Archive for the ‘Fashion’ Category

Shibuya Girls Collection ‘09S/S

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

At the time of its initial establishment in 2005, Tokyo Girls Collection (TGC) offered a revolutionary alternative to the standard industry “fashion show.” E-commerce company Xavel (now Branding Inc.) founded TGC as a multimedia fashion event focusing on “real clothes” — low-priced domestic brands with an eye towards street trends. Instead of generic foreign drones imported from Eastern Europe, TGC used young models from popular magazines to parade the clothes on the runway. With its winning formula, TGC found quick success and ultimately rewrote the rules for Japanese fashion: choosing inclusivity over exclusivity and immediate relevance over artistic intention. TGC was “real” fashion for “real” Japanese women. Take a hike, “fake” fashion purveyors!

Now in 2009, Tokyo Girls Collection has taken its rightful place as a core institution of the Japanese fashion world, with big sponsors all clamoring to get a piece of the action. Uniqlo has just offered its second TGC collaboration — spring blazers promoted with popular ViVi model Marie. Last weekend’s 2009 Spring/Summer TGC took the brand line-up into totally new territory: select shops Beams, Kitson, and Free’s Shop, as well as originally-American brands Milkfed and Jill Stuart. All five are much more “fashion-forward” in the traditional snobby sense than the usual Shibuya 109 fare. The inclusion of these brands perfectly illustrated the fact that TGC is no longer a niche event for offshoots of the Shibuya gyaru subculture but an event where 20,000 female consumers with open minds and relatively heavy wallets can congregate and party. In just four years, TGC has become completely and utterly mainstream.

The day after Tokyo Girls Collection, Branding Inc. held TGC’s “little sister” event Shibuya Girls Collection (SGC) on the same Yoyogi National Stadium stage. Most wondered whether back-to-back Girls Collections would not mutually cannibalize audiences, but the pre-show buzz had the younger SGC outselling its big sister TGC. By the day of the event, all tickets for SGC had totally sold out. The day of the show, the arena was completely packed — with even the press seats over-run with eager girls. (Although SGC offered a “Men’s Stage” to show Oniikei fashion brands modeled by Men’s Egg superstars, the crowd was ultimately over 90% women.)

The two Girls Collections essentially share the same format, but SGC is a completely different beast than TGC — almost like the young weekend crowds at Shibuya 109 broke into the stadium and threw their own fashion show. As the name suggests, Tokyo GC is about girls’ street fashion in a wide and comprehensive sense, encompassing the diversity of looks found in Japan’s capital. SGC, on the other hand, is all about the specific gyaru style that emerged in the Shibuya neighborhood in the mid-’90s and remains strong. Accordingly, the SGC atmosphere was much more subcultural and niche than TGC, representing a fashion world that remains under the shadows of the “serious” industry. But despite the more narrow focus, the seats were equally packed at TGC, proving that the Shibuya fashion movement is just as legitimate in size and energy as the “mainstream” of fashion.

That does not mean, however, that SGC is particularly comprehensible to outsiders. I nominally cover the girls’ “street” fashion beat, and yet, most of the details of SGC culture are totally alien to me. TGC employs beloved magazine stars with name-value: celebrities who double as dramatic actresses (like Karina), singers (like Yu Yamada), and general TV talent (like Marie). Many are even known outside the confines of the “real clothes” fashion world. The participating TGC brands too, like Beams, are universally well-known.

SGC’s models, in comparison, may draw total blanks even with a hardcore TGC audience. They are total unknowns to anyone besides avid Popteen readers. The “star” model of SGC was Tsubasa Masuwaka — a 23 year-old ex-Popteen model and young mother who is big with the kids in Shibuya but has no connection to the mainstream entertainment industry. (She is sometimes featured on TV shows but only in news stories about her marketing power with teens. Despite her popularity, she is not invited to be a cute tarento on quiz shows.) Tsubasa is just the tip of the iceberg. The crowd’s other favorites — Wei Son, Jun Komori, Yui Kanno, and Kumiko Funayama — also came from Popteen. Admittedly, Popteen is a popular magazine in terms of readers, but representative of a style without much influence on mass culture.

With SGC relying on dokusha “reader” models — young fans of the magazine who volunteer posing and smiling services to magazines for little-to-no money — the model pool was markedly amateur. Most SGC models are about 5′4″ max. Star Tsubasa does not even hit five-foot. The SGC heroes dwarf in comparison to the professional long-legged models of TGC. Of course, these imperfections are what makes the girls so popular with readers: What could be more “real” and imitable than a 4′11″ model? And likewise, opposed to the half-Japanese mania of TGC, almost everyone at SGC is “pure” Japanese. The gap between fans and models at SGC thus becomes incredibly narrow. But since fans pay good money to attend, the models need to look “larger than life.” This needs pushes the girls to ramp up their normally over-tanned and bleach-blond appearance to the maximum degree: dark skin tones, faces caked with glitter, hair curled, crimped, permed, and teased out. They all looked like an army of idealized gyaru robots hot off the beaches of Hawaii.

