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Sunday, Sept. 14, 2008

It's tough for men

Special to The Japan Times

Japan Fashion Week (JFW), now in its seventh season, has never put much emphasis on menswear. This year, it appeared merely as an afterthought.

News photo
mercibeaucoup: Hoods and a riot of colors for the chaps GIANNI GIOSUE

A paltry selection seems at odds with the fact that the Japanese menswear market and number of top-quality domestic labels is huge. The enormous success of Shinjuku's Isetan Men's and the Hankyu Mens department store in Osaka, which opened earlier this year and contains a great section of homegrown talent in addition to international labels, is testament to the obsessive interest in men's clothing in Japan.

It's never going to happen, but the creation of a separate menswear event (including both JFW men's collections and the numerous off-schedule shows) would be a winner for the domestic fashion market. Modeled on something like the legendary trade fair Pitti Uomo in Florence or the Milan and Paris men's collections, it could be an event run by fashion experts for fashion lovers. It would be great to see Tokyo organizing something like Pitti, which is unfailingly a few undiluted days of the best menswear on offer anywhere in the world.

But let's move on to the handful of quality men's collections in JFW. Anyone who has followed our fashion week coverage over the past few years will know that Eri Utsugi's mercibeaucoup has a taste for all things twee and theatrical. The latest collection, with a typical explosion of colors, patterns and influences, didn't disappoint her die-hard followers.

The show's theme was the versatility of water, but somehow the idea wasn't fully realized. Showing alongside the womenswear, the men's togs included tiger-print hoods and clashing prints such as Madras checks worn with geometric stripes. The deliberate mismatching continued with a further riot of conflicting colors and patterns.

Utsugi also introduced a plaid baggy jumpsuit with hooded mask as a crowd pleaser. She followed this with a preppy combo of white jacket and geeky gray slacks that worked well, but many were left wondering where the theme of water had drained away to.

But we were treated to a typical mercibeaucoup denouement; models dancing around holding white flip charts, which they turned over to reveal "mercibeaucoup" on one side and "domo arigatou" ("thank you") on the other. The invited members of the foreign press in the front row seemed fascinated as this was the kind of uber-cute spectacle they envisaged in Tokyo.

Meanwhile, JFW heavyweight Ato Matsumoto, with global distribution deals including Europe and North America for his Ato label, is always one to watch during fashion week. Having previously presented in Paris and the Tokyo Collections — the precursor to JFW — Ato is certainly one for trend-following sophisticates.

This is the point when I usually compare Ato with Dior Homme or Kris Van Assche — but this time he surprised us all with an original take on nu-rave. (I thought it had died a death a few season's back, but someone obviously forgot to tell Ato.) With a flourish of fluorescents, the first phase was more English label Cassette Playa than Van Assche. However, the highlight was a rather fine cobalt-blue suit jacket and shorts.

Matsumoto ended by returning to familiar territory with signature two-button tailored black suits and ubiquitous skinny black ties, though he mixed this look up a little by adding colored belts and bright yellow suspenders.

By the end of JFW, jaded journalists need some glitz and glamour — something to get us going. Unfortunately the remaining menswear show, although technically fine, failed to fully realize its potential. Gentaro Noda's Heath is a relative newcomer to JFW, but in its second season the label has already endeared itself to Japanese aficionados.

It's been quite a year for Noda. Fashion bible WWD Japan crowned him, on its front cover as "Prince" of the Fall/Winter collections, and his first store has opened in the youth mecca of Harajuku. Last season's collection was a perfect showcase of his talents, displaying as it did superb tailoring in a somber palette of grays and blacks that were a world away from the derivative feel of his first label, the now defunct Iliad. This season seemed slightly weaker, with no real use of color, variation or energy, but there were some great relaxed two-button jackets. Added to these were crisp white shirts and a cool street-style look that was one of the main features in the European shows. The original line-pattern tops and cardigans were fine, but nothing really stood out. However, Noda needn't fret, as he has all the makings of a really promising designer and, in time, looks set to ascend from prince to king.

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