Posts Tagged ‘Shibuya 109’

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.

Intentional Rudeness in Japanese Retail

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

In books like Robert M. March’s Honoring the Customer: Marketing and Selling to the Japanese, Western observers often proclaim the existence of a “Japanese” style of over-polite customer relations. This is seen as a natural outgrowth of Japanese culture and not based on marketing management decisions. March’s idea suggests that the philosophy embodied in the famous expression “the customer is God” (「お客様は神様」) drives sales clerk behavior at an unconscious level. Certainly, this ethic materializes in most retail experiences in Japan: The shopping pageant usually opens with the staff screaming out the welcoming phrase “Irasshaimase!”

While this may be the conventional mode of consumer relationship, the theory above has little explanation for the large numbers of high-end fashion boutiques and brand shops in Japan where intentional rudeness is a well-honed strategy. Walk into the Comme des Garçons boutique in Aoyama, for example, and breathe in the deep, stylish silence of calculated alienation. Not only do the staff sternly hold back on verbal greetings to customers, the managers often flash you a look of utter disbelief — as if your presence caused massive disruption in the spirit underlying the brand ethos. I can partially blame this treatment on my own insufficiencies in living up to the proper sartorial and styling standards, but the frigid atmosphere and Medusa gazes are also curiously directed towards the store’s largest consumer base: fashionable young people.

A Bathing Ape and some of the other Ura-Harajuku street brands famously followed the same rudeness strategy in the 1990s, which worked to add an adequate cachet of elitism to counter any detrimental image effects resultant from the relative low price of the clothing. This was unlike the typical antipathy of American street brand store staff, however: Bape employees were never surly as much as they seemed like worker bees programmed to not appear too helpful.

There is something decidedly uncool about deconstructing this practice of cold silence and service deficit. Viewed within the context of that deep-seeded conviction that “being cool” comes naturally to a privileged few and involves no rational decision-making, assuming that marketing policy sets the tone of staff behavior is outright presumptuous. Greeting the customer with smiles and offers of help implies that (1) the store/brand wants to assist customers and (2) the store/brand is interested in playing that dirty, low-rent game of “selling” things. This attitude is common across the entire global high-end fashion industry, but perhaps its presence is much more striking in Japan where the “average” level of service is so consistently high.

The technique of customer alienation apparently went mainstream in Japan the mid-1980s when the super-elite artistic designer brands were suddenly swamped with “average kids” who threatened to weaken the retail environment’s appeal to the original core of up-scale consumers from the art and fashion worlds. Although few brands could resist the huge increases in revenue by expanding market reach downwards, they had to devise a way to take the sales of unideal consumers with one hand while continuing to maintain brand integrity with the other. As a solution, the staff was instructed to treat the young consumers with total derision.

And it worked. First, the treatment reinforced the fact that the kids were being into something “above them” rather than on their own level. Second, specifically-targeted customers would very clearly receive better treatment, bestowing on these special consumers a sense of importance. As long as the cash-heavy young consumers do not interpret the neglect as arrogance, the strategy makes sense. Moreover, this customer relations style has become so internalized within the high-end sector that being nice has ended up being a strange, contrarian measure. (I can anecdotally state that it sometimes works well to be polite and attentive to customers who expect to be contemptibly ignored.)

As we saw with the consumer demand driving the Tokyo Girls Collection, younger Japanese women do seem to be put off by the elitism at heart in high-end brand’s rudeness. They want comfort and ease, and one of the appeals of the brands located in the Shibuya 109 shopping complex is that the staff generally resemble the shopper. Relations are friendly — not just in terms of politeness, but the shop staff is positioned to act as the best friend or older sister of the customer.

At this point, high-end brands and restaurants would gasp at the idea of abandoning the alienation strategy since it is hardly within the reach of intentional decision-making. But brands on the border — those looking to entice mass Japanese consumers with a high-quality product — may want to reconsider the effects of making average customer feel like he is illegally breaking and entering into the retail space.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Dokusha Models and Charisma Clerks: Transferring the Aura of Authority

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

In a very large number of cases, Japanese mass consumer culture diffuses in a top-down manner. Manufacturer conglomerates work closely with oligopolistic ad agencies and shadowy production companies to determine the It Girls and Hit Products of the Year. There are, however, many contradictions and complications that challenge the singularity of that conspiratorial narrative. Very little may rise straight to the top in a grass-roots manner, but the presence of dokusha model (読者モデル) and charisma clerks (カリスマ店員) shows that the top needs to recruit those at the bottom to speak their message more directly to the target audience.

Dokusha models (literally, “reader models”) are amateur models used in youth fashion magazines. They are either scouted on the streets or chosen from readers who have sent in letters to editors offering their services. Dokusha models are as likely to be aspiring hairdressers, stylists, and artists with good fashion sense as aspiring “models.”

Magazines like to use these models for several reasons. First, they are much cheaper than “real” models. Second, they usually lack management, which makes them much easier to work with. Third, they give readers “life-sized” idols onto whom they may project themselves. Fourth, they can sometimes break these models as “stars” which reflects very well back upon the status of the magazine.