While SGC’s official cast of characters gravitated towards’ Popteen’s gyaru world, the prevailing fashion style of attendees came straight out of post-gyaru fashion magazine ViVi’s sophisticated and hard-boiled look. The uniform was shoulder-length hair with curled bangs, black leather motorcycle jackets, unzipped hoodie sweatshirts in bright blues, black-and-white horizontal striped T-shirts, high-waist tiered skirts or shorts, big belt buckles, and a man’s fedora. There was also an unexpected outbreak of giant bows propped up in girls’ hair. Perhaps this post-gyaru look is the current style moment for the Shibuya streets — a mishmash of original gyaru surf culture, Ura-Harajuku streetwear, punk influences, high-fashion silhouettes, and the elegant tastes of the original ’90s kogyaru who have graduated from the movement and created their own up-market brands. A more likely explanation is that the hardcore gyaru — those who take the style to formidable delinquent yankii extremes — were not going to shell out the ¥3,000 for tickets. Or maybe they were in the cheap seats at top.

So here was the strange divide: The crowds came to see their Popteen idols up-close, and yet, they choose a personal fashion style much more mainstream than the hardcore gyaru formula. Gyaru style originated in the 1990s as an delinquent upper-class high-school subculture, but as the decade progressed, the rich girls ceded leadership to rural working-class yankii followers. The army of sexy and tan kogyaru transformed into monstrous ganguro. Gyaru has returned to its more aesthetically-palatable roots in recent years, but the movement’s heart and values still stay close to the lower socioeconomic stratum, best evidenced by the large crossover between the style and employees at host clubs and low-priced “cabaret-club” hostess bars. So while the audience felt a step apart from the core gyaru style, the models on stage (especially the male models) generally embrace and embody the yankii delinquent lifestyle. This made SGC feel like an act of selling the allure and rebellion of Japanese working class delinquent subculture to middle class kids. Up to this point in Japan, the fashion industry has rarely indulged in this kind of marketing practice. Usually, elements of delinquent subcultures were forced to do their own marketing.

Most analysis on the two Girls Collections tends to focus on the possibilities the events have for the fashion market, as if Japan Fashion Week or even Paris Fashion Week could take a lesson or two from this real clothes festa. But lumping these “fashion shows” all together misses the true dynamic of TGC and SGC. Sure, there are clothes traveling down the runways, but everything about the event makes the apparel feel like an afterthought. The multiple giant jumbotrons behind the runway zoom in on the model’s face for almost her entire walk down the path, save a single full-body scan.

The press releases always boast about “girls buying clothes on their cell phones right as the clothes hit the runway” but I have never observed this “real-time e-commerce” in the audience; the girls are usually too busy cheering their favorite stars to take the time to buy clothes. Surely brands that participate get a huge promotional bump, but I think the excitement is less about shopping, commercial transactions, and apparel and more about being in the same room as celebrities.

But as much as we believe the Popteen models are the draw, those subcultural folk heroes still lose out to the bigger crowd-pleaser: TV stars. A surprise appearance from Becky — a half-Japanese TV talent who is not a member of the gyaru community by any definition — elicited prolonged and severe screams from fans. After attending a handful of these “real clothes” events, I can tentatively conclude that the crowd is most interested in celebrating “celebrity.” They may love their community icons like Tsubasa, but they go absolutely crazy with the appearance of an honest-to-god variety show regular.

So there is an unconscious tension boiling under SGC between the “gyaru community” and mainstream culture, but while the crowd loves the surprise of celebrity appearance, the 20,000 young women did not show up to Yoyogi National Stadium to see sumo wrestlers and musicians. They want to take part in the Shibuya fashion community. Shibuya Girls Collection proves that there is a huge — and growing — market around the gyaru subculture. Popteen is one of the few magazines to gain readers over the last few years (And the magazine looks more like the deeply working-class hostess-circular Koakuma Ageha by the minute.) As non-community members, we tend to reach for the word “subcultural” to describe SGC’s style and dramatic personae, as if these strange girls are interested in something far removed from our comfortable “mainstream” cultural paradigm.

But in fact, the overwhelming popularity of SGC proves how little influence the entrenched mainstream entertainment and fashion worlds have in the 21st century. The powerful forces of traditional industry now all band together for TGC, but even with such support, the mainstream TGC does not really attract any more people than the niche SGC. When it comes to subcultural affiliation, the gyaru numbers are rising and the generic mainstream plurality is shrinking. SGC is not just popular in its own right, but may be a harbinger of bigger things to come for bottom-up culture.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Louis Vuitton’s Mythic 94.3%

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008

Luxury business experts from around the world gathered in Roppongi’s Grand Hyatt last week for the Financial TimesBusiness of Luxury Summit Tokyo ’08. And what an appropriate setting for discussion about luxury — Tokyo! — the world’s most important site for high-end brand consumption.

But proving this importance requires a catchy numerical figure. So in his opening speech, the FT‘s Lionel Barber told the audience that 94.3% of all Japanese women in their 20s own a piece of Louis Vuitton. This number was then repeated in an article by leading Asian luxury expert Radha Chadha in the FT‘s newspaper supplement about the luxury business: “For example, as many as 94 per cent of Tokyo women in their 20s own a Louis Vuitton piece.” A quick Google search on “94.3 AND Louis Vuitton” will bring up countless news articles from major international newspapers and magazines citing the figure. Even the Japanese fashion newspaper Senken Shimbun repeated the number in its June 2 recap of the FT summit. 94.3% is as good as gospel.

