Archive for the ‘Japan and the World’ Category

The Non-Politics of Keffiyeh and Bohemians

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

The big meta-trend for Japanese fashion this spring/summer is “bohemian,” which mainly manifests in loose white cotton tunics and flower-print dresses. Opposed to being a homegrown trend, this new interest in hippie aesthetics is a global fashion industry directive imported into Japan. This year boys got “American/British Trad” and girls got “Bohemian.” As a result, the young Japanese bohemians of 2008 reflect none of the “unorthodox or anti-establishment political or social viewpoints” inherent to historical Bohemianism (Wikipedia). The trend is purely visual — a relaxed look using loose natural fabrics, ethnic patterns, and Native American headbands. Dropping any sort of philosophical depth has thus allowed the look to fit equally in the pages of serious high-fashion mag Spur and office-lady-friendly CanCam. In fact, there is an inverse proportion at work: the greatest adopters of the bohemian look tend to be the least likely to have an interest in arty things.

Slightly related to the bohemian trend is the prominent use of keffiyeh amongst both Japanese men and women. The traditional Middle Eastern patterned scarves have been popular in hipster circles overseas as well, but the fashion information complex in Japan has once again been able to mainstream a global look to a degree seen nowhere else.

In the West, the keffiyeh have sparked a debate over perceived pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel meanings. In the past, Leftist-types intentionally embraced the keffiyeh as a symbol of Palestinian solidarity. Recently Urban Outfitters tried to sell the scarves as simple accessories, but complaints forced them to pull them (before quietly bringing them back in non-traditional colors and a new name: “desert scarves.”) The Japanese industry will not have to worry about such political debates; just as bohemianism is only a visual aesthetic, a keffiyeh is just something that looks cute with a sleeveless t-shirt and work-pants. Moreover, Japanese retailers aren’t even calling them keffiyeh (クーフィーヤ) but “afghan stoles” (アフガンストール), based apparently on the “afghan”-style in which they are worn. (An internet search for the word “keffiyeh” in Japanese points to its historical definition rather than a shop list.)

With the item’s name redefined to point miles away from the Palestinian conflict and the patterns reformed to embrace trendy houndstooth-check, Japanese shoppers have few reference points to connect their fashion choices back to a global political context. Many argue that all Japanese culture inherently detaches the signifier from the signified, but this is not entirely true. Japanese punks may not be delinquent enough in behavior, but they are clearly attracted to the aesthetics of punk anger and rebellion. In a similar way, keffiyeh were very popular around 2001 amongst Ura-Harajuku street fashion boys, who found a tough militaristic meaning in the scarves to match their camouflage pants. They may have not known specifics about the PLO, but the context of armed struggle played into the item’s styling.

The keffiyeh used in this year’s fashion, however, are completely politics-free, primarily a result of the process of importation and mediation. Fashion magazines and retailers could easily explain or reference the historical backdrops to both bohemianism and keffiyeh, but they intentionally do not. Why? The broader cultural context would only make these trends’ adoptions more difficult for consumers. If the item is specifically shown to signify a philosophy or political position, the consumer would then be making a “statement” in choosing to wear it. CanCam girls would suddenly have to worry about whether they are “bohemians” instead of “in style.”

In general, Japanese fashion is not about statements: it’s about following a set of seasonally-changing rules within a chosen subculture. So the industry is best off pretending like these fashion items are just trends, eliminating all possible barriers for consumers. Depth and context are minefields for selling Japanese fashion.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

The End of Gyaku-Yu’nyū

Friday, April 11th, 2008

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, up-and-coming Japanese bands and artists who failed to connect with local audiences usually had to go overseas to get attention back in their homeland. With the Japanese music and entertainment worlds being essentially “closed shops,” innovative creators could leverage the support of foreign critics to get that crucial foot in the door. Yellow Magic Orchestra, for example, were initially ignored by fellow countrymen, but when they made a big splash in Europe and the United States, the Japanese media treated them as royalty upon return. In addition to YMO, New Wave band the Plastics, dance DJ Towa Tei, and reggae collective Mighty Crown all used international success as a launching pad to domestic careers. In fashion, moderately-popular brands like Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons, and Yohji Yamamoto became superstars in the Japanese market after successful Paris debuts. This cultural phenomenon is colloquially called gyaku-yu’nyū (逆輸入) — “reverse importing.”

