Japan fashions a menswear coup d’etat

by Martin Webb

For a week in July, Paris becomes an outpost of Tokyo as Japanese designers and buyers throng the catwalks, parties and cafes where business is done at the biannual men’s clothing collections

The Paris menswear collections — five days of catwalk mayhem, cocktail parties and big business deals staged in a setting as fantastique as it gets.

France exports some $560 million worth of menswear a year, most of it in the high-end sector — and most of it to Japan, where men spend around $30 billion a year on their wardrobes and are widely acknowledged to be the most daring of nationalities when it comes to how they dress.

It’s little wonder, then, that the twice-yearly event in the world capital of la mode is dominated by buyers, designers, journalists and PR squads from Japan.

The same cannot be said for Milan, the traditional — and far more traditionalist — home of the men’s apparel industry. There, store buyers from the world over with a sharp eye on the bottom line source a large proportion of their stock. Though the Japanese are there in number as well, for them, Milan falls short as a forum for the kind of envelope-pushing design that excites their customers back in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and beyond.

Nowadays, though, drawn along in the Paris-bound slipstream of Japan’s established rag-trade luminaries, is a notable new cadre of up-and-coming menswear creators keen to attract an international audience for their wares.

For the Spring/Summer 2007 season, the opening day of the official schedule featured no fewer than four designers from Japan, including old hands Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake. Following a gothic extravaganza from gritty Tokyo street label 0044, the highlight for the hip set took place an hour later across town courtesy of Number (N)ine — arguably Japan’s strongest new-wave men’s fashion brand — which is credited with paving the way for the current wave of Japanese labels invading the French capital.

After his show at the Curie University on the Left Bank, Number (N)ine designer Takahiro Miyashita (a timid type who refuses to be photographed, but is distinguished by the tattoo teardrop at the corner of his left eye) was literally shaking with nerves as he faced a dozen black-clad well-wishers.

Miyashita, who showed in Tokyo up until 2004, explained that the attraction of the Paris runways lies principally in getting frank feedback on his work. “Over in Tokyo, after a collection people just say they loved it, and that’s it,” he said. “Here, people really know what they’re talking about, and if they have a criticism they come out and say it.”

Sucking up in the vernacular

A couple of hours later, at the Yohji Yamamoto presentation in the Modernist landmark of the Pompidou Centre, the sound of the Japanese language was everywhere to be heard as editors, buyers and hangers-on lined up to claim their precious seats. As at many other collections, a team of Japanese PR people were on hand to show visiting compatriots to their seats and do the requisite sucking up in the vernacular.

“Yohji,” as he is affectionately known to fans, unveiled a lineup built around suspenders, some of them suspending billowing pants. However, his familiar, outsized Mafioso looks were out in force as well, complemented by the sinister sounds of the mandolin theme music from “The Godfather.” Then, as the end became nigh, out came a T-shirt with the self-deprecating slogan “YY, he is useless,” that drew giggles from the audience.

Next up were Naoki Takizawa’s designs for Issey Miyake. Takizawa will launch a collection under his own moniker from next season, adding yet another Japanese name to the official schedule. For his parting shot, he opted for sporty frat-boy looks in a palette of green and white, using player numbers and jockey checks to evoke a clean-cut, fresh feel.

Later in the week, Comme des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo, the revered grande dame of Japanese fashion, showed a collection almost entirely in gold, confirming the emergence of metallic fabrics as the season’s most obvious trend.

This was just one of four presentations from the Comme des Garcons stable, including its funky Shirt line and an impressive outing featuring clever blocks of color and jaunty hats from Kawakubo’s protege Junya Watanabe.

As ever, all four shows upheld the brand’s high standards — and attracted a correspondingly high number of Japanese style hounds panting quietly in the wings.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, showing in a small gallery in the trendy Le Marais district was Trois O, one of the many recent arrivals on the scene from Tokyo. Designer Tatsuya Okonogi said that he has reached capacity in the domestic market and is looking to find new wholesale clients overseas. “My designs appeal to a very limited number of clients,” he said of the metallic-coated jeans and abstract-print T-shirts hanging around him. “So, to expand, I need to reach a similar segment in other countries.”

With Tokyo’s biannual fashion fests routinely shunned by the international fashion community, it is little wonder that designers are forced to actually go abroad in order to penetrate new markets. However, some of the Japanese designers who have found success overseas are peeved by the constant arrival of new, and often unoriginal, brands from Tokyo.

“I wish they would take the whole thing a bit more seriously,” said Masaaki Homma, whose Mastermind Japan label is said to be Karl Lagerfeld’s current favorite. “People think that just because they’ve sold a bit back home they can make their Paris debut. But it’s damaging the reputation of brands that are doing things properly. They need to step things up a gear before heading out here.”

While the artistic merit of some of the labels might indeed be dubious, the consensus in the fashion world is that a new generation of designers from Japan is producing wearable clothes that are a far cry from the conceptual creations the West has come to associate with Tokyo’s oft-times wacky styles.

Rafael Dominguez, who worked for Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto before setting up as a Paris-based PR agent for Japanese menswear brands The Viridi-anne and Attachment, was in no doubt that demand for these new labels has been growing over the past couple of years.

“New brands from Tokyo like the ones I am working with may not inspire the same kind of fanatical devotion as, say, Comme des Garcons, but they are creating quite a buzz and selling well.”

A feather in their cap

According to Etsuko Meaux, a Japanese-fashion promoter in Paris, “retailers love to stock a few trendy Japanese lines because it brings in the most fashion-conscious customers.”

Certainly it’s a buzz that’s growing ever louder as more and more Japanese visit the French capital every season intent on selling to overseas buyers from department stores and fashion boutiques. Many designers also feel that by showing their wares in Paris they garner a stronger appeal for wholesale clients from their homeland. Being stocked by European or American outlets is a feather in their cap, but the domestic market is still far bigger than any other.

While big names like John Galliano, who showed the latest tranche of his ultra-camp menswear line to the sounds of “The Monster Mash,” attract buyers from all over the world, at shows of upcoming designers such as Bulgarian Petar Petrov, more than half the prospective wholesale clients are from Japan.

“Most of the cutting-edge designers showing in Paris rely very heavily on the Japanese market,” said veteran Paris-based fashion-industry watcher Diane Pernet. In fact, several of the menswear season’s leading lights, including Dutch duo Viktor & Rolf, Cypriot Hussein Chalayan and German Bernhard Willhelm, have the production side of their operation controlled by Japanese apparel giant Onward Kashiyama, which ensures that their creations meet the standards of their biggest market.

British designer Kim Jones is another who has his manufacturing run by a Japanese company, and at a party held in his honor at hot nightspot Le Baron in the Quartier Champs Elysees, more than half the guests hailed from the Far East — including soccer wizard Hidetoshi Nakata, who had just announced his retirement from the game.

Indeed, almost every party during the Paris menswear collections is packed with Japanese, as are the city’s restaurants, shops and hotels. They occupy the majority of seats on the buses ferrying fashionistas from show to show, and can be spotted shuttling about in taxis all over the gorgeous Right Bank, home to the Louvre and the Palais Royale. Nobody in the fashion business is complaining — Paris during the five days of menswear mayhem wouldn’t be half as much fun, or as lucrative, without them.

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