Anyone who has spent a few hours in Tokyo knows that the Japanese deeply love Louis Vuitton. Japan gave the French brand both the capital and the blueprint to become an unprecedented global luxury powerhouse.

That being said, 94.3%!?

Let’s think about what this means. If you collected 100 girls in their 20s at random from all across Japan — from the frozen backwaters of Hokkaido to the beach huts of Okinawa — and put them in the same room, only six of them could claim to possess zero Louis Vuitton items. To be perfectly fair to all the experts who keeps repeating this statistic as unassailable fact, 94.3% is totally and utterly impossible.

So where in the world did this imaginary statistic come from? We decided to track down the original source — a 2003 survey report of Tokyo metropolitan area consumers from the now-extinct Saison Research Group titled “The Image of Foreign Luxury Brands and Actual State of Brand Ownership” 『海外高級ブランドのイメージと所有実態』. And there on the bottom of page 6, we are informed that “94.3%” of girls in their 20s own a product from Louis Vuitton. Above this number, however, we get our first taste that something is amiss with this survey: “109.9%” of women in their 40s own Christian Dior! In this thing we normally call “reality,” ownership rate for any object can never top 100%, but this Saison report is very, very special.

You see, Saison’s researchers decided to simply add up all the percentages for ownership of different item groups (like bags, wallets, scarves, perfume, coats, suits, sweaters, pants, belts, shoes, etc.) for the final ownership rate. So, hypothetically, if 50% of women in their 20s own LV bags, 30% own LV wallets, and 15% own cigarette cases, “95%” would be the final figure of brand ownership. Needless to say, this is an extremely problematic form of statistical analysis. And even the author plainly states: “These numbers are not a strict measure of ownership rates for each brand. For the brands where people own multiple items, the number can surpass 100%.” (厳密には各ブランドの所有率を示すものではない。複数アイテムを保有する人が多いブランドでは100%を越えることもある。)I have no idea why the Saison Research Group ever thought to use this ridiculous measure of brand popularity in percentage form, but I think I know now why they disbanded a year later.

Although Saison printed the caveat along with the numbers, no one apparently paid much attention. The Japanese media happily reported these bogus figures as “strict measures of ownership,” and eventually, the digits made their way into the Western media as well, with no one stopping to ask how 94.3% (or 109.9%!) could be possible for a single brand.


So what would be a more accurate figure for Louis Vuitton ownership?

First of all, there are plenty of fashion subcultures and segments of 20 year-olds that do not place Louis Vuitton in their purchase consideration set. “Street-kei” girls from CUTiE or Zipper are absolutely not LV customers. And girls reading the very popular “girly” magazine Non•no are probably too laid back about fashion to purchase such an extravagant level of luxury handbag or wallet. Certainly, LV is a key brand for the mainstream and enormous CanCam set (the magazine features monthly coverage about the brand), but even the CanCam/JJ faction is merely a large plurality in the market — not a majority.

Moreover, there are relatively good surveys that cover LV brand preference and ownership. The TBS General Preference Survey (TBS総合嗜好調査) asks consumers in Tokyo and the Osaka-Kobe region about established brands. Over the last decade, Louis Vuitton has generally topped the survey’s list of beloved fashion brands for women in their 20s — at around 30%. This year’s rate for LV, however, hit a recent low of 26.7%, with only 19.3% of Tokyo women in the survey saying they like the brand. (Louis Vuitton remains stunningly popular in the famously logo-crazy Kansai region.) Brand Data Bank‘s (national) data tells a similar story: only 15% of surveyed women in their 20s own a LV bag.

The Japanese “conventional wisdom” (echoed here) seems to state that around 40% of women own a LV product, and while this may still be high, it is not even one-half of the FT‘s oft-repeated imaginary figure. Our guess would be 30-40% of women in their 20s own some manner of Louis Vuitton item, with 15-20% owning a LV bag. This is still very, very impressive when viewed in the larger scheme of things, but when 94.3% sets the standard, 15% looks rather humble.

One of the main messages at the FT conference was that the Japanese luxury market has matured and become saturated. Brands can no longer swagger into Tokyo and expect to be profitable without perfectly understanding their customers. Good information is more important than ever. So let’s all take a step into the future and bury the totally dubious 94.3% figure once-and-for-all.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

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.

Aoi Miyazaki for Emporio Armani

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

Long ago there was a simpler age for foreign brands in Japan, where the mere mention of “The West” would conjure up images of luxury, progress, and sophistication within the minds of Japanese consumers. Due to a development of greater domestic confidence in the last three decades, however, European and North American companies can no longer rely on exploiting a national inferiority complex to pull in customers.

But that doesn’t mean that Japanese consumers now unconditionally prefer Japanese things to Western things either. No, the current market requires a well-rehearsed luge run through complex and shifting racial and national semiotic codes that almost no one can perfectly articulate.