Although beneficial to Japanese culture’s development in the long run, the gyaku-yu’nyū phenomenon was basically a result of Japan’s post-war national inferiority complex. In other words, Japanese audiences felt obliged to pay attention to internationally-feted artists because they deeply cared what foreigners thought about their own culture. The Japanese cultural elite, in particular, held a snobbish bias against domestic creators, and foreign acceptance was one of the few things that would change their minds.

Since the mid-1990s, however, Japanese audiences have grown extremely confident about the quality of their own pop culture and fashion, and rightly so. The world is currently enamored with Japan, instead of the one-sided love-affair of days past. So how has this change in national dynamics altered the potency of gyaku-yu’nyū?

In short, gyaku-yu’nyū no longer really works. A perfect example is Riyo Mori — 2007’s Miss Universe. Despite being the first Japanese woman since the 1950s to win this international pageant, Mori has suffered much scorn and hostility from the Japanese media and public. They criticized her appearance as conforming to a Western stereotype of “Oriental” women rather than being a real reflection of contemporary Japanese female aesthetics. 2006’s Miss Universe runner-up Kurara Chibana, on the other hand, has etched out a career in Japan and is believed to be “cute” in the mold preferred by Japanese girls. Winning #2 may have been ironically the better result for today’s Japan.

When actress Rinko Kikuchi was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2007, local media forecasted a big career for the actress when she returned to Japan. Things, however, have been mixed. Kikuchi gets a lot of media attention, for sure, and even gave her face for a Chanel ad campaign, but she has yet to really find broad favor with Japanese audiences. She has also received criticism for an overly “Oriental” appearance (as seen in the picture above from the May issue of InRed).

This new-found domestic confidence also works the other way: When popular Japanese artists fail overseas, it does not particularly hurt their domestic image. Hikaru Utada famously flopped with her U.S. debut Exodus, but this only minorly afflicted her standing with Japanese fans. Foreign success is also unable to restore the relevancy of formerly-dominant artists: No one is especially impressed that Puffy (Amiyumi) or A Bathing Ape‘s Nigo are big overseas. And artist Takashi Murakami peaked in Japan long before he started getting $1 mil per canvas in international markets.

Based on this growing disinterest in foreign reception, Japanese audiences no longer appear to rely on the rest of the world’s judgment to create hierarchies for their stars. Japan has a very competitive, sophisticated system for creating and rewarding local talent, and those who succeed do so for a reason. Although certain talent agencies have more sway than others (and can make stars look “popular” through forcing a busy appearance schedule on the media), Japanese girls seem very content with their own star models like Yuri Ebihara and Tsubasa Masuwaka. It is patronizing, to say the least, that they should take cues from the West about whom to like in this day and age. Would Americans ever love wacky Japanese-speaking TV mainstays Dave Spector and Patrick Harlan just because Japanese audiences do?

From one perspective, the new Japanese self-confidence in pop culture is built upon citizens’ healthy comfort with their own identity. No longer do we have as many youth automatically looking to the rest of the world to provide them with the “right” fashion looks. Ironically, however, it is the gyaku-yu’nyū successes like Ryūichi Sakamoto and Comme des Garçons that originally put Japan on the map, eventually feeding back and giving Japan more self-confidence about its position on the world stage. With no one listening to foreign voices, the responsibility to identify and reward new talent that can maintain Japan’s global image is now left up to the internal Japanese system. But, hey, if the world stops being impressed with Japan, it’s not like Japanese audiences would even really care.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Arnold Palmer: Youth Fashion Icon

Friday, April 27th, 2007

Although globalization slowly expands the number of cultural references transcending borders, misunderstandings and strategic alterations of icons and symbols in specific regions still thankfully manage to defeat a staid universalism of stable meanings. For example, you Anglophones may know 77-year old golf legend Arnold Palmer as “The King” of his sport and a hero to the contemporary American elderly population. In Japan, however, Arnold Palmer’s name graces a popular youth fashion brand.

That’s right: apparel-makers Renown — who have owned the “Arnold Palmer” license in Japan since 1961 — now use the man’s signature and multi-colored umbrella logo as part of a brand targeting “a youthful generation with a new kind of sensibility” (「新感覚の若い世代」). The brand’s preppy female line gives Mr. Palmer a cuter edge by shortening Mr. Palmer’s full name to just “arnie.” The men’s line nominally reconnects to the sporty-ness of being on the green, but “Arnold Palmer Timeless” on the other hand is a total “lifestyle line” of basic and casual goods.