Charisma clerks are members of a popular store’s staff (usually sales, but sometimes PR) who become famous from their appearances in the media. This became a particularly big boom in the young women’s fashion based around Shibuya 109 — with girls flocking to stores to meet these minor celebrities in the flesh.

Some dokusha model and charisma clerks have been able to make the leap from amateurs to professionals. Most famously, the charisma clerk Yoco Morimoto went on to form her own brand Moussy and several other spinoffs. Kaela Kimura became the face of Seventeen and then a successful Sony recording artist. Visual artist Asami Kiyokawa was often seen in issues of CUTiE in the late 1990s.

Even those dokusha models and lowly clerks who do not end up using their sudden fame as a way to jump to the big time generally experience a very intense celebrity with magazine readers. Part of the idea of “charisma” is that kids show up at stores and ask the charisma clerk to pick out their wardrobe — relinquishing most decision-making to the famed store employee who could not possibly do them wrong. In this way, “charisma” has little to do with the Western meaning of “being charismatic” and is more about the possession of petite authority within a specific sphere.

The charisma clerks and dokusha models generally benefit everyone in the commercial chain. The semi-celebrities themselves enjoy the respect and fame, especially those in trendy low-level jobs that do not offer high financial rewards. (Here is a guide book for aspiring dokusha models hoping to be “discovered.”) Young consumers like having normal, “everyday” celebrities who they have a good chance of meeting in person and asking for shopping advice. Or at worst, they can least steal practical styling tips from afar.

Manufacturers and brands also see the value in giving the dokusha models celebrity status. Senken Shimbun reported that popular male dokusha model Yuya Nara can no longer go into his favorite stores without the staff offering to give him items for free (4/18/07 「親しみ覚える選択眼」). By using these readers as human billboards, brands hope to legitimize their own products through these free agents without dipping into the promotional budget. Media always win points for identifying trend-makers before they blow up, and they get extra points for creating fame out of thin air. So by picking individuals who embody the styles they champion, they can create an army of closely-related comrades who keep the magazine’s curatorial ethic alive and well within their target audience community.

Everybody wins, but it hinges upon a consumer base accepting these non-celebrities as possessing a certain amount of authority and stature. This may seem somewhat difficult to achieve in the West, but in Japan, the dokusha models and charisma clerks fit nicely into a systematic hierarchy of style and consumption.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Tokyo Girls Collection

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007

The Fourth Annual Tokyo Girls Collection was held on March 3 at the Yokohama Arena, attracting an audience of almost 22,000. Press and members of industry organizations may have been well represented, but the majority of the crowd was normal everyday women in their late teens and early 20s. These nominal “fashion shows” have the energy of rock concerts, but not just because of the guest musical performances. Girls congregated from all over Japan to see their heroes — models Ebihara Yuri and Fujii Rina etc. from their beloved fashion magazines (Can Cam, ViVi and JJ) — prance upon the stage in real life.

Created in 2004, these events intend to give proper exhibition to domestic brands that supply the “real clothes” worn by Japanese girls in their daily life. In this, they are challenging the idea that runway shows and collections are the sole property of European import brands, domestic high fashion, and indie avant designers. And in this bottom-up rebellion, they are wildly succeeding.

Participating Brands in Tokyo Girls Collection:

ALBA ROSA JAPAN alicias Apuweiser-riche CECIL McBEE
DELYLE DOUBLE STANDARD CLOTHING gMALOUSE HbG
JAYRO Joias Jolly Boutique Kai Lani
L’EST ROSE LIP SERVICE LITIRA
MAISON GILFY
Noble Birth Private Label
RADEESSE Ravijour
rich rienda SWORD FISH UNIVERVAL MUSE
VIERGE

Some History

Over the last several decades, there has been a growing synthesis of two major conceptualizations of “fashion” in Japan. High fashion — “designer brands” in local parlance — started to become a familiar aspirational item to Japanese middle-class consumers in the 1960s. At first-rate department stores like Seibu, shoppers were able to browse European luxury apparel in the same environmental space as their everyday household goods. Although mostly unaffordable at the time, high-end brands became convenient symbols of economic success for the society as a whole. Incomes and taste standards rose up to a point in the mid-1980s where the DC Boom (DC = Designer/Character) swept Japan and made domestic designer brands the fashion standard. With the Plaza Accord doubling the value of the yen in a short time, “normal” consumption of the world’s greatest luxury brands followed in tow. An important note: The locus of legitimacy for the high fashion stream is clearly overseas — especially Europe (Paris and Milan). Even the dominant domestic brands like Comme des Garçons or Issey Miyake won most of their local esteem after widespread international recognition.

Running parallel to high fashion has been the street brands which range from the casual Ivy League fashion of Van to the myriad subcultural looks of social delinquents and their middle-class imitators. In 1988, after a few years of being displaced by the DC Boom, casual anti-fashion made its way back to the top through the Shibu-Kaji (Shibuya Casual) trend. Epoch-making street brands have mostly been domestic, and while Japanese fashion may take influence from foreign trends, the codification of style usually happens at the hands of Japanese actors, whether bottom-up subcultures or top-down magazines.