As I explained in the previous essay “Race as Fashion Signifier,” “real clothes” magazines like CanCam or ViVi exclusively use Japanese and half-Japanese models to illustrate a plausible context for the clothing. High-fashion magazines like Spur and Ginza, on the other hand, deploy foreign (Caucasian) models to reflect the fact that the center of legitimization for the high-fashion world is “abroad.” Based on this principle, foreign luxury brands have had little reason to not use global campaign advertisements (meaning: non-Japanese models) in Japanese fashion magazines. Advertorial (“tie-up”) can often be used to show readers’ favorite local models wearing the latest season, while protecting the sanctity of the pure ad. But basically, there is an unstated rule that foreign luxury brands never “stoop” to the level of Japanese local culture by using familiar faces.1

Emporio Armani, however, has gone against scripture by conspicuously using popular Japanese actress Miyazaki Aoi in its new print advertisements. By many measures, Miyazaki is the “It Girl” in Japan of the moment, but she should be defined as a celebrated actress within Japan rather than one who has found broader acclaim overseas.  Compare Miyazaki to Kikuchi Rinko — star of Babel. Chanel used Kikuchi in a campaign last year, but this was basically a hedge: Japanese, yes, but an “international” woman who was nominated for an Oscar.

Miyazaki is not particularly “international,” but instead, can only be used to introduce the brand as something that everyday Japanese girls can wear. So while there is glamor in having a “star” model the clothing, Miyazaki definitely brings Emporio Armani to the “Japanese” level. She is “life-sized” (等身大) rather than “larger than life.”

This particular quality of Miyazaki’s celebrity may be a perfect balance for Emporio Armani, however, seeing that the brand is a bridge line. In the context of this strategic goal, she is able to act as a “bridge” between Japanese consumers and this “elite” foreign brand. We can be sure, however, that Armani would most likely avoid using a local Japanese star for the face of its premier Giorgio Armani line. So perhaps the racial hierarchy in Japanese fashion is stable at the extremes (West for high, East for low). All the interesting and innovation in bending these rules exists in the middle of the market, where the intersection of the two worlds can be constantly re-framed and re-negotiated.

1 There are probably counterexamples that come to mind, but it’s not that common.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

O-nii-kei Blazes On

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

For the last six months, Japanese male fashion fans have been waiting in great anticipation for the opening of department store Hankyu‘s new Men’s building in Osaka — aptly named Hankyu Men’s. This annex to the main building would bring together the widest selection of top-class and popular fashion brands every assembled under one roof. Designer brands Comme des Garçons, Lanvin, Dior Homme, and Maison Martin Margiela would be available, as well as luxury powerhouses Gucci, Prada, and Salvatore Ferragamo. More traditional-minded working men could browse Paul Stuart, J. Press, Brooks Brothers, and Ralph Lauren Purple Label. Tom Ford would offer his very first retail space in Japan.

Last weekend, Hankyu Men’s finally opened for business, attracting 180,000 shoppers in three days. According to the Senken Shimbun, Louis Vuitton first-ever men’s only boutique apparently brought in the highest revenues of any tenant (thus proving that LV is not only for women in Japan).

The number two winner, however, was quite a surprise. With almost all the first-tier brands lined up for direct competition, this was quite possibly a battle for the mind and soul of the Japanese fashion market. Even with so many European luxury houses, designer labels, Ivy League standards, and prestigious licenses offered, the brand earning the second-highest sales ended up being Buffalo Bobs — a leader in the relatively new “O-nii-kei” fashion subculture. In three days, this up-and-coming “wild and sexy” casual brand raked in ¥9.9 million.

O-nii-kei — meaning “big brother style” — has crystallized over the last few years as a more market-friendly, classically-masculine version of the “gyaru-o” taste culture. The gyaru-o were the young men who used to hang out with the more extreme “ganguro” members of the gyaru subculture in Shibuya. Now these boys have grown up, abandoned the crazy face paint and garish clothing, and outfitted themselves with aviator glasses, fur-trimmed nylon parkas, buccaneer boots, poofy bronzed hair, and as much silver as could be possible worn on the human body. (Think hosts). The central location for O-nii-kei is Shibuya (more specifically, fifth and sixth floors of Shibuya 109-2), but the look has spread across the archipelago. (For some visual examples of the style, check Patrick Macias’ excellent coverage here, here, and here.)

With the fashion market slowly crumbling and foreign “Japan Cool” hunters looking for the next big thing amongst Japanese youth, you’d think more observers in the Japanese and international media class would be falling all over O-nii-kei. Here is a self-contained fashion movement that has created a real economic market, despite little attention from the apparel manufacturing giants and media support dependent upon independent fashion titles Men’s Egg and Men’s Knuckle.

