Posts Tagged ‘Oniikei’

Trendspotting in Post-Consumer Japan

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Whether bullish or bearish about Japan’s long-term prospects, there should be no question that Japanese consumer society has undergone a major transformation in the last decade. A recessionary economy and falling wages have slowly chipped away at a once-vibrant and high-speed trend-driven consumer culture. Sales in almost all cultural fields — music, fashion, manga, DVDs, magazines — have seen serious decreases since the late 1990s. (This may also be true in the United States, but the incredible cultural penetration of the internet in the English-language sphere has somewhat softened the blow.) Now with a cyclical economic crisis in Japan triggered by the global recession, Japanese consumers are becoming extreme parodies of their former frugal selves: choosing Uniqlo over luxury goods and no-brand Chinese electronics over superior domestic products.

So how in the world then do you try to “spot trends” in an unequivocally-declining consumer marketplace? At the moment, the normal trendspotting protocol is not equipped to handle this kind of stagnant environment.

The first major problem is that most trendspotting tends to be overly optimistic; trendspotters’ audiences are mostly corporations, so there is an inherent goal in making the future market appear to have great potential for further growth. After all, no one wants to spend money on a report that tells them their earnings are guaranteed to decline. Trendspotters thus must either highlight the bright spots in the consumer market or spin negative-sounding social change into euphemistically positive phrasing. Non-consumers become “post-materialists.” Obscure tech companies with crazy ideas become banner carriers for the entire industry. Yet something like the current strength of low-price Uniqlo is generally ignored, since this development does not portray Japan as “cutting-edge” nor provides a soothing narrative about the country’s future prospects.

The second problem is that most trendspotting looks in the wrong places: namely, “leading-edge” culture. The real cultural leaders of Japan are now the yankii working class delinquents who control the direction of the ever-growing gyaru and Oniikei fashion subcultures. Their magazines are expanding, and their favorite brands are profiting. But since the former gatekeepers and tastemakers in Japan dislike their aesthetic, the story of their rise is essentially ignored. Cell-phone novels, for example, are portrayed in the media as “innovative uses of technology” rather than as the increased preference for yankii-esque narratives. Articles about the recent popularity of hostess-fashion magazine Koakuma Ageha rarely mention its monthly content targeted towards to non-Tokyo single-mothers working in the mizu shobai world. The “downward shift” of popular culture towards working class values and narratives could be said to be the most significant cultural trend of the last five years, but again, this is not a trend narrative anyone wants to hear.

In a similar way, there is much attention to Japan’s eco-consciousness, but these stories overly reflect the interests and aesthetics of upper middle class Tokyoites who have grown bored with decades of over-consumerism. Looking at the leading companies at this time of recession, however, mass consumers are clearly choosing products based on low price and high cost performance and not on abstract notions of environmental friendliness. The media and urban elite’s pro-environmental tastes are a good start for the green movement within Japan, but hardly tell the true story of basic consumer preference.

Unless the economy recovers dramatically, there is no reason to believe the two major narratives of cultural change in Japan — the erosion of conspicuous consumer spending and the rise of working class tastes amongst the middle class — will come to an end. Trendspotting in Japan must cease being an advocate for culturally-savvy innovation in technology and leading-edge culture and instead become an unbiased examination of the true market.

On this score, Atsushi Miura — author of Karyu shakai (Downwardly-Mobile Society) and the recent Onna ha naze kyabakurajo in naritai no ka? (Why do women want to become cabaret club hostesses?) — has provided the perfect template. For years, he worked at PARCO’s Across — the beacon of leading-edge consumer research — but now writes almost exclusively about youth’s cultural shift towards less urban and urbane values. He went towards the real story instead of trying to fit contemporary Japan into the “traditional” progressive trend mold.

With an unprecedentedly-high product turnover, Japan offers much temptation to concentrate solely on eccentric technologies and quirky new products (ice cucumber soda and QR-code graves, anyone?). Most of these products, however, are total flops or otherwise have only the most minor influence on the wider market. Good trendspotting must ignore these products or at least admit their total irrelevance to the wider consumer market up-front. In other words, trendspotting must stop searching for phenomena that fit the 1990s concept of “trends” and instead work to discover new social patterns and (often uninspiring) hit products. The prolonged Japanese economic downturn has not erased trends; it has just made trends less exciting and “cool” to the normal trendspotter crowd.

Ultimately, trendspotting is not about sexy content and stimulating readers; it’s about telling the true story of the market in order to make accurate predictions for the future. As Japan has shown over the last decade, the near future does not always become bigger, bolder, and brighter than the past. Trends can be depressing, disappointing and maybe even a little boring, but reality turns out to be the best starting point for formulating business strategy.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

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.

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.