Walking through perennially hip youth fashion boutique La Foret in Harajuku the other day, I did not expect to see an “Arnold Palmer Concept Store” in the same retail space as Bernard Wilhelm and Theatre Products. But guessing that the name recognition of Mr. Palmer among Japanese young people is statistically equivalent to zero, the better question is, why not use the license as the backbone of a casual line for girls? The umbrella mark is objectively adorable. “Arnold Palmer” might as well be the name of a foreign designer — like “Paul Smith” or “Paul Stuart” or “Geoffrey Beene.” And with so many Japanese brands appropriating real personages’ birth names — like (Gabriel) García Márquez, Gertrude Stein, or jazz bassist Cecil McBee — Renown looks pretty classy in actually having the formal approval for usage.Just as Kentucky Fried Chicken invented a successful marketing campaign around the outright lie that “Americans traditionally eat KFC at Christmas,” the team behind Arnold Palmer youth apparel have skillfully made up for the lack of familiarity in a new generation by creating a brand new story more convenient to their positioning needs. But hey, Arnold Palmer could have been the go-to guy for basic, casual youth fashion in America as well. We just suffered a failure of imagination, locking him inside a prison of his golf prowess and half-tea/half-lemonade beverages.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

The Changing Brand Value of Bape

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

Fourteen years ago this April, two Japanese twenty-three year-olds straight out of vocational colleges with little in the way of professional experience opened up a small boutique fittingly called “Nowhere” in the quiet back-streets of Harajuku. One of the young men was Jun Takahashi — who used his half of the shop to sell his own avant-punk designer brand Under Cover. On the other side of the shop was Nigo — who would soon become the total director behind the international wünder-brand A Bathing Ape (Bape). For the first few months of Nowhere’s existence, the Nigo-side sold adidas and other select import goods, but pressured by the almost instant success of Takahashi’s label, Nigo realized that he needed to start an original brand of his own. Brainstorming with his graphic designer friend Skatething, the two came up with the semi-English phrase “A Bathing Ape in Lukewater” as the brand name and appropriated the gorilla face from the Planet of the Apes films for the visual icon.

Within two years, those ape heads could be seen on half the t-shirts in Harajuku, and the success of Bape ushered in the Ura-Harajuku style moment in Japan. This look combined the casual vibe and comfort of street clothing with the rarity-factor, celebrity-connections, and high price points of designer fashion. Bape’s continued domestic success in the 1990s eventually led to international acclaim. For many years, however, Bape could only be found outside of Japan on the backs of Nigo’s foreign music and graffiti allies and had thus attained a mythic status as the ultimate prize in the hunt for limited-edition apparel (The Face in 1999 called the brand “Truly underground,” totally incognizant of the brand’s mass status in Japan.) Starting with the 2002 opening of Bape’s Busy Work Shop London, however, the brand began its remarkable journey from being a super-rare insider commodity to becoming the clothing of choice for the American hip hop elite and a prop in every other video on MTV.

Although Nigo may not frame his story in marketing language, A Bathing Ape is absolutely an exemplar branding case study for the Japanese market. Nigo is not a fashion designer, nor does he make claims on such titles. His success has been a product of his impeccable skills in marketing and curation: i.e., it’s about what he sells and how he sells rather than what he “creates.” There are probably ten-thousand small T-shirt companies in Japan that use images and themes from Western popular culture and old sci-fi movies, but Nigo was able to masterfully leverage his celebrity connections in the media to create a total lifestyle around the clothing. Bape was never just apparel — the “brand” encompassed concerts and record releases from musicians in Nigo’s orbit, collectible toys, and self-produced media. By only selling clothes through directly-managed retail outlets, Nigo controlled the entire shopping experience from the background music to the architecture (courtesy of Wonderwall) to the long lines and intentionally-unhelpful staff. Instead of fitting his brand to a pre-existing consumer subculture, Nigo just invented his own. And the kids fell into line accordingly.

The Big Change in 2001

Bape’s success stood upon three strategic marketing pillars that emphasized the “underground” brand image at every turn: limited-edition supply, obfuscated stores, and a rejection of traditional advertising. This worked wonders from 1993 to 2001. Everything changed overnight, however, with Bape’s collaboration with soda brand Pepsi. Suddenly, the brand’s trademark ape-faced camouflage was in vending machines all the way from small towns in northern Hokkaido to beach-side huts in Okinawa. Regardless of any intentions of ironic subtext, here was an open acceptance of commodification after a career based on decommodifying the T-shirt and jeans. Although some at the time claimed that the move was not a “sell-out” because of Pepsi’s “outsider” status in Japan (see the similar idea behind the October 2001 Relax issue on Pepsi), the move loudly signaled a new direction for Bape. Nigo no longer seemed apprehensive of going too mass, and large-scale aspirations rerouted his once modest strategy.