The darkly-tanned boys of O-nii-kei, however, are not about to make the cover of Men’s Non-no. I think it is fair to say that the “wild & sexy” style is held as anathema by the tastemakers in the fashion industrial complex. O-nii-kei is basically the latest incarnation of the “yankii” subculture that has been the aesthetic canon for working class delinquent youth tastes since the 1970s. Although alternately romanticized and demonized in the culture at large, yankii have always existed as an outcast from the fashion industry and “proper” consumerism. O-nii-kei is in essentially the same position today. The “serious” men’s fashion magazines may take a bit of “street” style into their wardrobe authorizations, but never touch anything approximating O-nii-kei, which they generally consider “unclean.” (Although there have been rumors that struggling Takarajima publication Smart may take up some O-nii-kei touches…)

So here we have a typical problem in the Cool Industries: The actual youth subculture that is “winning” in terms of sales, growth, and momentum is ghettoized because those at the top do not personally approve of the style. In the past, bottom-up groundswells have forced magazines to realign their fashion sense to meet the changes in consumer tastes. But in most cases, those “new styles” — like Shibuya Casual (shibukaji) in the late ’80s and Ura-Harajuku in the mid-’90s — started amongst upper middle-class youth — in other words, magazines’ main consumer base. O-nii-kei, however, is so tied to a (perceived) lower class taste culture that fashion market “leaders” Popeye or Men’s Nonno could not possibly speak its language without destroying their own up-market position and credibility with advertisers (who are in reality their most important target audience). But currying mainstream magazines’ favor may be a moot point. Buffalo Bobs and Vanquish haven’t needed the main fashion press to get where they are, so why start now?

There is a bigger question at stake, however: trend-spotters and cool-hunters have told us for the last decade that mass fashion trends trickle-down from a street-savvy “style elite,” who just happen to be very similar in tastes to the cool-hunters themselves. Now we see that this does not necessarily have to be true. There are lots of taste culture niches moving in parallel motion, and despite less social capital and cultural capital, niches at the bottom will be able to concentrate enough economic power to make the biggest splash in sluggish markets. Like with Akiba-kei, the O-nii-kei are no longer just consumers active in their own “alternative” market: They are the only consumers consuming enough to matter!

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Rent-a-Bag and the Meaning of “Trend”

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

The new Japanese company ORB (On-Line Rent-a-Bag) gives women the opportunity to rent luxury handbags from upscale European design houses Louis Vuitton, Hermès, and Chanel for short-term periods. Although its business model is nearly identical to that of American company Bag Borrow or Steal, ORB is perhaps the first above-the-line implementation of “luxury rental” in Japan. Members of ORB’s “Bag Club” pay the not-so-cheap price of ¥29,800 per month for access to a wide selection of high-end products. For such a hefty fee, one could easily afford the monthly credit card payments on a truly spectacular bag. But ORB gives you the never-before-available option of changing luxury horses in midstream. Better yet, a constantly-rotating series of bags from ORB may give your peers the impression that you are a member of the exclusive Japanese upper classes with cash to burn on multiple luxury handbags. (Is the whole “handbag for life” thing suddenly an obvious signifier of the middle class?)

Here’s the deeper question when writing about ORB: Is luxury bag-rental worth identifying as a trend? So far, we only know of one company offering this service, and we have no idea whether the business model will be successful. Furthermore, we should not assume that the service succeeds in satisfying consumer needs simply on the publicized news of its foundation. Sure, it’s a noteworthy idea — somewhat novel, somewhat innovative — but does it pass the threshold to win “trend” designation?

At the end of the year, we are inundated with lists and lists of “The Year’s Hit Products” and “Buzzwords of the Year,” and although the media may not use the word “trend reporting,” they all attempt to give a sense of where popularity congregated over the last 52 weeks. This may seem like an odd time in the course of this blog (and within this particular essay) to start deconstructing the entire trend-spotting industry, but we felt like we needed to take a step back and look at common misdiagnoses of trends — especially in Japan.

(1) Trend Reports Overemphasizing Production/Manufacturing/Innovation: A lot of Japan-oriented trend blogs seem to push “cool” products as “trends” without any evidence that consumers agree. Yes, there are a lot of crazy, zany things that make it to the Japanese marketplace, but not all of these products will see substantial sales or have even been created with consumer research in mind. This is not to say that products specifically created to satisfy pre-existing consumer needs automatically become hits, but there must be some measure of reception to designate any piece of novelty as a “trend.” At best, there is a “production trend” in Japan for companies to make humanoid robots that play instruments; Asimo’s mere existence, however, says nothing about Japanese consumer sentiment towards the possibility of robot cohabitation.

(2) Trend Reports Overemphasizing Media (i.e., the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy): If you want to understand the entire blueprint for the new year (essentially viewing the “spoilers” for the next 365 days of consumer culture), read Dentsu’s forecast for the “Hit Products of 2008” included in their forthcoming “Hit Products of 2007” report. Since the advertising giant has the media budget to secure hits (or at least, create the illusion of success/authority in the media space), their predictions have better odds than the Harlem Globetrotters beating the Washington Generals. For example, just as predicted, Tokyo Midtown was “big” in 2007, but in what possible circumstances could the complex have not been a hit?

Since the Japanese mass media’s central organizational role is to advocate sponsored products from a position of central authority, the media’s definition of trend is always tautological: If the media decides to constantly feature a product, it therefore appears as a “hit” or a “trend” solely from all the exposure. This does not mean, however, that their pronouncement is a lie: The mass plurality of consumers in Japan still buy and participate in mass trends based solely on the amount of media exposure.

