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Fashion retailer Choichiro Motoyama

by Judit Kawaguchi

Choichiro Motoyama, 89, is a pioneering Japanese retailer who has brought some of the most famous European fashion brands to the Far East. In the 1960s, he was the first to import Gucci, Hermes, Loewe, Ferragamo, and then later Etro, to Japan. Through constant study and travels, Motoyama developed an eye for stylish luxury goods and he filled his stores with design treasures such as Baccarat and Lalique crystal accessories, Patek Phillipe watches and Asprey jewelery. He relentlessly advocated elegance and is widely known as the man responsible for creating the demand and subsequent boom for foreign luxury goods in Asia. During the 1980s, when Japan was in its economic bubble heyday, Motoyama had more than 30 boutiques in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Hawaii and Guam. However, when the fashion houses he stocked opened their own branches in East Asia, Motoyama decided to shutter most of his stores for good. Today only three shops remain, including the flagship Sun Motoyama in Tokyo’s Ginza district. But Motoyama’s love of good aesthetics is strong and lives on: Visit any of his remaining design havens and you’ll find Persian carpets, European furniture, antique jewelry and designer clothing — all handpicked by the man himself.

We make our own religion and create our own luck. If either one is powerful, the other will get better, too. It becomes a good cycle that just keeps getting better.

Love people! We’re not gods, we’re not perfect, but we’re all lovable.

Get rid of all your bad memories as fast as you would remove a big piece of stinky mud that gets stuck to your feet. You wouldn’t want to keep dragging your feet on the ground to get rid of it. Just scrape it off! As long as you keep carrying negative experiences with you, you can’t move forward.

One can find beauty and a business opportunity anytime — even during war. In December, 1941, I was a foot soldier in Tianjin in Northeastern China. We were at war, but the stores there had festive window displays with beautiful European products. The Concessions in Tianjin had been governed by European powers such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Belgium, Italy, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Russia, as well as the United States, so the city had a unique flavor and plenty of merchandise. I even saw a color picture for the first time in my life — Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the Wind.” It blew my mind! I decided that if I made it through the war, I’d bring such elegance to Japan.

I never look back, except when a beautiful woman passes by. Then I turn and follow her!

Don’t compare today to yesterday. What’s gone is gone. This is especially helpful during an economic slump like the one we’re experiencing at the moment.

War is a terrible experience, but it’s also a great teacher. For me, it’s an asset. After all that I went through, I now have no fear. One day my friend and I were sitting next to each other. I was looking at him when baaam! A bullet hit him right in the forehead. He died instantly.

Selling goods is selling culture. The Allied occupation of Japan began immediately after the war, and the U.S. soldiers brought with them mail-order catalogs from Sears and Montgomery Ward. Those brochures were called “wishbooks,” and I made it my business to make those wishes come true in Japan. I sold all kinds of clothing and I made handsome profits.

Find your mentors and stick to them. Yonosuke Natori was a photographer and publisher of Nippon, a great magazine. I admired him and made sure that we met and became friends.

We must train our eyes to recognize beauty. Natori was my teacher. We went to Europe many times to visit museums and churches, stay at the grandest hotels and eat at the best restaurants. We visited Saint-Tropez to absorb the atmosphere that wealthy Europeans enjoyed. Once I knew what quality meant in terms of art and lifestyle, I was ready to begin a business.

The economy is like the moon, it gets bigger and then smaller, but there’s no need to worry, as it is all relative. Just work and things will work out.

If you show respect, you’ll get some back. In the 1960s, I tried to persuade the Gucci family, Wanda Ferragamo Miletti and the other European fashion-house owners to let me sell their products in Japan. Back then, these presidents were in the stores, working. They said: “If the Japanese would like to wear our products, they can come here to buy them. Why should we ship to the Far East?” I kept going back, trying to convince them. One day I used my handkerchief to touch a silver cigarette case. That’s when my respect and love for their work finally won them over. I got the contracts and was in business!

Being from a different culture opens your eyes to business possibilities. I was brought to a standstill in front of the Gucci shop in Florence. It was then that I knew what to import to Japan: Leather! Because of our religious beliefs, Japan didn’t have a culture of eating meat, so we didn’t have leather goods. The famous Edo Period samurai Sakamoto Ryoma wore leather shoes, but they were foreign-made.

Once fast fashion became a trend and more companies conglomerated, uniqueness disappeared. Till the 1980s, luxury brands had their own distinctive looks. Nowadays they are all quite similar. Harajuku is still full of unique clothes at bargain prices, though.

Main business areas mirror the nation’s economy. Ginza is the heart of Japan and is a clear reflection of the country. Before, Ginza only had high fashion stores, but now it has a mixture of luxury and fast retailers. One thing has been constant, though: Most of the stores have been and still are outlets for foreign brands.

Never forget those who were good to you. I learned so much from Italians and have gained great business from them, so I wanted to give back something unique to Italy. In 1990 I commissioned and donated a replica of the “Gates of Paradise,” Lorenzo Ghiberti’s gilded bronze doors to the Battistero di San Giovanni (the Florence Baptistery), so the original masterpiece (which had been severely damaged by a 1966 flood) could be safely protected in the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo.

Unless you open your hands, nothing will fall into it. Same with your heart. Unless you love people, you can’t be loved.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “journeys in japan” Learn more at: http://juditfan.blog58.fc2.com/ Twitter: judittokyo