Around 2003, Nigo made friends with Pharell Williams from the Neptunes, and this connection made the Bape brand (especially the Bapestar sneakers and colorful camo hoodies) must-haves for hip-hop royalty in the United States. Bape subsequently became a hit item there — a market Nigo had willfully ignored in the ’90s because he had believed selling to Americans was too “mass market.” By the early Aughts, however, his values had changed from emphasizing brand cachet-über-alles to wanting the bling-bling cash-out in the short-term. He could have engaged the American hip hop market while staying true to the limited-edition concept, but once Nigo crossed the Rubicon, he never really even half-heartedly withheld supply to demanding parties besides constructing barriers with the high product prices.

So Goes the Brand

Nigo seems to justify this change as “brand growth/expansion” but this new direction unfortunately created points of radical difference to the original and established brand image. The following outlines the changes to the total brand experience for BAPE:

Consumers: By obviously going for the mass market, Nigo abandoned his core base of fashion-forward teens who had previously believed to be buying a certain level of “safe exclusivity” in A Bathing Ape. Once Nigo started selling to the Chinese cultural sphere in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Japanese fans saw their brand being consumed by a group which they fairly or unfairly considered lower on the global style hierarchy. Even though Bape found a fan base in first-tier American rappers, most Japanese kids in the hip-hop subculture remembered Bape’s old market position too well to be able to use the brand to express belonging to their particular subculture. Before the globalization of the brand, Japanese core consumers only saw the brand being consumed by the proper parties who understood its meaning. The willful abandonment of the founding principles to market to other countries confused this message on the home front.

Supply: Nigo was very careful at first about selling to the Chinese market. His first Hong Kong store had been “by appointment only,” but the brand’s introduction into the Chinese-language world coincided with the mass production of fake Bape by counterfeiters in China and Korea. I remember an Ebay in 2000 with a maximum of three A Bathing Ape t-shirts. Today there are more than 2000 — few of which are real. The supply not only increased over time, but the counterfeiting problem degraded the aura the brand enjoyed in which low quantity implied high quality.

Retail Locations: In Japan, there are Busy Work Shops in almost every major (and minor) metropolitan center. Overseas, New York and London have been or will be soon joined by Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Taipei. Tokyo once had a few select locations, but now there is a surplus of Bape-branded ventures — the BAPE Cuts hair salon, BAPE Café, and a Bape Kids children’s clothing store — each spreading the customer base thinner and thinner. The shopping experience no longer feels special and exclusive or has the air of destination shopping.

Now certainly, we should admit that A Bathing Ape would not have been able to forever keep up the ruse of selling on a mass scale while claiming an underground credibility. Nigo changed the brand partly because he had nowhere left to
go. Nigo himself often claims that “times have changed,” and he is right that “limited-edition” (限定) was a bit of a ’90s phenomenon that outlived its usefulness.

The ’90s phenomenon of exclusivity, however, was core to his brand, and since he will never be able to charge Dior-like prices for his street clothing, abandoning his artificial attempts to control supply (or appear to be doing so) means a decrease in the exclusivity still necessary for his semi-luxury goods to work. Marketing for short-term success and creating a durable brand value are polar opposites, and while anyone would be hard-pressed to write off the current state of Bape as a “failure,” the brand value at least appears to have struggled for the last five years in Japan. As a clothing line that once famously attracting huge lines on the weekends, the Tokyo stores are often quiet, and when populated, have an image of being populated with Chinese-speaking tourists. (Some of the rural locations apparently still attract a large fan base.)

Japanese fashion editors in the 1990s spent year after year privately pronouncing A Bathing Ape “dead,” but the brand kept growing stronger and stronger. I do not want to suggest that Bape has come to any sort of end, but in sheer terms of brand value, Bape has gone from a model of perfection in the Japanese market to a confused hodge-podge of messages, images, and subcultural affiliations. A Bathing Ape’s success in the 1990s Japanese fashion market should be attributed to their brand-centered marketing, and although Nigo was right to abandon some anachronistic parts of his strategy, I can’t help feeling that the concept of unified brand has fallen by the wayside.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.