But even when consumers don’t take the bait, how can an objective observer really tell? Does the popular advertorial TV show Ohsama no Brunch ever do flashback stories on things that did not turn out to be successful despite its enthusiastic coverage? “Podcasting” was a buzzword in Japan a while back, but when the media dust settled, the “trend” was totally empty.

(3) Trend Reports Ignoring the Importance of Continuity: Xavel’s cell-phone/PC fashion shopping sites fashionwalker.com and girlswalker have been incredibly successful, but the company clearly rode on the coattails of market-leading manufacturers, media institutions, and talent-agencies. The expansion of fashion retail into “new media” has definitely been a real innovation, and objectively, the high levels of mass support have made “keitai shopping” a trend by any measure. The entire Xavel [now Branding] enterprise, however, is still dependent upon the legitimacy of traditional media. Without access to Ebi-chan & Co., it’s unclear if consumers would have ever made the leap into the arms of an unknown retailer. So, yes, Xavel is a real trend, but the company’s innovation has been more dependent upon continuity than innovation.

Our last post on hit novel Koizora makes a similar criticism: what is the difference between the success of a “traditional” novel with a high-expenditure mass market television campaign and a book-form “keitai novel” that receives the exact same promotional treatment? Koizora‘s hit status says more about the constancy of promotional power in Japan than the innovation in content creation.

(4) Trends that Overemphasize the Rogers Model: We no longer live in an unidirectional marketplace where elitist “early adopters” take up products and are then imitated by the less cool “early majority.” These days, popular products often completely skip hipster adopters, and sometimes the early majority intentionally rejects the styles of the well-respected media/art/fashion complex. In Japan, trendy underground culture has become a deserted island; the idea that its Lost-like survivors can somehow transmit their love of RSS, CSS and American Apparel to hordes of Johnny’s Jimusho fans is silly. There are real early adopters — sales clerks at Shibuya 109, for example — but are frequently ignored when they do not share the same taste culture as the actual trend-spotters. So, not only does the classic diffusion model not apply particularly well to the 21st century environment, trend-spotters generally give too much credence to “early adopters” similar to themselves or the Western example but lacking in real opinion leadership.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

This essay is not to say that there isn’t noteworthy reporting on innovations, novelties, and borrowable ideas from the Japanese market, but there is always an error of over-reporting these as “mass trends.” If we return to the initial problem in analyzing the “rent-a-luxury-bag” phenomenon, the best course may be to err on the side of skeptical neutrality. Reporting on new products and services is great fun for blog posts, but overselling novelty as “trend” can create a false sense of market realities.

Girls From Good Families

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

On November 17, popular Japanese lingerie company Peach John will open a shop within the flagship Shinjuku branch of esteemed department store Isetan. In the last decade, PJ has made a dramatic transformation from a small outfit importing American bras to a catalog sales giant with 20 locations in brick-and-mortar stores. Moving up to Isetan seems like a natural progression for the burgeoning brand, but this will not be just “another store.” The language of Peach John’s latest venture hints at a new direction for the company, and more broadly, an intriguing trend in Japanese marketing.

According to the November 6th Senken Shimbun story 「ピーチ・ジョンが伊勢丹本店に出店」, the name of Peach John’s project for Isetan is “Girls from Good Families” — spelled out in katakana 「ガールズ・フロム・グッド・ファミリー」. Senken “translates” this Japanese-scripted English into more standard Japanese as「良家の子女」.

Peach John’s current stores are mostly located in fashion buildings like Shibuya 109, and the Isetan project is the company’s first foray into department stores. In terms of customer base, Isetan definitely attracts a much different crowd than Shibuya 109. The age range and fashion aesthetics of the two audiences are different, but so are the tax brackets. For ¥20,000 at Shibuya 109, you can buy an entire autumn ensemble; at Isetan, you could maybe buy a single pillow. (But not necessarily one of the nicer pillows.)

Certainly, girls from “good families” are shopping at Isetan, but I find it strange to come out and code these consumers with that exact label. What does Peach John mean by “good family”? Rich? Old money? Does this mean that shoppers from Shibuya 109 are from “bad families”? Or just “less good families”? Does Peach John only want to attract daughters of fourth-generation doctors on the Board of charitable organizations? Or should the big-spending female offspring of loan sharks feel shame towards their lineage when stepping up to the cash register?

The marketing concept is smart, though: In order to attract a zone of consumers willing to pay higher prices for essentially the same product, Peach John will downplay the somewhat tawdry image established in its mass advertising campaigns. PJ’s train ads usually feature busty half-Japanese models like Jessica Michibata, Kelly, and Fujii Rina wearing revealing lingerie inside what appears to be the world’s most adorable brothel. The recent inclusion of Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie on the cover of the catalog may be an attempt to tone down the sex appeal towards men, but regardless, the tenor of the usual messaging probably does not impress the “well-to-do” mother from a “good family” that PJ imagines shops at Isetan. Leopard print bras could besmirch generations of inherited wealth. So Peach John is creating a new pocket for the brand, leaving the “over-stimulating” animal print at Shibuya 109, and creating a special selection at Isetan that moms will happily purchase for their little duchesses and baronesses. Standard PJ references to pole dancing will not be welcome. “Good families” apparently pass down Victorian attitudes towards sexuality from generation to generation.

