's hard to get samples finished and ready in time, and they seem very bent on sending all brands global. I need to focus on the Japanese market first," Mug explained.

And one month before her second scheduled show, last season's New Designer Fashion Grand Prix winner Aguri Sagimori's designs were still just illustrations on the wall of her studio. But she seems chipper about teaming with JFW, which kindly waives her participation fees.

"Well, my dream is to eventually sell in Paris, and I think JFW can help me with that," she says.

While JFW designers often show camaraderie by attending each other's shows, their catty tendencies within the industry remain a blight considering that the world still entertains a certain fascination with Japanese fashion. A unified, fun-filled and excitedly creative industry would surely make it easier to get the attention of the world's fashion media and buyers — especially as one of the key challenges is to get them to trek so very far from their natural haunts.

It's a formidable poser for Japan — but, "We have a plan," said Akio Date, executive secretariat director of the New Designer Fashion Grand Prix committee. "That plan is to make Tokyo the go-to place for the fashion business in Asia."

Date revealed that the committee is working with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and JFW's organizers on a three-year plan to fortify Tokyo's position as the main business hub of the Far East.

Indeed, there are subtle clues coming from JFW that show this course in action, such as the growing Asian press corps in attendance this time, the inclusion of designers such as veteran Li Wenbo and his brand Lilenz from China, and the fact that Thai-national Khatikasemlert Chalermkiat was chosen as the recipient of the Grand Prix last year.

Beyond these isles, too, there has been a surge of Japanese fashion being promoted around Asia — especially in China, where Yohji Yamamoto staged a monumental debutante show in Beijing's Forbidden City in April, and the megapopular fast-fashion event Tokyo Girls Collection participated in Beijing Fashion Week this year. Haute couture it ain't, but this phenomenon based on mobile-phone purchasing (aka "real clothes") is widely touted as the next big thing to come from Japan — and the world is taking notice.

Last season, some JFW brands tried to mimic the TGC platform with showy, commercial presentations dubbed Tokyo Runway, but the project fizzled when the backer, TBS Broadcasting, couldn't figure out how to harness the marketing power of a fashion show.

"Really, young Japanese people are very skilled when it comes to mixing this fast fashion with high-end labels. In fact, it's what they strive for," said Etsuko Meaux, director of the fashion-marketing house PR2, who is clearly mindful that, in the current economic climate with downward trends in spending, it seems a natural progression.

But when it comes to the price point of the JFW labels, they tend to fall somewhere smack between the luxury and throwaway ends of the spectrum. Some see this as a boon, however, especially considering the booming middle-income market in Asia.

"Japan has always succeeded with brands that sit between the high end and the mass low end, and I think this is the area where the industry needs to think about promoting more export interest," said David Marx, a director of Mekas.jp who is a fashion-market analyst in Tokyo.

Considering the mounting difficulty of gaining a foothold in the Western market, the Asian continent might well be where JFW can establish a high profile without needing to take on the cumbersome task of competing with Paris or New York.

As Meaux explained: "With many brands I represent, it was always about the Western market. But now with some of them we are totally focused on Asian buyers."

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