Outdoor gear: love of nature or fashion craze?

Outdoor products originally designed for taking on a trip to the wilderness have become a common sight in the big city. During the past few years, the fashion-driven young — clad in colorful outdoor jackets and sporting brand-name day-packs and hiking boots — have given the concrete jungle a new look.

This trend helped domestic retailers of outdoor merchandise bring in around 1.867 trillion yen last year, according to Yano Economic Research Institute. Apparel composes the largest share of the outdoor goods market, at around 25 percent to 30 percent, according to Yano, and this is a niche that foreign manufacturers have increasingly come to occupy.

The North Face, an outdoor clothing and equipment maker based in San Leandro, Calif., is one success story. In 1978 it signed an exclusive contract with a Japanese importer. Since that time, sales have expanded to 10 times the initial level, according to Naoki Kimura, a company representative.

Although its products were originally made of strong materials and designed to function in the U.S. mountains, The North Face has altered its products, slightly sizing them down to suit the Japanese market and incorporating different materials to suit the city environment, Kimura said. “The overwhelming majority of our customers are looking for fashion,” said Akihiko Hayakawa, outdoor division manager of Haward, a company that handles products for Columbia, an outdoor apparel manufacturer based in Portland, Ore. Although Columbia only entered the Japanese market in 1990, sales have been growing by about 10 percent annually, said Hayakawa, who estimates that most customers are between the ages of 18 and 36.

Toshikazu Komudo, editor of BE-PAL, a popular outdoor magazine with a circulation of more than 500,000, agrees. “It seems that many of our readers are couples with kids and are between the ages of 30 and 35,” he said. “The bursting of the bubble economy facilitated the growth of the outdoor industry,”said Tuneyoshi Kawaguchi, a spokesman for the Oshman’s sporting goods chain.

The recession led people to realize they did not have to travel abroad and stay in ritzy hotels during their holidays, but could enjoy themselves for less money domestically through camping and other outdoor activities, he said. An additional reason behind the surge in sales of outdoor goods may be the inclination of the younger generation and baby-boomers to take their leisure time seriously.

Tomosuke Noda, a canoeist and essayist who has become an outdoor icon through his written accounts of his boating adventures, said the outdoor boom is the result of Japan’s urbanization. “Japanese cities are terrible. They have no nature.” Noda said, adding that the pressures of Japan’s city life drive people to look for an escape, leading them to the outdoors.

The outdoor boom is no passing fad, he said, predicting it to last as long as the Japanese penchant for confining oneself to the city continues. Whether it be mountain biking, canoeing or cross-country skiing, there are more people engaging in more outdoor activities. Once their interest was piqued by outdoor activities, customers then began to think of outdoor gear as fashionable, setting the stage for the ubiquitous Goretex jackets and backpacks that have been eagerly consumed by big-city denizens.

REI, an outdoor products co-op based in Seattle, is another company that has capitalized on the popularity of outdoor sports.

REI dabbled in the Japanese market until 1984, when its agent went bankrupt, then decided to produce its own catalog and sell to the consumer directly, said Katsuhiko Harada, REI’s marketing consultant in Japan. Since that time, the number of Japanese REI members has increased from around 1,000 to 80,000 and continues to climb steadily, Harada said. He attributed this success in part to the spread of credit cards, facsimile machines and the strong yen.

Like REI, the Freeport, Maine-based store L.L. Bean first sold its goods to Japanese consumers via mail order. However, in 1992 it opened its first Japan store, a joint venture, in Tokyo’s Jiyugaoka district. With plans to expand to 11 stores by 1998, sales are projected to increase by 50 percent this year, Hideki Tominaga of L.L. Bean said. “People in Japan are used to buying things in stores,” Tominaga said, noting that customers are less comfortable ordering via mail order and the Internet.

However, the store’s increased presence in Japan has helped to boost the number of catalog customers by a factor of 10, bringing the total to 100,000, said Tominaga. In addition, L.L. Bean offers fly-fishing courses to heighten interest in outdoor sports, Tominaga said, adding that about 60 percent of the participants are women “who want to fish like they’ve seen in the movies.”

Likewise, Patagonia, an outdoor equipment and apparel company based in California, also offers fly-fishing instruction and nature lectures. However, Patagonia, slated to open its fourth shop in Japan this year, is ostensibly more environment-oriented. “There is always an environmental message in the store and in the catalog,” Atsuko Takahashi, a company spokeswoman, said. Patagonia has even refused offers from major department stores to carry its products, Takahashi said, to avoid commercialization and over-consumption.

Whether the outdoor fashion migration to the city represents a change in consciousness, or merely a change in costume is unclear. But it is safe to say that just as there will be customers hooked for the long-haul, the fickle will soon relegate their Goretex garb to the closet of fads past.