Peach John’s new strategy further bolsters the idea that income disparity is becoming an obvious part of Japanese social and business life. I find it odd, however, that the marketing language is actually using loaded terms like “良家” (ryouke) to pander to the upper classes. Currently, the New Rich are a much dominant consumer group in Japan than actual “good families.” The nouveau riche, however, may like this idea of being treated with social respect solely from their ability to indulge in luxury goods. On the other hand, the girls at Shibuya 109 may begin to question why they are not being labeled as “girls from good families,” but they probably aren’t reading daily trade publications to find out the names of their favorite brands’ retail promotion strategies.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Race as Fashion Signifier

Friday, October 5th, 2007

Last time, we discussed Japanese fashion magazines’ obfuscation of Tokyo scenery to create appropriate atmosphere for consumer fantasy. This dodged a more immediate element for establishing proper context: the actual fashion models. But before even considering which individual model to use, Japanese editors make a more general decision on the race of the models representing the feel of the magazine. Historical factors and a self-identification as a “monoracial nation state” makes race a much more potent signifier in Japan than in places like the United States where a pro-diversity philosophy has intentionally de-emphasized the idea of implicit meanings in skin color.

Due to the senzoku model system, Japanese magazines hold a stable of exclusive models to represent the magazine. Other than the high-fashion magazines, editors rarely just pull together a certain group of well-known individuals from a “pool of models” to fit certain stories. They generally assemble a semi-permanent “team,” and the average racial composition of this team is linked to the magazine’s fashion category.

Magazines in the “real clothes” genre — like CanCam — aim to reflect the “real lives” of their readers. This means models who are not excessively tall, and ultimately, “pure” Japanese. CanCam uses almost all 100% Japanese models (we’ll count Yamada Yu as Japanese rather than a distinct “Okinawan” and ignore the half-Japanese Mine Erika as a rare exception.) When compared to the overwhelming number of half-Japanese/half-white models used in JJ and ViVi, this should be seen as an intentional decision. CanCam‘s power, however, is in its ability to create sympathy and self-association between readers and models. Since Japanese office ladies and junior college students have no fantastical aspirations towards the artistic side of the fashion business over in Europe, they are happy to see themselves in Ebi-chan’s shoes. Gyaru magazines like Popteen or Cawaii! are fundamentally similar in aspiration. Since Japan is the locus of legitimacy for that particular fashion, foreign or half-Japanese models would only confuse messaging.

High-end fashion magazines, on the other hand, mostly feature clothing from European houses and luxury brands, pegging the center of legitimacy in the West. In order to ensure that the presentation harks back to the larger Eurocentric fashion world, magazines like Spur or Ginza — almost without exception — use non-Japanese and mostly Caucasian models. This prevents Japanese female readers from self-association, but that’s the point. Like the old Groucho Marx quote, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member,” Japanese high-fashion fans do not want to see the clothes they desire on real-life Japanese people. There may be a tad bit of self-effacement in this sentiment, but it generally questions more elite Japanese consumers’ feelings about their own locale. The fantasy, therefore, requires an army of non-Japanese models.

ViVi and Glamorous‘ overwhelming use of half-Japanese and three-quarters-Japanese models like Fujii Rina, Hasegawa Jun, and Iwahori Seri begs a more pointed question: What does race mean when it’s not a pure reflection of either here nor there? These magazines are not targeting some massive half-Japanese readership, nor do these models look foreign enough to recenter the magazine atmosphere outside of Japan.

Herein lies lingering issues of perceived racial inferiority. I’ve been told numerous times in Japan that “clothes look better on foreigners,” by which they mean “white or black people.” This is not objectively true (nor subjectively true, in my view), but editors have long used half-Japanese models on this principle to bridge the gap between Japanese self-association and cool “foreign” fashion. A half-Japanese model looks “foreign” enough to enhance the image of the clothing, but close enough to the reader to send a message of commonality. Things are changing, however. Male fashion magazine Popeye previously used only half-Japanese models but moved to more foreigners once readers voiced less need for racial similarity in considering the clothing.

An underlying point remains: Race still has an important textual quality in Japan that impacts companies’ branding and messaging. The natural increase in racial diversity seen in Western countries, mixed with post-’60s progressive politics, has worked to de-emphasize the use of race as a personality/lifestyle determinate. I doubt that Calvin Klein’s choice of Djimon Hounsou as their spokesman was intended solely to say something “black” about Calvin Klein or limit the messaging to African-Americans. The political correctness of “neutral” race — combined with a need to emphasize inclusion to target multiple communities — has led to the “Benetton approach” in ad campaigns (except for the occasional lack of black and Asian models at NY fashion week). In Japan, however, there is still a strong idea that a Japanese face can rarely legitimize a product for which the aura is located abroad. CanCam is showing that Japanese readers often want to see Japanese models, but this only works within a narrow context of establishing horizontal commonality.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Where Are You?

