Outlook cloudy as Japan Fashion Week turns 10 in style

by Misha Janette

Japan Fashion Week made it to its 10th birthday in Tokyo Midtown just recently with a lineup stronger than ever — though its growth from here on may be stunted due to a looming budget crisis and failure to ride on the rolling wave of Asian consumption.

Featuring 55 shows and presentations during the March 23-26 fall/winter season schedule, JFW welcomed back with open arms such big-name brands as Keita Maruyama Paris and Miharayasuhiro — and, for the first time, embraced menswear darlings Factotum and Yoshio Kubo.

From the first model’s runway strut to the designer’s final bow, labels only get about 10 minutes to implant a lasting impression on press and buyers that will hopefully translate to sales — sales that are the difference between life and death in this waning economy.

While it is an arduous task to judge the health of a nation’s entire ¥2 trillion industry from a few frocks seen at this biannual extravaganza, a consecutive 24 months of all-time low sales as reported by the Japan Department Store Association speaks of hard times ahead. Or does it?

“Yes, the department stores are hurting, but they are not where people who would be interested in most of the clothes shown at JFW would usually shop anyway. They’ll go to the more fashionable, select shops instead — and those aren’t doing as badly,” Akiko Shinoda, JFW’s director of international affairs, observed.

True, a silver lining in the gloomy sales clouds is to be seen at hip boutiques such as United Arrows, which posted a meager but positive 4.1 percent sales gain for March compared to the previous year.

Japanese brands themselves seem to be holding steady at least for this season, but that’s thanks in no small part to the patronage of eager fashion hounds in neighboring Asia.

“We have some very loyal clients in Asia. One store in Taiwan does more business for us than all of Japan combined,” says Mintdesigns’ representative Naoko Jansen. “The Asian buyers are incredible,” said Noriko Yamamura, Toga’s public relations director. “And they come in groups of four, five or more at a time.”

But Ato designer Ato Matsumoto — who opted out of having a show this season — wonders how long Asia’s nouveau riche can support the Japanese industry.

“I’m pleasantly surprised at the number of customers lately who come to my store from China,” he said. “But I’m afraid they may just be following a Japan-is-cool trend. What will happen when that bubble bursts? We have to keep their attention somehow.”

This is where the JFW organization is tasked to create a national Fashion Week that focuses the world’s rapt attention squarely on Japanese designers.

But even after five years under the same JFW stewardship, progress has been grindingly slow and hard-won. And it is about to get even tougher, with the announcement that the government’s budget funding will be downsized from ¥500 million to ¥333 million next season.

And what’s even more sobering is the fact that JFW will only have the government’s financial blessing for one more year before it must become a self-financing enterprise relying in large part on outside sponsors.

“This means we will have to reassess our costs, such as how we show at Tokyo Midtown. Big international sponsors like it there because it gets a lot of foot traffic, but the cost to set up the runways there eats up most of our budget,” said Shinoda.

Another idea being bounced around is to clamp down on the support given to young designers. Currently, four brands are chosen to receive subsidies from the JFW organizers every season — but the criteria are murky. The new rules, though, would explicitly only allow those deemed to be highly marketable to receive help to cover the cost of their shows. But that, too, is a murky area, as it usually takes a fashion brand several years of incubation before the public eventually catches on to it.

Valerie Steele, director and chief curator at The Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York City was in town for JFW doing research for her “Japan Fashion Now” exhibit that will open there in September. She alluded to the woes that this approach brings to rising talents and budding creativity.

“I see a lot of these Japanese designers being terribly derivative all in the name of selling more. And unfortunately, the young designers with a real voice are just going to fall through the cracks.”

It’s a chilling observation with which to round off a hot week of fashion, Tokyo style . . .