The 1990s explosion in street-wear — especially the brands geographically based in the Ura-Harajuku neighborhood — saw a synthesis of the two trends in the form of high-priced casual brands that won foreign recognition. These brands used limited-edition supply to build an aura of exclusivity similar to high-fashion. On the Men’s side, several brands like Under Cover, Number Nine, and N. Hoolywood have managed to win high-fashion approval for clothing that began life within a street brand association (although you cannot deny that these brands boast superior concepts and loftier aspirations than their meat-and-potatoes t-shirt-and-sneakers peers.)

Stealing the Thunder from High Fashion

The Tokyo Girls Collection is a new type of synthesis between street brands and designer fashion. Rather than the “exclusive” street fashion of the 1990s, TGC fashion is a group of low-priced domestic brands — mostly sold at the “gal” (gyaru) culture center of Shibuya 109 rather than in snobby boutiques or upper-crust department stores. These brands are appropriating the language and actions of the high-fashion world, and like H&M and Topshop, many of the ideas as well. In order to throw their enormous fashion show each year, this coalition of brands join forces with their media partners in the internet sales sector, the publishing world, powerful modeling agencies, and now also, the Japanese government. The end result is a very impressive and un-ignorable “media-mix” event that creates a new sort of unified promotional front for a tier of clothing once perceived closer to commodities than “fashion.”

The organizers describe the clothes as “real” — implicitly creating a dichotomy between their products and the “fake” or “imaginary” apparel on display at traditional fashion industry shows. Tokyo Girls Collection models are not tall and skinny high-fashion regulars nor foreigners, but instead, the “cute” and familiar girls from Can Cam and the other popular fashion consumption bibles. While on the runway, the models wave to the crowd in a friendly way instead of sternly projecting ice cold stares. There is no frozen and rigid hierarchy between participants nor polite silence at TGC. Most importantly, all the clothes featured are within the realm of possibility — nothing is experimental. The female commentator notes that ensembles featured in the show are perfectly styled to give specific direction to the girls “studying” this fashion look. TGC attendees should feel as if they could immediately buy the pieces and wear them the next day.

In the video above [now removed], the commentators use a few choice words to describe the event: soft (柔らかい), safe (無難), and easy-to-understand (分かり易い). Designer fashion has become perceived rightly or wrongly as a product group opposite of these three critical descriptors. The vast majority of young Japanese women no longer aspire towards international designer culture and couture. High-fashion and typical runway fare is seen as the exact opposite of our three key descriptors — conceptually-difficult, socially-risky, and “hard” in its often confrontational stance. The central focus on the designer/auteur in high fashion is seen as selfish and not allowing the wearer to insert her own “individuality” (個性) (even though girls are really asking for a mediated and safe individuality that will not cause social friction rather than a completely inimitable differentiation from others.) The young women have explicitly refused to be impressed or interested in the artistry and intellectual ideas behind contemporary fashion — because neither “intellectualism” nor “artistry” (as they are being widely defined) can serve this demographic’s social intention for apparel.

As the female commentator notes [in the removed video above], these girls want to be popular with boys (モテる) and that means curiously (1) no glasses and (2) no designer fashion (mode, モード). This romantic angle on consumption could end up being a very big problem for international luxury brands in that the average young Japanese girl believes her consumption of expensive and trendy clothing to be a serious impediment towards meeting boys rather than a tool for better self-presentation.

Populism and National Interests

From a populist angle, the Tokyo Girls Collection is a triumph. Girls can feel that these once “low fashion” brands are “fashion” — complete with runway shows and media attention. And honestly speaking, these brands are for the most part designed and sold by young Japanese women very similar to their consumer base. From a certain perspective, this is fashion by the people for the people — with the financial backing of some big local corporations, but not necessarily the usual suspects.

This trend towards populist fashion could lead to a serious disaster for the international brands that dominate the Japanese market if the TGC manages to challenge the Euro luxury brands or design school graduates’ sole possession of the “fashion halo.” By proudly proclaiming “soft” and “non-challenging” and “domestic” as the most important characteristics of a “good brand,” the Guccis and Chloés could hit a serious philosophical discord with their biggest consumer demographic. Over the last two decades, import luxury brands have gone from providing the entire outfit for trendy girls to now just the expensive handbag accessorizing a wardrobe constructed from cheap domestic product. And if this TGC conglomeration of brands and influential media organizations finds it necessary to redefine handbags in a more “accessible” and “real” way, things may get hairy. Coach and Samantha Thavasa are already creating an authoritative position with a much cheaper product than the traditional luxury standard.

On March 26, the TGC organizers threw a version of their 2007 Japan show in Beijing at the CHIC (China International Clothing & Accessories Fair). The Japanese government is fully behind helping these domestic brands export to the enormous Chinese market, and with Japan at the top of the fashion and entertainment hierarchy in Asia, they may be able to succeed in mass exports. In terms of national interest, the success of these brands may become a higher economic priority than the continued success of the European luxury houses. Whether this will impact how top-down trends are started remains to be seen.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.