Friday, September 21st, 2007

There are many Japanese fashion magazines, each representing a specific style niche somewhere between high-fashion, street wear, and office attire. And in these magazines, the fashion spreads work very hard to make readers think to themselves: Where in the world were these pictures taken?

For the most part, the answer is just Tokyo. With a hectic photo schedule sometimes requiring a single model (like Ebihara “Ebi-chan” Yuri) to appear in 150+ distinct outfits on a monthly basis, trips abroad are generally out of the question. Summertime may see some bikini shoots in Saipan or Guam, and New York is popular for a special feature on autumn trends, but generally, Tokyo and its environs are the only practical choice for backgrounds.

In these spreads, however, Tokyo never looks like anyone’s normal spacial conceptualization of Tokyo. If CanCam was the only visual record for the city, a first time visitor would expect the megalopolis to look like a dainty pastiche of Paris, London, and stately manors. Obviously, Edo’s usual concrete and tile bonanza sitting in the background of a photo shoot would kill all the fantasy surrounding fashion. (I mean, really, do Dior suits look better or worse in front of a 1998 Honda Civic hatchback?) But I find it interesting how each magazine’s visual approach not only creates the proper environment for appreciation of the clothing, but submerges the reader into a slightly-upgraded, aspirational version of his/her own reality. On average, Tokyo may be a lot of lazy form-follows-function-minus-design, but there is enough architectural diversity for photographers to crop out a fitting spatial universe to present to readers.

For example:

High-fashion magazines (Spur, Ginza) — Mostly interior or studio shoots, high-contrast lighting. Sites may be within Japan, but always sport the chairs and cabinets of Scandinavian residences.

Akamoji-kei (CanCam, JJ, Ray) — Mostly outdoor shots of urban locales, which emphasizes the public-ness of the OL lifestyle. Locations, however, never ever look like contemporary Japan. Lots of French cafés, girls sitting on Vespas, standing in front of double-decker London buses and U.K. “Underground” signs. Aux Bacchanales must earn substantial income from lending out their store as a location. Interesting antique shops in Setagaya-ku or Daikanyama also work well. If Japanese text accidentally makes it into the background of the shot, the photographers make sure to use a short-depth of field to blur out all linguistic reminders of daily life.

Women’s Casual/Street (Spring, Fudge, Mini) — Outdoors, out-of-the-city, back-to-the-wilderness. Lots of Rinko Kawauchi-esque washed-out colors. Delicate girls, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. This makes parkas look great. Girls also lounge on wooden porches and big green lawns that are hardly common, at least in Tokyo.

Men’s Street Fashion (Smart) — Models on the rooftops of three-story buildings. Urban, yet a bit grimy. They don’t even try to hide the uglier parts of Tokyo, seeing that the clothes match the rough and tough life of growing up on the Tokyo streets.

Men’s Business Fashion (Gainer) — Tokyo skyscrapers! Glass and steel! How will this gray pinstripe suit look when I start working at a big-league company with its own building? For some reason, there is also always a girl in business attire standing nearby, as if to make sure a suit would also look good in the context of burgeoning office romance. Other people are critical to the landscape as well.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

“Makise Riho’s Boyfriend”

Friday, August 24th, 2007

We can’t help but make some comments on A Bathing Ape (Bape)’s T-shirts for the annual Nihon Television telethon “24-Hour Television.” This collaboration was certainly the most effective tool for cementing Bape’s image as a mass market brand in Japan, and the charity work gave that iconic simian logo huge promotion among the grandpas and grandmas that make up the bulk of Japan’s viewing public. This unprecedented union of street fashion and variety TV seemed to bring immediate results: The telethon T-shirts have already raised ¥420 million for some lucky environmental concerns. (At ¥1400, the T’s may have been the cheapest BAPE shirts ever made outside of a creaky factory in godforsaken regions of mainland Asia.) Whether in support or mockery, everyone was talking about A Bathing Ape last week, reflected in fashion blog Elastic giving A Bathing Ape a spot on their “Mote Brand” list for late 2007.

Looking at Bape’s recent 2007 Spring/Summer Collection magazine, I realized that the label does not necessarily seek to shun the underground to make peace with the masses. Nigo really just wants to appeal to everyone everywhere with every possible kind of celebrity: models, American rappers, third-rate comedians, wrestlers, and indie musicians. Total inclusiveness, however, is quite literally the exact opposite of exclusivity, and selling 300,000 yellow Ape face T-shirts in a single week to anyone with a TV set and the internet and enough money for three beers probably doesn’t have a positive effect on the more premier pieces in the Bape line.

Ironically, Nigo’s greatest achievement with the Japanese public may still have more to do with his love life than his fashion empire. In this Yahoo! News article on the success of the “24 Hour TV” shirts, Nigo is introduced first and foremost as boyfriend to idol Makise Riho and the second as a fashion designer. As much as his critics paint him as a part of the establishment, he clearly has some ways to go before being a real mass market icon who needs no introduction through his belle.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.