Re-fashioning the business of womenswear

by

Special To The Japan Times

As the last of the models walk the Amazon Fashion Week Tokyo runway, there are many in the metropolis who won’t look at one tweet from the front row or even acknowledge the week’s existence.

It is a situation unthinkable in Paris or New York where even the average bemused taxi driver will have an opinion on the curiously overdressed clientele who, for a brief window twice a year, they find themselves ferrying across town.

But where the runways of Paris collectively represent Parisian style, the 46 brands on the official Tokyo schedule appear little more than a snapshot of the eclecticism of the city. That is not to say that the catwalks were lacking — far from it, but there is an unrepresented fashion capital that, for many, is capable of overshadowing the runway shows.

You may now be thinking of the extroverts on the backstreets of Harajuku, but despite their ample exposure in foreign media, in reality this is even less representative of the fashion of the city as a whole, and it is not the most progressive. Instead, it is the city’s everyday fashion businesses that may be the most revolutionary.

If you enter Kay Me’s central Tokyo headquarters, for example, you’ll be greeted by the usual array of mood boards, fittings and swatches, but that conventionality is deceptive. A relative newcomer to the industry, the fashion brand is already garnering significant attention abroad.

“So when is Tokyo fashion week?” asks Kay Me founder and CEO Junko Kemi at a recent interview at the Ginza headquarters. “We have our own runway shows, but they are mainly only open to customers and their friends. I ask them to fill out a questionnaire on the collection when they attend and that is far more useful than waiting for buyers to come to us.”

This unusual approach, Kemi continues, means that she doesn’t have to wait to see what the press favors, or even what the buyers prefer.

“Potential customers (tell us) directly. That way we know immediately which colors, patterns and styles to put into production, and we can do so straight after the show has ended,” she says. “Actually we don’t invite buyers at all, and our customers are more likely to read a business journal than a fashion magazine.”

Given this break with the conventions of the system, it is no surprise that Kemi doesn’t have a formal fashion-education background. While studying history at Waseda University, she was more passionate about campaigning for social rights.

“I didn’t take my time (at Waseda) entirely seriously, I spent most of it working on charity events,” she says laughing. “I was, however, focused on programs to get women in the workforce and on other serious social issues.”

By the time she graduated, Kemi had moved into marketing. “I knew from a young age that if I wanted to own my own business, sales and marketing was a more important skill than anything else,” she says, explaining how this led to stints at Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Boston Consulting Group among others.

“I set a personal deadline of turning 30, for founding my own marketing analysis firm and I returned to my interests in social awareness by looking at the eco market and senior market, which were both growing at the time,” she says. “But after the eve of the Great East Japan Earthquake I had a moment of reflection and realized that I wanted to have some kind of physical legacy, something like the kimono or antique tableware we pass from generation to generation. I decided that I wanted to make something beautiful, but with a social conscience.”

The target market was clear from the outset: professional women like herself.

“I needed designs suitable for the work place and my market research showed that many designers were alienating women with fashion that was too dull or too sexy. They aimed their work at the lower level of the workforce and not the upper management level,” she explains. “Also, the Japanese workplace is so male dominated that it makes no sense to dress in a way to fit in like a man — it’s better to shine as a woman.”

From her own experience, Kemi noted that friction usually occurred when men saw women as rivals. One solution, she concluded, was to have women highlight the added value they could offer because of their differences — and fashion could be a way of representing that.

Just like the inspiration behind her lines differs from the average fashion brand, her business model was far more analytical.

“What the marketing world understands that the fashion world doesn’t are efficiency, directness and responding to results,” she says.

In breaking away from the conventional fashion cycle — a minimum of three months preparation for a bi-annual seasonal fashion show, followed by exhibitions for buyers, the wait for orders and then around three months production time before delivery — Kay Me was being stocked in department stores long before the average fashion student can complete a degree.

“Of course there were difficulties along the way; I started with no customers and no experience,” she says. “Fundamentally I didn’t want to pay for skills I could get myself, so instead of going to trend, fabric or color consultants I went to fabric factories and chose what would appeal to me.

“I didn’t even know what a patterner was until I googled it, but I was able to hire that kind of talent via social media. I found 20 quality candidates in a single evening, interviewed them within the week and created a team of women who could empathize with my goal.”

Like many mid-size Japanese fashion brands, the range of items may be smaller than most fashion houses, but it is impeccably targeted. Initially Kay Me offered machine-washable dresses that were comfortable enough to wear for long working hours, before expanding to machine-washable Kyoto silk and kimono-inspired designs. Everything is made in Japan, but more importantly, Kemi says, it is almost entirely made in Tokyo.

“Our designs are surprisingly difficult to make, so we need good craftspeople. But we also need the atelier close by so that we are in a constant feedback loop,” Kemi explains. “We can make changes fast and respond to feedback quickly — I can be at the atelier in 20 minutes.”

While many at Tokyo fashion week were waiting for orders from abroad, Kay Me opened a temporary shop in London’s Mayfair district last year to get direct feedback from potential customers. For Kemi the “right” route brands take isn’t logical.

“You are always surrounded by potential customers, why not go to them?” she asks.

It was this spirit that won Kemi and Kay Me the 2015 British Business Award’s Entrepreneur of the Year and the brand is now planing to open its first London stand-alone location in 2017.

“I find overseas customers appreciate the traditional Japanese elements of my work more,” she says. “If I can sell my kimono-inspired designs in London I will have my legacy.”