ECONOMY: Fashion revolution drives new look in Japan


www.nytimes.com/2003/01/…/07iht-fgirls_ed3_.html
Revolution drives new look in Japan
 

TOKYO Japan’s “fashionistas” look innocent enough in school uniforms and loose white socks rolled down to the ankles a la soccer stars. But after school, many don combat clothing: guerrilla camouflage skirts or jackets, Latin American ponchos, bandannas and knee-high boots. Harbored by their parents, and armed with spending money from allowances or part-time jobs, the radical buying habits of these 15- to 25-year-olds are revolutionizing Japan’s fashion market, say designers and industry observers.

For Michiko, 21, Japan’s recession doesn’t exist. “The recession doesn’t relate to us,” she says. “We don’t have to pay rent and we’re not married. Young people still have money.” And the money they have, they spend – ?0,000 to ?00,000 ($800) on clothing a month, Michiko says. “Prices are coming down,” says Rie, 23, who works on a bullet train and shops in Tokyo before making the two-and-a-half hour journey back to Osaka every night. “I think we buy too much.”

The main fashionista base is “109,” a 10-story fortress of fashion in the Shibuya district. Boys aren’t really welcome here. “This building has every shop,” says a teenager from Sendai who, like many girls here, is wary of a male’s presence. “This is mostly for girls.” Lilico, host of a Saturday morning TV fashion show called “King’s Brunch,” says: “It’s a self-contained world for young girls. They buy their clothes at 109, wear them at 109, and then get jobs at 109.”

The fashionistas are expanding their influence to the Harajuku, Ebisu and Daikanyama districts in Tokyo and other cities. Bored with the thirty-something “Hanako” generation’s lust for mass-produced foreign brands, the “Purikura” generation, named after photo vending machines, have sparked a boom in “selecto shops.” Around Harajuku’s Meiji street, the selecto shops Beams and United Arrows specialize in unique items such as ?,800 T-shirts, old albums and even a ?7,000 leather bag decorated in clippings from the Herald Tribune.

As bankruptcy drags down such big outlets as the Sogo department store and the fashion house Hanae Mori, indies formed by DJs and writers from outside traditional fashion circles are taking control of the streets in Harajuku, where fads can change by the hour. “These indie shops have been a big hit in the last year,” says Qumico Fucci, a musician turned designer. “When big companies such as Hanae Mori fall, smaller ones spring up. In a recession, anyone can buy a T-shirt.”

Consumer spending on clothing rose 2.4 percent in Japan in the past quarter, says Yasuo Goto of the Mitsubishi Research Institute. While statistics remain guesswork in this underground sub-economy, confidence is high enough to inspire newcomers such as Fucci, who recently began designing streetwear for Unaidas, an off-shoot of the T-shirt supplier Cold Mink. Like many in Harajuku, Cold Mink began as something else – a fan club for Fucci’s alternative rock band The Sherbets – and evolved a year ago into a fashion label. “They didn’t come from the fashion business, but they knew what young people wanted: music and clothes,” Fucci says. “The more the economy goes down, the better these selecto shops do. Young people are interested in what they are thinking. It doesn’t matter if you know how to make a pattern or not.”

It matters to some that the smaller firms manufacture in Japan, creating jobs at a time of record unemployment as production shifts to China. Young Japanese own most shops in the 109 fashion temple, despite such foreign names as Love Boat Drug Store, Dolce Vita and Material Girl. It also matters that no one else has a ?8,000 black velvet jacket with cute, sinister gremlins. Fucci says the big stores ultimately lose customers by offering mass-produced ?,000 fleeces from China: “We don’t need to buy the same thing twice. First everyone buys, and then nobody buys.” While major retailers unveil new styles every three months (and peddle perhaps half their merchandise), smaller players can pinpoint consumer tastes, hype it in magazines, order clothing in Japan or Korea and have it on shelves in a week or two.

“Small is beautiful, and profitable,” says Yoshiyuki Okamoto, a Hosei University economics professor who studies fashion phenomena with his daughter’s help. “In the ’70s and ’80s, Japanese wanted the same clothes. But now, they want their own characteristic clothing. Bigger companies cannot supply this variety. It’s too risky. But smaller companies can use trial and error. They know their market information instantly. This is the secret of their success.”

The fashionistas also appear to be winning a hearts-and-minds campaign on other market segments. The Web site mynippon.com says fashionista sense is reshaping the tastes of older generations: the Hanakos, aged 35 to 40, who spent their bubble era bonuses on European luxury brands; and the Dankai Juniors, ages 25 to 35, who favor casual fashions such as The Gap and Comme ca du Mode. “Japanese consumers are inclined to buy below their age group, particularly in fashion basics. Perhaps more than some other countries, it is critical in Japan to have designs inspired by younger fashions than your target consumer segment.”

Others wonder how long the rebellion will last. “This is the big question,” says Kunihiko Murayama, public-relations manager of Issey Miyake. “Younger people are the biggest spenders for fashion right now. But businesswise, this market will shrink over the next 20 years. There will be very little leisure for them as they grow older. They just won’t get anything more than a lifetime of part-time jobs.”

But for now, the young blood is activating a domestic market inundated by foreign companies, he says. Okamoto says 80 percent of the big Japanese stores are in the red. “We need entrepreneurship. If every Japanese tries to do this type of business, the economy will recover,” he added.

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